Get your company to send you abroad
To move up these days, having experience in foreign markets is key. Here's how to land an overseas assignment.
(FORTUNE) -- It seems like the classic Catch-22: Career experts say no one gets to the top (or even anywhere near it) in a big company nowadays without some significant experience in foreign markets. Yet, if your work history so far has all been in the U.S., how do you persuade a company to hire you for an overseas assignment?
Luckily, with the job market rebounding and competition heating up, your own current employer may be receptive to the idea of sending you abroad, at least for a specific short-term project.
"Multinational companies today are increasingly using a stint overseas as a tool for retaining people they see as promising long-term employees," says Jon Zion, president of Eastern U.S. operations for Robert Half International, a global staffing firm with 330 offices in 15 countries. "Companies need plenty of good loyal talent in all the markets where they operate, so take advantage of that."
Zion notes that, since your present employer already knows you, you have an edge over outside applicants, particularly if you study up in a couple of crucial areas.
"First, learn a foreign language. English and Spanish are the two most widely used languages in business globally now, but Japanese and Mandarin Chinese are in huge demand," he says. "If you can speak either of those, you can practically write your own ticket."
Your best bet would be to learn the language of whatever part of the world interests you most. One of Zion's colleagues, for instance, "has always been fascinated by the Far East. She went to night school for a couple of years and learned Japanese." She now works in the firm's new Tokyo office.
It also helps to understand something about international finance. "You'd be smart to study up on International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), which you can learn by taking courses just about anywhere that offers a finance curriculum," Zion says. "They're similar to U.S. standards, but with a few important differences. While you're at it, learn a bit about international currency and tax issues, too."
Even if finance isn't your field, it can't hurt to know these things, and your eagerness to get educated might just impress an employer enough to send you where you want to go.
Anyone angling for an overseas gig would do well to start building relationships with far-flung colleagues well in advance.
"If you really want to be considered for a foreign assignment, you can pave the way by getting to know the people in your company who are already over there, and doing whatever you can to help them out right now," says Kurt Knackstedt, an American based in London as senior director of worldwide corporate travel services for Cendant..
The most frequent gripe he hears from his employees in Asia is that staffers in the U.S. won't take phone calls during Asian business hours. "It sounds ridiculously simple," Knackstedt notes, "but if you're willing to get up early or stay up late, you can often make some truly grateful friends and allies who'll be happy to put in a word for you later."
One word of caution: If and when you do get a chance to work abroad, go in with your eyes wide open.
"You really need to evaluate and critique an overseas opportunity in just the same way you would if the job were right down the street," says Zion. "Often people romanticize a foreign assignment, so our recruiters always sit down with the candidates and do a sanity check. We try to screen out people with unrealistic expectations. It's one thing to go abroad on vacation and fall in love with some exotic place, but quite another to find yourself immersed in a foreign culture and trying to produce great business results. It can be very difficult." If you know that - and your employer knows you know it - you're already ahead of the game.