Expanding your business internationally may create new opportunities for employees to work abroad. Here's how to make the experience a positive one.
If you're thinking about taking your business into global markets, you (or your existing employees) may face some concerns about the possibility of living and working abroad. I (Bill, the less dynamic of this column's dynamic duo) lived overseas in London for a year and in Johannesburg, South Africa for another year. My wife and daughters joined me in London, and my wife joined me in Jo'burg (my daughters having moved on to college by then). So I can offer some firsthand experience on the professional and personal challenges involved with a foreign assignment.
Living and Working in London
In both cases my overseas assignment was to advise Global 1000 corporations on growth strategy. In London I was assigned to the London office of a strategic advisory firm. There was already an infrastructure in place, which eased my transition. Even better, the London team had experience with the legalities and formalities of moving an American to London. Regulations vary from one location to another, so having experts in local employment law is invaluable.
Tip No. 1: Hire or use experienced relocation experts to support your move overseas.
In my case, the London office had to prove it had exhausted reasonable avenues to hire locally before it could bring an ex-pat to fill the position. They advertised for my role in several UK newspapers for one to two months to prove there were no suitable local candidates. The results of the local search became part of my visa and work permit application.
The London HR team also put me in touch with relocation realtors who could work with my wife to find a suitable, fully furnished apartment for us. As our daughters were with us, we wanted to be within walking distance of our daughters' high school.
School was a major challenge for us. The British curriculum is quite different from the American curriculum. If we had put our daughters into a local British school, they likely would have been "off course" in that school (i.e., having to repeat certain subjects and not having the prerequisites for other subjects). Even worse, they would certainly have gotten "off course" for their return to America.
As a result, we really had no choice but to enroll our daughters in an American school in London. Major cities overseas often have American schools that teach a typical American curriculum, precisely so that ex-pats like myself can keep our children on course. If you plan to stay overseas for several years or less and your children are middle-school age or older, these schools allow them to stay on track to graduate on time.
Tip No. 2: Enroll your teen children in an American school if possible.
Of course an American school overseas is a private school, which means we paid private-school tuition rates. In general London is a very expensive city; prices are about two times the prices in most U.S. cities. At the time we could not have afforded to move to London and pay tuition for two daughters, so we negotiated with my employer to cover all of our expenses, including rent, tuition, periodic travel back to the U.S., and a daily expense allowance. My employer was very generous (although since their alternative was to turn away very lucrative work, it was a worthwhile investment).
Tip No. 3: Understand the full costs of living abroad, and negotiate (with your employer or business partners) for an ex-pat expense policy that will cover your costs as much as possible.
Although we were given a travel allowance to travel back to the States every quarter, we chose not to travel home at all. Instead, we took advantage of all London and other European cities had to offer. We drove out to Stonehenge as a family, took the train to Edinburgh for a long weekend. We spent Christmas week in Spain (on the Costa Del Sol). We spent a long, cold summer weekend in Goteborg and Stockholm, Sweden. We took the Chunnel to Paris. We spent Thanksgiving in Rome. Our blowout Spring break trip was to spend a week in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. Some of our best memories as a family are of the amazing trips we were able to take during the year in London.
Tip No. 4: Take advantage of the vacation opportunities overseas; travel as if you'll never have the chance to travel again.
In an upcoming article I'll talk about our experience in Johannesburg, an amazing and dangerous city.
KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree. @karlstark