Will a few years working overseas help or harm your career?

The short answer is: a stint working overseas will definitely HELP your career!

In Singapore, the scope is limited for marketing, communications and creative professionals, especially if their responsibilities only cover the local market. With a current population of 5 million, a mature consumer base, efficient logistics and infrastructure, the challenge is capped and somewhat cocooned for a small market.

On the other hand, the rest of Asia, just at our doorstep, offers very different scope and challenges. We have countries with large populations (e.g. China, India, Indonesia, Thailand), developing world consumer base, logistical nightmares to get product to market and poor infrastructure.

We live in an increasingly smaller world with technology and air travel making connecting with people and forming relationships anywhere, anytime a reality. Hence, there are now opportunities for us to take on regional or even global responsibilities in our careers.

In my humble opinion, in order to be successful in handling regional or global responsibilities, you need to have in depth knowledge and understanding of values, culture and mindset of a target group of people so that you can establish strong relationships and influence an outcome. As the old saying goes “first, win over hearts, then win over minds”. At a conference I attended, a key speaker from Proctor & Gamble, said that a key component of P&G’s highly successful leadership development program is for their managers to take on stints working outside their home country/region to develop their experiences in handling crisis, large scope/scale, culture shock, family and personal challenges etc.

If you want to get into the heads of regional consumers/businesses and truly understand what makes them tick, the best way to do so is to experience life as they know it. Reading on the subject is a start but experience is what really counts.

In the marketing, communications and creative fields, a few shortcuts into understanding a new market are:

  • Understanding local humour – Humour is the best way break through language, cultural, stereotype barriers.
  • Understanding local values and culture – this will give you an appreciation on mindsets and thinking patterns. Even among our Asian neighbours, there are just as many differences as there are similarities when you discover the underlying fabric of each society.
  • Understanding that a “yes” does not always mean “yes”. In most Asian countries where confrontations (especially to superiors) are cultural taboos, your best ideas and strategies in new markets will not have legs if you do not get grassroots level support from the locals. Nodding heads in meetings does not always mean they buy into your idea or strategy.

In Firebrand, we place hundreds of marketing, communications and creative talents across Asia.

What are the motivations for these talents to move overseas? Here are some:

  • Scope, size, complexity and new challenges the role offers or just looking to experience living and working in a new country. The experience one gains in emerging, exciting, dynamic markets like China and India are different from the experience one gains from mature, complex, culturally foreign markets like Japan, US or Europe.
  • After spending a few years in a different market, you will have developed an invaluable understanding and appreciation of the psyche and mindset of the locals.
  • In some cases (although it is becoming rare), lucrative expatriate packages with benefits such as company paid accommodation, transportation and education allowances.

I can quote multiple examples of talents coming back to Singapore to take on promotions after proving their worth in a “hardship posting” where they were given more responsibilities and exposure. From a personal perspective, I believe my experience living and working in Australia, Singapore, Japan and my involvement in other markets around Asia has increased my effectiveness in my current regional role with Firebrand.

In the past, for Americans and Europeans to move up the global corporate ladder, a stint in Japan is a huge boost. Now, the focus is getting experience in the China, India and other emerging markets. For many Singaporeans, this is a golden opportunity to take the initiative to gain experience working overseas as these markets are in close proximity and language and culture are not huge barriers to overcome.


1)     Do it.

2)     Do it soon.

3)     Do it now.

Photo courtesy of Erika Tang


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