Supercharge your career with an overseas gig

A few years in a foreign country can boost your marketability and your pay, but how do you get there - and succeed? Fortune's Anne Fisher explains.

By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

(Fortune) -- No question about it: In today's global economy, a stint abroad (or more than one) can make you more marketable and promotable. Luckily, overseas opportunities for experienced managers abound.

For instance, more than half (56%) of hiring managers in 17 countries report talent shortages in accounting and finance, and 43% are worried about losing the star talent they've already got, according to a new survey by staffing firm Robert Half International (www.roberthalf.com).

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Other research, from Sibson Consulting (www.sibson.com), shows that experienced human-resources executives are in short supply in Asia, especially in China: Sibson's stats suggest a shortfall of about 75,000 seasoned HR people there in the next three to five years.

But, even if you've got the right qualifications and are raring to go, getting from here to there can be tricky. I spoke recently with Perry Yeatman, co-author of a new book called Get Ahead by Going Abroad (Collins, $24.95), who started her career in Baltimore, then spent ten years in Singapore, Moscow, and London. Yeatman is now a top-50 executive at Kraft Foods in Chicago, overseeing corporate affairs in more than 100 countries.

The book, a down-to-earth, step-by-step guide to getting and keeping a job in a foreign market, is a must-read for anyone who is serious about going global. Some excerpts from my recent conversation with Yeatman:

Q. The subtitle of your book is A Woman's Guide to Fast-Track Career Success, but isn't the advice in it just as applicable to men?

A. Oh, yes. We wanted to aim it at women in particular because companies are far less reluctant to send women abroad than they used to be, and many more women are moving overseas now. And in many parts of the world, women are still not treated as fully equal to men, so some of the advice is about how to deal with that.

But I'd say roughly 70% of the book is just as valid for men who want to work overseas as for women. Most of the issues - how to position yourself for a move abroad, what resources are available for trailing spouses, and so on - are the same for both sexes.

Q. Is it really true that a foreign assignment can be a big career booster?

A. Well, consider that, when we surveyed 200 women in management jobs overseas, 85% said that international experience accelerated their careers; 78% said it had a "significant, positive" effect on their compensation; and 71% believed they had been given much greater responsibility earlier in their careers because of their foreign assignments.

Part of that is because, as a middle manager abroad, you are usually a big fish in a small to medium-sized pond, performing most if not all of the duties that more senior managers have "back home." So, if you do a good job, your professional advancement can really take off.

Q. What's the biggest mistake you have seen American managers make overseas?

A. There are really two. First is not understanding that power and authority as understood by Americans - that is, the command-and-control model - really does not play well in some other cultures. You have to listen carefully, make no assumptions, and be prepared to adapt your management style to the culture of the place you're going.

And second, if you are taking your spouse and children with you, make sure you have really discussed this move with them in detail. The No. 1 reason why people bail out early from an overseas job is an unhappy spouse or child. Usually a foreign assignment is two or three years, which can be a terribly long time if someone you live with is miserable.

You also have to recognize that, far away from home, you are usually your family's only support system, at least in the beginning, and you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time helping them adapt. It can be very tough after a 12-hour day at the office.

Q. In the book, you and others who have worked abroad share tales of cultural misunderstandings that arose, and some of them are pretty funny - the shagging story, for example.

A. Oh, that was really embarrassing! In the U.S., "shagging" is a type of dancing that's popular in the South. So when one of my old favorite "shagging" songs came on the jukebox in Singapore one evening, I told my British clients about how I used to shag all the time in college, how I loved it, and how I shagged anytime I got the chance. After I noticed the startled looks on their faces, someone politely explained to me that, in British slang, "shag" means "have sex." I was mortified. But, you know, these things happen. It helps to keep your sense of humor.

Have you landed an overseas assignment? What challenges did you face? What opportunities did it bring? Do you think working abroad is a career-booster? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog.  Top of page