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Working abroad, the ultimate experience

The Times: Working abroad, the ultimate experience

April 3, 2008

You won’t reach the top of a big company without earning your stripes abroad. So how do you gain the relevant experience?Carly Chynoweth

Ambitious executives who hope to secure the top job at a large company should start preparing now by securing an overseas posting. This is because international experience is becoming an essential component of would-be chief executives’ skill sets.

Research by Elisabeth Marx, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles, a recruitment firm, found that 67 per cent of FTSE 100 chief executives and 33 per cent of those at Fortune 100 companies have spent at least a year living and working overseas.

Employers are increasingly demanding such experience when filling very senior roles. “Some of the larger companies make it a prerequisite that you have to have experience in at least two countries in two regions,” Dr Marx says. Monika Hamori, an assistant professor of human resource management at Instituto de Empresa Business School, in Madrid, agrees. “Not having international experience will definitely rule people out of senior executive jobs,” she says.

There are two main reasons for this. First, as companies increase the amount of business that they do overseas, finding a chief executive who can lead an international expansion becomes more important. Secondly, “even if a CEO with international experience does not work in a multinational company, his or her international work experience develops a skill set that is very valuable to corporations,” Professor Hamori says.

Lucy Tarrant, the global MBA manager at Barclays, agrees. “You have to have the added layer of complexity in the way you think, operate and solve problems,” she says. “If [candidates] have not had international experience you really notice the difference.”

Dr Marx advises people contemplating a future at the top to get international experience early in their careers. “In your late twenties or early thirties is a very good time to get international experience,” she says. Tarrant suggests that graduates spend their first few years of employment focusing on the job in hand and demonstrating both ability and potential before looking for an overseas posting.

However, be aware that simply working overseas is not enough to supercharge your CV; you don’t want to take a step backwards on the career path. “You need to think about how the experience and skills you learn will add to your career,” Dr Marx says. Anything that exhibits commercial savvy in an international marketplace is a prime move. “It is very useful, if you have the opportunity, to travel and to grow a business or increase its customer base overseas.”

Finally, a word of warning from Professor Hamori: “Although international experience is indeed becoming a requisite for many top-level jobs, young professionals should not see it as an experience that will always speed up their promotions or get them a disproportionately high salary. Research on the short-term impact of international assignments shows that the effects are usually detrimental: professionals’ careers suffer upon repatriation, they are missed for promotion opportunities, they do not have a job to return to. Many of them switch employers right after repatriation.”

In the long term, chief executives with international experience tend to earn more than those without, but this is because they are more likely to be working at multinational firms, which pay more.

Passport stamps

Top brass at Unilever have international experience aplenty. Its chief executive, Patrick Cescau, a Frenchman, joined the company in 1973 and has held roles in Germany, the US, Indonesia, Portugal and the Netherlands. Its chief financial officer, Rudy Markham, was born in the UK but has worked for the company in East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Andrew Witty, a Brit and the incoming chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, was managing director of Glaxo South Africa in the 1990s, then area director for South and East Africa. He led the group’s operations in Asia from Singapore as senior vice-president in 2003 and has served in advisory roles to governments around the world including South Africa, China and the UK.

Steve Holliday, the British chief executive of National Grid, has extensive experience in the oil and gas industry. This has taken him to the US, China, Australia, Japan, Brazil and the former Soviet Union.

The Dutch chief executive of Shell, Jeroen van der Veer, worked in marketing and manufacturing in Curaçao, the Netherlands and the UK before joining the company, for which he has coordinated business in Africa and Canada.

Indra Nooyi, the chief executive of PepsiCo, moved to the US from India, where she held senior roles at multinational companies, in 1978. and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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