Working Overseas: 4 Steps to Success

Working in a foreign country is not so different than taking on a new role in your own country. Here's how to prepare.
Business and Workplace Author, Speaker, and Consultant, AlexandraLevit.com
April 19, 2012

Whether you’re a small business owner or an employee in a cast of thousands, you may find yourself working overseas at some point.

According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a  major uptick will occur in the number of cross-national business assignments in the next 10 years. This is an exciting development for some people, and intimidating for others.

But working in a foreign culture is not so different than simply taking on a new role in your country of origin. You have to hone your general business acumen and your communication, language and problem-solving skills.

The following four steps help ensure that you can assimilate effectively.

Gather intelligence

It's important to scope out the culture before starting a new gig. Show up in your new country as early as possible to give yourself time to adjust mentally and physically. (For example, jet lag can wreak havoc on your ability to assess a new situation clearly, and you need time for it to run its course.)

Look at the online materials of your new organization and its physical space. Spend some time walking around the office buildings and even lobbies to get a feel for the attitudes and behaviors of the new culture.

Make friends

If possible, make connections in your new country prior to your arrival. Use your own networks—friends, colleagues and your social media contacts—to identify potential friends and allies in a foreign locale.

As you're building these relationships, be attuned to individual differences as well as cultural generalizations. Ask questions that show you are interested in learning how things are done in the new country. Pay attention to the answers—they'll help you succeed personally and professionally over the duration of your assignment.

When you get there, treat your new contacts to dinner as a thank you for helping you acclimate.

Adjust your expectations

Prepare yourself for a certain amount of frustration that's inherent in working in a foreign culture. The pace of business may be faster or slower in your new country, and you may have to contend with language barriers.

Even the logistics of arranging a simple lunch meeting may differ significantly from what you are used to. Anticipate that most tasks and decisions will take longer in the new environment, and that some variables will remain ambiguous.

Practice letting go of perfection and giving yourself a break for doing the best you can.

Prepare for culture stress

Culture stress has four phases, according to Northwestern University.

In the honeymoon phase, you feel like you can handle anything. You're intrigued by similarities and differences between your culture and the new one, and you're highly motivated to learn.

The next phase is culture shock. You may feel irritation at minor inconveniences, hostility at the new culture and homesickness.

In the last two phases, you gradually adjust to the new culture. You regain your sense of humor, begin to feel at home and work to your full potential.

Throughout this process, you may find yourself experiencing emotional highs and lows, changes in appetite and exhaustion. It’s important to take time out to listen to your body and your feelings. Reach out to your support systems, locally and at home. Eat balanced meals and get plenty of sleep. You’ll find that if you take care of yourself, you are better able to absorb the changes occurring around you.

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She's the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. As Money magazine’s online career expert of the year, Levit regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues that modern employees face.

Illustration by Russell Christian

Business and Workplace Author, Speaker, and Consultant, AlexandraLevit.com