How International Assignments Transformed Our Careers & Lives

By Elaine Cercado

In 1997, I got an offer from my company to relocate with my family to our Kuala Lumpur office and take on a multi-country business unit manager job that would cover Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, India and the rest of South Asia.

At that time, I was doing a regional sales and marketing management role based out of Philippines. My husband had a progressive career in our country and our son was just 9 months old. While it felt overwhelming, as a family, we decided to take the offer and relocated to KL.

Soon after we relocated to KL, my husband’s company assigned him to Singapore, and eventually to Jakarta, then Mumbai. As for me, after a year and half in KL, I got re-assigned back to Manila. Eventually, our careers and family converged in Singapore in 2000, where we have been based until today.

Global mobility and talent management trends

Relocation, or workforce mobility, is not new. It is often referred to as a post-World War II movement that emerged from a period of business boom that required employers to recruit and train workers quickly.

In recent times, mobility has become more global, prevalent and integrated into talent management. Global mobility and talent management both aim to support the human capital needs of the business that requires employees to move around the world.

“Clearly the two have a lot in common from the start: to ensure that the investment the company makes in its employees is maximized. This is, however, not a new objective, so why has it become a top-tier focus for so many companies in recent times? In the past 10 years or so, there has been a major shift in how global companies staff their global operations and positions. As we have seen for a number of years now, companies recognize that they need their leaders to have international experience: to have lived and worked outside their own country to gain both practical skillsand a global perspective. This shift has necessitated a repositioning of talent management from a headquarters to a global approach. Rather than almost exclusively looking to headquarters or major established locations to staff managerial and leadership positions, companies are now finding some of their key talent in their emerging markets.” ~ extracted from Mobility magazine

This trend has created support services to facilitate smoother relocations for families. Aside from catering to real estate needs and moving household goods, relocation companies today take care of spouse/partner needs, family concerns, ancillary services that support community assimilation and accelerate employee productivity in the new location, among others.

Reflections on our life-changing experiences

All the movements I described at the start of this article happened in a short span of 3 challenging, rewarding and life-changing years. As we know, moving is not just physically exhausting but also psychologically. At one point, the family separation was draining us (when my husband was based out of Jakarta then Mumbai, while our son and I were based out of KL then Manila). Yet such challenges brought us to where we are today.

After 18 years and 4 host-countries, working and living overseas have truly enriched and transformed our lives. Our careers have progressed and shifted. Our family has grown to and enjoyed the multi-cultural environments. Our son, who is almost 19, has become a global citizen. Our community life has intensified. Our appreciation for diversity and perspectives of things have widened and deepened.

As I reflected on how we maximized the opportunities to the point of transforming our lives, 3 key things came to my mind.

1. Openness to unanticipated opportunities.  In his book “How will you measure your life?” Clayton Christensen wrote:

In our lives and in our careers, we are constantly navigating a path by deciding between our deliberate strategies and the unanticipated alternatives that emerge. Each approach is vying for our minds and our hearts, making its best case to become our actual strategy. Neither is inherently better or worse; rather which you should choose depends on where you are in the journey… What’s important is to get out there and try stuff until you learn where your talents, interests and priorities begin to pay off.

This kind of balancing and openness led us to shifts in our careers and priorities as we journeyed through our path. A perfect example was my husband, who relocated from one country to another 4 times, shifted from IT to telecommunication industry, went through 4 company mergers/acquisitions, and moved from roles in customer service to business operations. He kept his aperture to life wide open, took the opportunities, adjusted, and got it right.

2. Alignment and commitment to a purpose.  When we relocated, our key motivation at first was to progress in our careers. At the same time that our international careers were growing, our son was also growing. This situation led us to clarify and agree that our key priority would be our family’s well-being and relationships. We both understood and committed to this. Busy schedules, pressures, conflicts and stress came along. Since we were both working, it was important to put our strong partnership, support for each other and constant communication into effective action. Staying anchored on our family purpose gave lasting joy, meaning and fulfilment to all the hard work, challenges and sacrifices.

3. Integration into a community.  We believe that our home is where our family is, regardless of the geographical location, and that a community serves as our bigger family. It was important for us to find a community – be it of same cultures, interests, passions, faith, values or causes – that connected us to a bigger group and gave a sense of belongingness. The fellowship and friendships we have developed, and the activities and experiences we have shared bonded us to our community, and became sources of joys and meanings in our lives.

For now, we have settled in Singapore. Our son will join the workforce in a few years time. It will be interesting to see how the new possibilities, trends and opportunities might change his life and the others in his generation.

Note: This article was also published in LinkedIn.

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