Going abroad

    Business Spotlight Plus 5/2021
    people on London Bridge

    “So, should you take that assignment in Sweden?”

    “It was my understanding that, when I came back, I would get promoted to division head.” I have heard variations of this statement many times.

    Career hopefuls often return home from an assignment abroad feeling disappointed by what they see as the failure of their organization to properly recognize their sacrifice and leverage their new skills. In many cases, they are absolutely right. Companies leave money on the table by mismanaging these processes.

    It is one thing, however, to point out glitches in the system. It is quite another to allow them to give rise to frustration or even self-pity. Organizations are full of glitches. Indeed, as Bob Dignen points out (see Business Spotlight 7/2020), we should probably speak of “disorganizations” — in recognition of the fact that the context in which most people work is much too complex and unwieldy to ensure predictable and rational behaviour on the part of the “organization”.

    A spell abroad is often highly welcomed at the start of a career, when people are carefree, unattached and hungry to learn. For thirty-somethings, though, with a mortgage, family and golf club membership, an assignment abroad is often something you are asked to do, not something you seek.

    Accepting an assignment and solving a problem for the manager who asks you to go abroad will get you some goodwill. So, it’s a point for the “pro” side. But don’t think: “If I go, I’ll be promoted to division head when I get back.” That’s not how promises work in a business context.

    First, whoever made you such a promise probably doesn’t think they did. Second, a year from now, their commitment to the promise (which they don’t think they made) will depend on the context. Will it still be in their interest to support you? Third, they may not even be around when you get back.

    So, should you take that assignment in, for example, Sweden? Purely from a career perspective, you probably should. The assignment is likely to teach you something new. It will offer you a chance to show that you are not afraid of a challenge. (And besides, Sweden is in Scandinavia and all Scandinavians are really cool, says this Dane at least.)

    But just don’t go because you are counting on someone remembering you did them a favour.

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