Working overseas can bring broad insights and valuable experience to motivated CFOs, so if the opportunity arises, many will jump at the chance.
Workplace Relations Partner Rob Jackson from Rigby Jackson says ideally your employer should be proactive in helping you make the move. He says the first step is to understand what assistance you'll be given.
“There will be a big difference in the support provided by a company that's done this many times before and a company with its first big overseas contract sending a superstar to fly the corporate flag overseas,” he says.
Getting established overseas
Jackson's advice is to get a full understanding of the financial package. Understanding whether you will be paid in Australian dollars or the local currency and whether the money will go to an Australian bank account or overseas bank is critical.
“There may need to be a currency exchange allowance in case there's a fluctuation of currency one way or another. A good employer will make sure there's no windfall gains either way,” he suggests.
Jackson says it's essential to get everything in writing and to also assess how any benefits such as long service leave may be affected by a spell working overseas.
He says it's important to understand the fine print in the employment contract as it applies to remuneration and tax payments.
For example, if the placement is in a no-tax jurisdiction, he says to be careful of assuming that payment will be the same amount during the overseas posting. Jackson explains that many companies equalise remuneration and someone normally paid $100,000 in Australia before tax, may only get around $70,000 in the hand overseas on the basis that they will not be paying tax.
Says Jackson: “Some people can feel cheated because they thought they were going to get a salary of $100,000 free of tax.”
Finances aside, it's also vital to get family buy-in before going abroad for work. “Your partner may have a great career path that's going places here but will be interrupted by moving overseas. Or they may have elderly family members that they are going to feel uncomfortable about leaving for an extended period. So, it's about working through all that,” he says.
Jackson believes cultural awareness training should be provided to explain what it's like living in a different culture. He explains that in some overseas countries such as Saudi Arabia, expats tend to live in compounds that are fairly self-contained. Some spouses moving abroad with their partner to an overseas posting may find that living in a compound is restrictive, whereas other people won't mind that sort of life, he says.
“Companies put a lot of effort into getting the money right, but they can forget about the human factor,” says Jackson, who believes this is more prevalent in firms that don't have as much experience sending staff overseas.
Making the most of the experience
Brett Evans is the Australian-born Managing Director at Atlas Wealth Management. Having lived in the US and Hong Kong, and having vastly different experiences in both countries, he offers expats advice on how to successfully navigate an overseas work placement.
“There's a lot more political correctness in the US and they love to define themselves by processes. Hong Kong has a pace; there's a rhythm to it, even on a Tuesday night,” says Evans speaking from Hong Kong.
“One of the things that struck me the most in terms of working overseas was that you might be the best in Australia at whatever you do. But when you move overseas, especially to a country like Hong Kong, there will be 20 other nationalities you are competing against, and they are all the best at what they do, too. You realise very quickly how small the Australian market is and how you are now competing on the world stage. It makes you very humble,” he adds.
Evans moved from Australia to the US when he was just six months old. “My father was in the Air Force and we went to a base in Tucson, Arizona. In 1987 we moved to Hong Kong, where we stayed until 1997, just after the handover to China.” His formal education was completed at boarding school and university in Australia.
Evans says Hong Kong is an easy place for Australian expats because there is no real language barrier as English is widely spoken and it's not too different culturally to Australia. “Whereas when you move to a place like Shanghai, very few people speak English, and even simple things like getting an internet connection is arduous,” he says.
His advice to people considering going overseas for work is to pursue everything that comes with the posting.
“Where expat postings fail is when someone goes for the job and not the opportunity. I can tell very quickly whether a posting will work based on someone's personality and ability to be malleable. If you keep banging your head against the table saying, 'this is not like Australia,' you are going to fail because you're not in Australia anymore.”
Thinking beyond the placement
Jackson believes it is also important to think about what will happen beyond the overseas posting and to consider whether it would be prudent to come back to Australia or to take up another overseas posting.
His message to finance chiefs is to undertake a proper assessment of remuneration, tax, and the human factor and impact on family — to think through every possible scenario, be as prepared as possible, and to reduce the risk of culture shock to help ensure a successful posting for the CFO and their family.
- Ensure you get everything in writing before heading overseas and get a full understanding of the support that will be provided to you and your family.
- Understand whether you will be paid in the local currency or Australian dollars, where your salary will be paid, and how you will be taxed.
- Don't just go overseas for the job – embrace the rich opportunity working abroad could deliver.