by Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury
Bill Wiseman was facing a quandary. He’d been working at McKinsey’s Seattle office for two years when his wife got a job in Okinawa, and he had to decide whether to remain a U.S.-based consultant or take a position as an engagement manager in the South Korean office, where an opportunity had opened up. While Wiseman was eager for the promotion and wanted to be near his wife, he had very little knowledge of Korean culture and language and worried that a move to Asia might hurt his career.
Many professionals will recognize how difficult such a choice is, because they’ve confronted similar ones themselves. Although the Covid-19 crisis has halted travel in recent months, geographic mobility has become critical for managers and knowledge workers hoping to advance in today’s globalized economy, especially at multinational corporations, and that trend is unlikely to reverse. But when opportunities emerge in faraway locations, how do you know if they’re right for you? A stint in a new region or country might enhance your problem-solving skills, position you as a knowledge broker, and be financially rewarding. However, there are also downsides. How can you take advantage of all the benefits while mitigating the constraints and minimizing the costs?
Research on hundreds of professionals who have moved across borders in a variety of organizations and industries points a way forward. Put simply, anyone contemplating such an assignment must think through its full life cycle before taking it: when, where, and for how long to go; how to operate while there; when and how to return or make another move; and how the assignment fits into broader career and personal priorities.
Many studies show that professionals build knowledge, skills, and networks and benefit economically from geographic moves. In 1977, for instance, the management scholars Anders Edström and Jay Galbraith found that overseas jobs could give midlevel managers at multinational corporations a crash course in leadership, helping them learn to make independent decisions and develop strong informal communication networks. And Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development has documented that knowledge workers who take international positions earn higher salaries than other people who perform the same tasks in the same jobs at the same firms.
My own research also underscores the upside of geographic mobility. When I interviewed managers at McKinsey who’d made international moves, they all agreed that building a network of clients, mentors, and mentees across multiple locations could be a career accelerant, providing access to more information, knowledge, and resources than remaining in one place did. A 2017 study I did with Shinjinee Chattopadhyay showed that newly hired Indian bureaucrats who were randomly assigned to remote and challenging locations advanced more quickly than their counterparts in mainstream locations did—possibly because they had more opportunities to enhance their problem-solving skills. One was a woman sent to a region with high crime—which was 900 miles from the capital and 1,000 miles from her hometown—who worked with the wives and daughters of local Maoist insurgents to convert an abandoned tourism-department bungalow into a village school. As she acknowledged, she “would not have learned to think out of the box while sitting in the comfort zone of Bangalore or Delhi.”
Overseas work experiences appear to have a positive impact on innovation, too. In 2006, AnnaLee Saxenian showed how foreign-born employees absorbed knowledge, contacts, and values in Silicon Valley and then spread them to emerging innovation hubs at home in Taiwan, Israel, China, and India. And the benefits seem to flow the other way: When Dany Bahar, Hillel Rapoport, and I examined innovation patterns across 95 countries, we saw that immigrant inventors played a big role in spreading ideas from their native countries to their new locations. This effect was also found in a 2019 study I did with Do Yoon Kim, in which we exploited a natural experiment related to visas and discovered that researchers from China and India who had come to work at biopharma entities in the United States had leveraged their understanding of herbal medicine and made their teams more innovative. The Asian and local researchers combined their knowledge to develop patents for novel offerings, such as a skin treatment that combined turmeric with synthetic compounds and a remedy for menopausal pain that incorporated green tea.
Experiences abroad boost individual creativity as well. Consider Kentaro Toyama, a Japanese computer scientist who moved to India for Microsoft, whom I encountered in my research with HBS’s Tarun Khanna. While visiting village schools, Toyama noticed that when children shared one computer, as was typical, the class bully would control the mouse. So he developed MultiPoint, a device that gave each child a mouse that connected to the school computer.
The beneficial effects seem to cascade down to the colleagues of people who’ve made overseas moves. In a 2016 study I saw how managers in the emerging-market R&D center of a Fortune 50 technology company used the internal social capital they’d gained from prior stints abroad to help their reports: Newly hired college graduates who were randomly assigned to work under those managers were three times as likely to file a patent as their counterparts working for managers with no international experience—and were also more likely to build on knowledge produced in the distant headquarters. In other words, the managers who had worked abroad acted as a bridge to transfer knowledge between geographies.
Constraints and Costs
Despite the great potential benefits, geographic moves present several possible drawbacks, especially for someone with a partner and children. These can be divided into four buckets: regulatory and occupational constraints, and psychological and economic costs. I’ve started referring to this framework as ROPE.
The Challenges of Geographic Moves
These include any legal limitations on geographic moves—between or within countries. Even if your company sponsors you for an employment visa, future changes might lead to its not being extended. For example, when Chungeun Yoon, Kirk Doran, and I studied data on professionals who had come to the United States on H-1B visas to work for a large technology company, we found that extension rates for those visas declined sharply after 2017. Well before the current pandemic, the United States had banned nationals from certain countries from entering it, and fears over future contagions and epidemics could cause it and other governments to further restrict movements. Post-Brexit, European Union citizens working in the United Kingdom or Brits working in Europe may also confront new immigration rules. Even something as minor as regulations on the transport of pets between countries can cause headaches for families trying to manage a move.
As for within-country regulatory constraints, one example is China’s household registration system, Hukou. In our research, Gary Pisano and I found that it makes it difficult for some workers to relocate and for companies to retain interstate migrant workers long-term, because a change in Hukou can cause both an individual and his or her family to lose health and education benefits. In India similar constraints are posed by a ration card, tied to a citizen’s home state, that provides access to subsidized food. Historically, people moving across states haven’t been able to use it.
The work needs of spouses or partners pose additional constraints. Consider Mia Mends, an American-born executive that my colleague Leslie Perlow and I interviewed for a case study. After business school she was offered a “dream job” working for the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, DC. But her fiancé had been accepted into a two-year master’s program at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Mends ultimately decided to turn down the dream job because it was important for her to be with him and she could find another great job in Chicago. A few years later, Sodexo recruited her to lead sales across its eight Latin American countries. This time she said yes. “We sold our home, packed our bags, and moved to São Paulo,” she recalled. “My husband quit his job, but our visa only allowed one of us to work in-country, so my husband couldn’t get a new one.”
Another obstacle is licensing requirements—such as those in the medical, legal, and engineering professions. Accountants and lawyers moving to the EU, for instance, must work with a licensed practitioner in their new country for up to three years or take the host country’s licensing exam. U.S. requirements in particular have become a lot more stringent over the past 60 years. According to David Schleicher of Yale Law School, the percentage of the workforce covered by state licensing laws in the United States grew from less than 5% in the early 1950s to 25% by 2008.
More recently, we’ve seen concerns about cybersecurity and technology transfer hinder geographic mobility. As a result, the U.S. companies Intel, Qualcomm, and GlobalFoundries are reportedly slowing the hiring of Chinese citizens for advanced engineering jobs. Nationalism also is now a source of constraints; earlier this year China expelled journalists employed by three major U.S. newspapers in retaliation for restrictions the Trump administration had placed on Chinese journalists in America.
Noncompete agreements can present roadblocks, too. In a study of Michigan laws, Matt Marx, Deborah Strumsky, and Lee Fleming found that enforcement of them decreased mobility between states especially sharply for inventors who specialized in narrow technical fields.
Being far from friends, family, and a familiar culture can be emotionally hard, and a big move inevitably puts stress on an individual and anyone he or she brings along. While such costs are difficult to measure, my research with Ohchan Kwon indicates that they can be surprisingly significant. In our study of IT workers who were randomly assigned to production centers throughout India, we found that people were much less productive when their stints away coincided with festivals and family gatherings back home. One told us, “This is my third year here. While I miss home all the time, I really missed it last year when my manager didn’t give me leave during Diwali.” Wu Zhuo, an immigrant I talked to for a case study with Caroline Elkins and Khanna, echoed that sentiment. The first Chinese New Year after he moved from his native China to Kenya to work for Golden Bell International, a Chinese state-owned company, he felt lonely and miserable, he told me. Though he’s now been in Africa for two decades, new concerns have arisen: Since he and his spouse are both only children (born during China’s one-child policy), they worry about being so far from their parents and needing to come home to take care of them.
Cultural disconnects in the new location often take a toll. Mends, who hails from Houston, reported feeling like an outsider during her time abroad. “My husband and I are African American—he has Ethiopian roots—and we expected to meet many other ethnic Africans in Brazil,” she said. “But in the expatriate community, we didn’t see many black people. Those we encountered were typically the domestic help. We got a pass because we were American. But we would go to restaurants and people would touch our kids’ hair. At age two or three, our daughter said that she wanted to be white and blond because many of her classmates were.” Mends also said that because she was unfamiliar with Portuguese, she had to sit through several business meetings without understanding the conversation and didn’t feel on top of her game in the new geography.
The time and effort it takes to learn a new language (if necessary), adapt to a new cultural context, and understand dramatically different health care, financial, transportation, and numerous other systems can also be frustrating. And those with partners and families have the additional challenges of finding new employers, schools, and childcare.
Though geographic moves are often financially beneficial—especially if the cost of living in the new region or country is lower and employers cover relocation and ongoing travel, housing, and educational expenses—they aren’t always. Workers taking new jobs in London, Silicon Valley, or Hong Kong, for instance, are likely to face much higher living costs and may not be able to maintain their current lifestyle at the salary offered. The cost of personal travel to see family and friends back home can be a burden if companies don’t cover it. And income forgone by partners who are unable to get jobs in a new country—or must take time off during a move and search for another position—also falls into this bucket. Mends said that because her husband couldn’t get a work visa in Brazil, she became the family’s breadwinner. “He was creative and found some consulting work,” she added, “but it was not easy for us, especially in a culture known for machismo.” Here, psychological and economic costs clearly overlapped.
Overseas jobs can give midlevel managers a crash course in leadership.
Geographic moves can cost people career opportunities too. Rosalie Tung has collected anecdotal evidence of workers who were reluctant to accept extended overseas assignments because they worried about being forgotten and passed up for promotion. After one manager moved to Japan, for instance, he saw his rival rise through the ranks at headquarters. Professionals stationed far from their company’s main office can also miss out on securing key information and critical resources for their ideas. In my research with Khanna, I saw this play out in 2006 at a multinational’s R&D center in China, where managers were working on developing a promising prototype for a cheap “computer-phone” for the masses. Even after a successful pilot, the project was shelved because of lukewarm support from headquarters back in the United States. Frustration with navigating the cross-border resource-allocation process eventually made the managers leave the company and work for local firms that were willing to support their ideas.
If executives make multiple moves, problems can be compounded. In some cases the first transfer increases the constraints and costs of the next one, and people become geographically stuck. This can happen if kids are born in the new location and get attached to friends, schools, and the community or if a spouse finds a great job with long-term career prospects there.
Though every geographic move will have different benefits, constraints, and costs, a few principles remain universally relevant.
The challenges of transfers tend to be smaller near the start of your career. For one thing, you’re less likely to have a spouse or children then. Moreover, the problem-solving skills that moves help you build will generate returns over a longer stretch of your career. There is a rich research stream on how early experiences have a lasting influence on subsequent social behavior.
Conversations I’ve had with many colleagues over the years support the idea that early-career moves to new geographies tend to pay long-term dividends. For instance, a McKinsey consultant from Austria who did a brief stint in India and a Microsoft sales manager from South America who took assignments in Europe and Asia both told me how much those early moves helped build their reputation back in their home offices.
Step way outside your comfort zone.
Any significant move will stretch your capabilities. But some present more opportunities to do so than others, as the study on Indian bureaucrats assigned to remote locations showed. In follow-up research with Shinjae Won, Chattopadhyay and I found that bureaucrats sent to smaller towns were also more likely to advance to managerial positions, perhaps because of the greater leadership roles they had to take in those less heavily staffed areas. In another study, Hise Gibson, Eric Lin, Sunasir Dutta, and I found that U.S. military officers who were quasi-randomly sent to challenging locations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the conflicts there saw a similar acceleration of their careers.
You don’t have to choose a “crucible” location like a war-torn region to fast-track your career, of course. Indeed, as research by Andy Molinsky and Erin Meyer has shown, you can stretch yourself simply by moving to a place where you must navigate entirely unfamiliar norms, strengthening your cultural fluency and empathy as you work through those challenges. So if you have a choice, go for assignments that will test your abilities and help you grow as a leader.
Many people making geographic moves discover creative ways to sidestep the constraints and costs. For example, Wiseman at McKinsey did decide to relocate to South Korea, despite his inability to speak the local language. Although his formal position technically required him to interact with clients in Korean and Japanese, he challenged his team of associates to take on that responsibility, while he performed the role of thought leader and general manager. This was a great win-win for Wiseman and his direct reports.
Mends took the opposite tack, working hard to learn to speak Portuguese “proficiently, but not perfectly,” even though it wasn’t a requirement, so that she could better relate to locals in her office. So you can rethink not only how the work gets done but also how you operate socially in the new environment. And keep in mind that the more you have in common with colleagues, the less isolated you’ll feel. My ongoing research with Kwon reveals that people who relocate tend to be happier if they find a cohort of workplace friends who speak their native language.
Another interesting and newly emerging workaround for partners of people making geographic moves is to find employment at firms with work-from-anywhere programs, such as GitLab, Zapier, Seeq, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and Akamai—to name just a few. As one U.S. patent examiner told me, “I’m a military spouse, which means I live in a world with frequent moves and personal upheavals that prevent many spouses from having lasting careers, especially careers of their choice. Work from anywhere allows me to pursue my own aspirations to contribute both to my home and to society despite moving constantly.”
Stay connected to home.
A great example of someone proactively mitigating the psychological costs of feeling disconnected from family and culture is Natalie Nicolaou, a Cypriot at the World Bank in Washington, DC. In her own words: “I’m working to make sure that my children feel like Cyprus is their home as well. I have to make a real effort. The best way to do this is to visit frequently, but there are things we can do here. I pay for satellite television to access Cypriot channels so that my kids understand Cypriot pop culture and have something to talk about with their cousins. We have had many live-in nannies who are native Greek speakers. We bought a house in the suburbs instead of in the middle of the city to be near a Greek Orthodox Church, where there are Greek speakers and a strong Greek and Cypriot community. I have a tough commute, but at least when they’re celebrating Cyprus Independence Day, I can be part of it.”
Just a few decades ago, expatriates faced technology challenges when trying to stay connected across borders. According to Sunil Amrith, who studies the transregional movement of people and ideas, in the 1980s, 1990s, and even early 2000s overseas workers used calling cards to make international phone calls. Amrith also cites Yasmine Kabir’s account of an émigré who sent audio letters on recorded cassettes to his family. However, as Tsedal Neeley points out in her work on globally dispersed teams, we now live in the world of Zoom, Slack, Jive, and Yammer. Keeping in touch with distant family and friends is much easier.
Make return trips strategically.
Well-timed travel back to corporate headquarters can protect those undertaking geographic moves from losing opportunities. At one Fortune 50 company’s Indian R&D center, I identified a mechanism through which employees circumvented the constraints of long distances: short, timely visits to the main office. At this company, travel to headquarters was limited, and Indian inventors could not visit at will. However, those who were lucky enough to make trips to the United States during crucial months in the R&D disbursement cycle—just before the fourth-quarter review meeting—enjoyed a much greater likelihood of securing resources for innovations. This is a lesson that all far-flung employees who want to win support for their projects should note.
The timing of vacations is also important. The study of Indian IT workers assigned to production centers around the country showed that they performed better when they had greater flexibility in scheduling their vacations and that they enjoyed trips to their hometowns more when a large number of family and friends were also around. As Cristobal Young and Chaeyoon Lim have argued, time is a “network good,” and its value depends on the number of others in our social circle who have the same time available. Having the ability to travel home regularly or when it matters the most can tip the balance in favor of an international move.
Plan the next step.
A final good practice is sketching out the life cycle of your move and beginning to think about the next one, whether it will entail returning to your previous city, staying in your new region, or transferring somewhere else entirely. If, for instance, you plan to go back home or to headquarters after two or three years, ask senior leadership what roles might be available at that point and what skills or experience you would need to be successful in them. You could have similar discussions with your family, especially your spouse and children. One manager told me, “I aspire to return home in the next five years. I’ve seen colleagues who’ve worked for the firm for many years, and then when they want to go home, most of the people they know are here in the U.S., their children live here, and their children don’t want to go back because it doesn’t feel like home. They’ve stayed too long and missed the window.”
Look out for looming changes in the regulatory environment, your organization, or your family that could affect your plans, and maintain an open dialogue about them with your manager and HR so that you end up neither locked out of nor stuck in the country to which you’ve moved. You might even want to work closely with a personal immigration lawyer to understand ongoing shifts in the residency requirements of your home and host countries.
Consider, too, whether you’re interested in trying overseas work as a one-off experiment or in becoming a permanent expat or the type of “global cosmopolitan” that scholars like Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Martine Haas have described. Wiseman, for example, moved to Seoul expecting to be overseas for a few years but ultimately spent two decades leading teams across East Asia, earning the nickname “Mr. Mobile.” He notes that all his experiences in diverse geographies helped him become a “serial stretch thinker.”
Recent travel restrictions notwithstanding, the world is indeed an oyster for knowledge workers. You should, however, think carefully about the anticipated benefits and probable costs and constraints of any geographic move and map out its ideal life cycle before you embark on that adventure.