Working as an Expatriate: Succeeding in Leadership Across the Globe

February 4, 2022 Mimi Torrington

image background of the planet in vivid colors

For many people, the idea of working as an expatriate in another country is an enticing one. The chance to travel, experience new things, and do meaningful work abroad is an appealing one. But working as an expat isn’t without its challenges.

On this episode of CFO Weekly, we talk with John Kramer. John is the Chief Financial Officer of BCC Engineering, and he has experience working in Indonesia, Argentina, Panama, India, Saudi Arabia, Puerto Rico, and the United States. He had a lot to say about the process and best practices of working overseas -- not to mention a few stories thrown in for good measure.

What It Takes to Be an Expatriate Working Overseas

John Kramer - Expatriate

The expatriate experience is exotic, that much is certain. But the process can be jarring at first. There are things that you take for granted as an American, living and working in the United States. Things like getting a bank account, securing a cell phone, or buying a car, are much more involved when they’re done overseas.

So, you do have to have a bit of an adventurous spirit. You should be someone who is flexible, adaptable, and can easily roll with the punches, as plans will change, and things will often be more difficult or inconvenient than they would back home.

For Kramer, like many others, being an expatriate was a family affair. If you have children that can accompany you on the journey, they’re going to get to see a lot of different cultures, meet other kids from all over the world, and see all sorts of new things. All of which, Kramer says, served as an amazing experience for both him and his entire family.

“I think it opened [my kids’] eyes. They made friends from all over the world...Sometimes we get cynical about the United States, but I think this world experience made them appreciate it a lot more,” Kramer said.

Becoming an Expatriate: What You Should Know

Working as an Expatriate

If a career as an expatriate sounds like something that piques your interest, what are the things you should know? How do you go about getting into that role?

First, as previously mentioned, be flexible. You should be someone who is open to change, being put in situations that you aren't familiar with and likely may not be comfortable with.

Second, raise your hand. If you’re interested, a LOT of companies are looking for expatriate workers, including some of the best consulting firms in the world. If you’re open to the work, odds are you can get a foot in the door and secure a spot traveling for a career, doing stints in some incredible places.

“I would absolutely recommend it [being an expat.] The younger you are, I think, the better,” Kramer said.

Third, it doesn’t ever hurt to be fluent in the language that is spoken in the country you’re hoping to work in. But don't let that lack of knowledge stop you. Kramer wasn't fluent in Arabic, but he knew enough to get by and experience the vast culture that Saudi Arabia had to offer.

Managing Cultural Differences as an Expat

One of the things that should go without saying, is that in a career as an expatriate, you’re going to encounter cultural differences. Whether it’s the language barrier, cultural norms and customs, or religious practices, every country does things differently than any other, and flexibility is going to be key to an expat's success.

In Kramer's case, working in Saudi Arabia, there were several differences to contend with. First off, there were religious differences. Saudi Arabia being a predominately Muslim country, operated by entirely different laws. For example, the call to prayer was something that was a surprise at first, but Kramer adapted quickly to his new cultural environment.

Second, there were employment differences. Upon arrival, Kramer was working on a huge development project and had to hire a team of Saudi employees. Hiring women on his team was seen as an incredibly progressive move, which took some getting used to.

Third, there was the language barrier. His advice? Just start with the basics. Learn a few standard pleasantries. Things like “Hello,” “How are you?,” “Good evening,” and the like. Then from there, progress into learning individual words. Even if you can’t conjugate verbs, being able to say specific words can get you a long way.

“As terrible as my Arabic was...when I tried, people's faces lit up. They knew I was trying,” Kramer said.

Most importantly, make the effort. As bad as his Arabic was, Kramer talks about how when he would attempt to communicate with someone in their language, their faces would light up. They saw that he was making the effort. That he wasn’t just an arrogant American.

Again, working, or a career as an expatriate is one that does come with its own unique set of challenges. But it is a career that is incredibly rewarding and allows for someone to experience things that most other people never will.

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