How to bring your family on board when a long-term assignment is in the cards – An attempt at giving guidance out of the box

Sometimes when we are living the expat lifestyle, we have to take difficult decisions and they are not always to the liking of our partner or children, especially teenagers can be quite difficult when they find out that they have to leave their friends.

Corporations approach talents for roles abroad and once you are not a single anymore, your career might have an effect on more than one life.

You might argue now that your partner knew when they married you, that you had an international outlook on your career and that you love the challenge of starting a new job in a new environment. You would argue that this person always loved your sense of accomplishment when you got a challenging job done within two to three years. You will probably also tell me, that your company will not ask you twice and that you basically do not have a choice.

We both know, that married life is not that easy and that the person you married five years ago might have changed while you have changed as well. Your spouse might have career aspirations or is just up for the next promotion.

Once you have children, your global flexibility might be even more challenged. Your kids might not want to move to another country and make new friends. Maybe they already have two native languages and do not feel like learning a third or fourth language.

Assignments

I have just read a German textbook on intercultural competence by Juergen Bolten. While this book has a few good ideas for intercultural trainers and coaches, as a Global Mobility Expert I was surprised to read, that Bolten claims that we have less international assignments, more commuters and short-termers today than ever. In the industries I work with this is only one side of the coin. Most Global Mobility reports in the last five years showed indeed an increase in short-term assignments and project workers. There are also more “commuters” (Monday to Friday in one country, the weekend in another country especially in countries that are next to each other such as France and Switzerland). We also see more international recruitment on local host contracts, but the classical long-term assignment is still prevalent in most international companies.

You know why? You actually need to be on the ground in person and immerse in the culture in order to perform certain roles such as business development, any managerial roles and especially in relationship-oriented cultures such as Latin America or India, you have to be in the country if you want to be successful. Two years in my view is generally a bit too ambitious, three years often the minimum. In reality, a lot of managers stay up to five years in the host country.

Any day now you could be asked to go on a three-year assignment to Mombasa or Mumbai. What would you do?

How do you come to a decision about an international assignment when taking all aspects into account? Over the years of working with expats and their spouses I have seen a lot of bad decision making so this is an attempt to give you guidance while not knowing everything about your personal situation.

Focus on the learning you will gain from the role more than on the financial incentives.

A lot of expats base their decisions largely on package and numbers and forget to understand more about the role and the learning of the assignment experience. Ask yourself what kind of learning you will take away, what will your spouse learn and also how it will develop skills in your children. Have an open discussion about this at the dinner table.

Show your spouse and kids how they will live by taking them on a look-and-see trip.

If you have never lived in Mumbai or Mombasa or Stockholm it is hard to imagine what daily life will be like. Going on a look-and-see-trip still seems to be the most effective way to show your partner and family what will await them in the foreign lands. Expose them to the host language too by watching movies in original language, explore and discover basic facts about the host country together.

Consider the international assignment as a family adventure and make sure that you are ready.

If you went on a hike to Mount Everest or a challenging world cruise in a sailing boat, you would expect everyone on the trip to be fit and willing to work as a team. Your relationship should be stable, both of you fit and healthy, your children well adapted in school and in general you should have an interest in your host location.

Take advantage of all programs such as intercultural training, language classes and spousal assistance programs that your company offers.

Too many times assignees tell me that they did not really know about what their company offers in terms of support. There are a lot of reasons for this and you need to take responsibility when it comes to claiming intercultural training, language classes and spousal assistance programs. If you rely only on the communication you receive from HR or Global Mobility you might miss out on some of these benefits as during your decision making phase and in preparing for the new role you might not hear all the detailed information. Speak to assignees, who have been in the host location for about a year. They will give you good tips what type of support they received and what they only found out later in the process.

Once you are done with fact-finding, make sure that you listen to all the concerns that your family raises. See if you need further help in addressing some of the concerns. Then once you decide to leave your comfort zone, you will see what a great experience an international assignment can be for your whole family.



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