Getting Ahead by Going Abroad


Dec. 31, 2008

There was a 17-year wait for a telephone line and not a McDonald’s in sight, yet Robert Knuepfer Jr. calls the five years he spent in Budapest, Hungary, with his family on behalf of international law firm Baker & McKenzie a “defining moment both personally and professionally.”

    The 56-year-old partner, now based in Chicago, didn’t speak the language, and his children had been reluctant to leave family and friends.

    Still, from 1992 to 1997, Knuepfer created a nine-office, 350-person law practice in Central and Eastern Europe to assist American investors doing business in the newly opened markets. The firm served thousands of clients in the region and fee billings increased by 20 percent each year.

    His advice: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

    “You need to appreciate the bigger-picture experience,” he says.

    While Knuepfer successfully navigated his time abroad, not every expatriate experience is as positive. Relocating a family to another country, adapting to a different culture and managing your career from a different side of the globe can be a personal and political minefield.

    According to a study released in May by Woodridge, Illinois-based GMAC Global Relocation Services, 28 percent of respondents cited family concerns as the top reason for early returns from international assignments. And 27 percent said their expatriate employees resigned within one year of completing foreign assignments.

    Veterans say it’s best to learn the customs of a new country before arriving, be flexible and maintain a lifeline to your home office. “You don’t want to become out of sight, out of mind,” Knuepfer says.

    There are several steps you can take to help smooth the landing for yourself and for any family members you’re bringing along:

    Learn the language, or at least practice a few key phrases. “You get a lot of credit for trying,” says Erin Peterson, global head of talent acquisition for Lincolnshire, Illinois-based Hewitt Associates.

    Experience the culture of your future home as a family. Read books, visit restaurants or explore related art and movies. “This builds understanding and brings the family together for a common purpose,” says Nicole Eull, a Milwaukee psychologist and professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology who spent two years researching the impact of overseas assignments on families.

    Establish routines, especially if one spouse is not working, to create a purpose and structure. This may include cooking with local foods, practicing language tapes, jogging or going to the market.

    Develop a support network with the local expatriate community. When Knuepfer was in Budapest, expats and families gathered every Thursday night at the local American Club. They created a PTA at their school and often traveled together over spring vacation. “You share the same stresses and anxieties, so you tend to form bonds very quickly,” Knuepfer says.

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