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The Guide to Starting an International Career

Author Margaret Malewski Talks About the Challenges and Rewards for Young Mobile Professionals Living and Working Abroad

Author about aspiring young international professionals.

When Margaret Malewski moved from Canada to Poland at age 17 to begin her university degree, she’d never heard the term “expat.” Six years later, accepting a job as the assistant brand manager of Procter & Gamble’s Near East Division (then based in Geneva),

Ms. Malewski joined the ranks of “GenXpat,” defined as members of Generation X (born between 1964 and 1981) who choose to live and pursue a career abroad. Faced with what she calls the biggest challenge particular to GenXpat—“managing the combined demands of working and moving when there is no spouse or partner to help you”—Ms. Malewski now paves the way for other young, single graduates with her new book GenXpat: The Young Professional's Guide to Making a Successful Life Abroad.

Offering tips on everything from negotiating a contract to dealing with culture shock, GenXpat is the culmination of a decade of expatriation that moved Ms. Malewski between such diverse countries as Poland, Switzerland, and Israel. Interviewing hundreds of colleagues along the way, Ms. Malewski became an expert not only on handling the logistics of moving but also on fostering and maintaining social connections both abroad and at home. She gives advice on financial management, cross-cultural dating, and career building, recognizing that “not all people fit the mold of the 40-something executive sent abroad with his spouse and kids.”

Ms. Malewski’s own trajectory has led her to interact with many cultures. She grew up in Montreal speaking English, French, and Polish. While working on her M.Sc. in architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology, Ms. Malewski participated in summer internships in England, France, and the U.S., and she was involved in the pan-European student association BEST. For nearly four years she worked in brand management and marketing for Procter & Gamble, conducting consumer research, setting strategy, and creating advertising for the Always, Pantene, and Head & Shoulders brands in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel.

Upon returning to Canada in 2002, Ms. Malewski delivered seminars and coaching sessions on expatriate living and international careers to student audiences, and completed the U.B.C. Certificate in intercultural studies. Ms. Malewski is now earning her M.B.A. at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. Hoping to apply her business and intercultural experience to help companies develop their international business strategies, Ms. Malewski would ultimately like to establish a home base in Vancouver, where her husband is starting his own business. “One of the things I love about relocating is that it makes you appreciate both what you have in the new location, as well as everything you have left behind,” she says.

Jennifer Crystal: What feelings were you experiencing as you made your first move abroad, and, without a guidebook like GenXpat, where did you turn for help?

Margaret Malewski: When I headed to Poland, I was partly moving in search of my “roots” (my parents are Polish) so I wasn’t thinking of the move as going abroad. The extent of the cultural and socio-economic differences between early post-Communist Poland and my comfortable life growing up in Canada took me by surprise. For example, from a Canadian perspective, it seemed obvious that you could just go to a store to get whatever you needed. The reality in Poland at the time was that you had to have a network of connections to figure out where a given thing might be available for purchase. Because of my background, I think there was a mutual expectation that I would fit right in, which meant it took me and the people surrounding me a while to realize that I wasn’t automatically programmed to understand Polish culture. For quite a while I felt as if I were feeling my way in the dark, moving forward and learning about social rules by accidentally stumbling on them and breaking them. I was frustrated, and I often felt socially punished for a lack of cultural knowledge.

Moving to Switzerland as a young professional was completely different. The challenge my colleagues and I faced wasn’t so much figuring out the country; rather, it was trying to make our first steps in a demanding professional environment, while juggling the stresses of relocation, building social networks, and managing our personal lives. Our biggest difficulty was loneliness—after long hours at work, the prospect of returning to an empty apartment wasn’t particularly enticing, so many of us spent more time than needed at work, out of ambition, but also out of nothing better to do. In some ways we were each others’ support system, though it is tricky to be best friends with people who are also your colleagues. There is a limit to how much you can ask for support without worrying about the impact it will have on your professional image. That is where the idea of GenXpat really took root.

JC: What are some of the overarching lessons you have learned from your time spent in different cultures and your transitions between them?

MM: Probably the biggest lesson I have learned is that foreign cultures are not just an amalgam of quaint-but-irrational behaviors. Each culture has an intrinsic logic to it. If you can understand the core values and the context that drive a culture, you can eventually see how everything else around you stems from these things, and the way people do things starts to make sense. Understanding this logic is critical to understanding people’s motivations, and understanding people’s motivations is critical to being able to work with them. I’ve always believed that getting frustrated with “the locals” for not reacting the way I hoped was just a sign of my own failure to understand their logic and motivations properly. It was a signal to put my listening and observing hat back on.

There is a corollary to this idea of an “intrinsic logic” to each culture. Working in both Lebanon and Israel made me see that both sides have a strongly entrenched and, yes, logical reason to see the regional conflict the way they do. It was a fine and complex line to walk: to appreciate and empathize with the validity of each side’s arguments, to remain impartial for the sake of business relationships, and to have one’s own opinion. Ultimately, I think this is the hardest thing about becoming culturally sensitive. Once you start seeing that both sides of a coin can be valid, it can be very difficult to take your own stance.

JC: What first steps would you recommend a person considering a professional career abroad take?

MM: Young professionals tend to jump right in with both feet—the prospect of adventure, money, career, and international living is too good to resist. It’s a terrific opportunity to be given big responsibilities, to have a steep learning curve, advance fast, and make good money. The only caveat is that we often don’t see the big picture as we sign on the dotted line of an international contract at age 23 or 25. Will we be able to meet someone to spend our lives with as we relocate every six months? If we do meet someone, are we prepared for an intercultural relationship or marriage? Will we build work experience and a network that will be relevant in our home countries on the day we decide to come home? Will we be happy coming home and becoming once again “regular people” after all the professional and personal perks, and the ultra-stimulating environment of being abroad?

It’s very important, before setting off and at regular intervals, to monitor all these things. It’s easy to get caught up climbing the ladder of an international corporate career, living in hotels and airports, and then suddenly realize that you are 30, you have no personal life to speak of, and no real connection with any one place. The key is to make sure the international career is working for you, rather than you are working for it.

JC: What factors should employees take into account when planning a move abroad, and what strategies do you find particularly helpful in meeting some of the challenges involved?

MM: The key thing is to do your homework, to understand the place and the job you are signing up for. Many people think they can live anywhere and do anything. And it is probably true, but at what price? If you are an analytic type, and you sign up for a very operations oriented type of assignment opening a new subsidiary, will it work for you? If you really enjoy nature and being outdoors, and you sign up for an expat assignment in Cairo where it takes three hours sitting in a traffic jam to leave the city, will you be happy? As my career progresses, the less I am tempted to jump on any attractive career opportunity, in any place. Instead, I ask myself: How does it fit in with what I want to learn professionally? How does it fit in with my personal objectives? Will this international move work for me?

JC: In GenXpat, you describe the lucrative expat packages often offered by major companies, including coverage of relocation costs, housing and car allowances, and assistance with foreign work permit and residency papers. Is working abroad a realistic possibility for those not in the private sector? What are some of the non-private sector opportunities you’ve come across or would recommend?

MM: I know a lot of young professionals who have taken various NGO routes, such as working for the International Red Cross, the World Bank, or doing development work for international organizations in places like Afghanistan or Tajikistan. At the managerial level, these organizations will take care of your papers and make sure you have suitable accommodation at the destination. However, they are unlikely to provide the same kind of lucrative packages as a private sector company. This is something to consider carefully, because it may be harder save enough money while abroad so that you can return to a home country with a higher cost of living. The other thing to think about is that for many of these organizations, work abroad in the field is very different from work in the headquarters. The biggest challenge my non-profit colleagues report when they return home is finding a suitable avenue for their skills—they would like to continue making a difference, not just push papers in an administrative headquarters.

JC: How do GenXpats differ from past generations of expats? How do you see the trend evolving in the future?

MM: Formerly, multinationals were simply an accumulation of national operations, each headed by a trustworthy senior expat executive team, which was charged with deploying corporate policy at the local level. No expense was spared for the relocation of these employees and their families, since they were the only connection with headquarters. Advances in travel and telecommunications mean that it is now possible to check on international operations via daily phone calls, email, and frequent travel. This also means that the people deployed to international operations don’t need to be quite so senior (read: expensive). It has opened the door to sending young, talented, professionals abroad, while supervising and coaching them from the home-base.

GenXpats differ from the previous profile of expats in that they are sent abroad when they are younger, at a different stage in their lives. While the former style of expat was a 40-something manager with a wife and children, the new style of expat is 25 to 35 and single. In the former case, the challenge was really the adaptation of the spouse, whose happiness and effectiveness in supporting her husband was key to making sure the husband could focus on delivering results at work. In the latter case, the challenges are in making sure that the young professional manages to build a personal life alongside work, as well as a solid base of professional experience and mentors, in order to remain “promotable” despite being moved around.

I definitely see this trend becoming more pronounced. Most colleges and universities now have a self-imposed mandate of sending their students on international exchanges. Data shows that once students have gone abroad, they are more likely to look for international work. International experience is seen as what sets you above thousands of new graduates.

Even though employers increasingly look for international experience as a differentiating characteristic, I wonder if they are truly prepared to deal with it. I find many employers proceed to place graduates and young managers with international experience right back into the same kind of jobs they would offer “regular” graduates, sometimes reporting to people who have never been abroad and who aren’t sure how to capitalize on the talent they’ve hired. So I think this will be the next challenge—how do we redefine entry and mid-level jobs to challenge young people who have had this kind of broad international experience?

JC: You state that “the key to a successful life abroad is knowing how to strike a healthy balance between delivering results at work and developing a social life, as well as between your more profound distance relationships and the newer connections you forge at your destination.” How do recent technological developments affect one’s ability to find this balance?

MM: Skype and email can do a lot to help you keep in touch with close friends, especially if you have a webcam. However, these tools are somewhat dangerous in that they reinforce the illusion that you can permanently live far away from your good friends and still remain close! The reality is that, for all their advantages, Skype and email can’t replace actually spending time with people. Net based tools make it seem like [my husband and I] can communicate as much as we want, but the reality is that it is hard to coordinate across time zones—the best time to call my husband is around 11 p.m. my time, which is 2 p.m. his time. While I’m tired and sentimental as I prepare for bed, he’s in the middle of a stressful workday.

Keeping in touch with close friends takes similar amounts of time whether it is done live, at home, or over the net. Add to that the desire to make new friends at your destination and you are facing a significant time commitment over and above whatever work you are doing. While there is a temptation to do one or the other—to focus wholly on friends left behind, or wholly on the new people you are meeting—it is important to try to juggle both. It often means being selective—thinking carefully about the relationships you want to nurture back home, and also which new relationships are likely to flourish, and then taking the time to invest in those.

JC: In GenXpat, you refer to William Bridges’ book Managing Transitions, in which he distinguishes change from transition. Please elaborate….

MM: Change is a moment in time. Yesterday I was wrapping up my work as a culture and communications project manager at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Today, one intercontinental flight later, I am an MBA student in France.

Transition is the process of letting go of one identity and set of circumstances, taking the time to mourn it, then embracing a new one. It doesn’t happen overnight. When I was working, I had a certain amount of freedom in how I organized my work and some power within my organization. I had a comfortable routine in a city I knew well, with a husband and a well established circle of friends to support me. When I moved to France, this changed overnight. Suddenly I was a student again, relatively powerless and dependent on an imposed schedule. I was in a foreign country, with a standard shift car and stores that close for two hours at noon, and the need to establish myself within a group of very talented peers. Before I could embrace the novelty and challenge of my new environment, I had to come to terms with the loss of power, freedom, routine, and support. It’s only when we stop thinking about what we have lost or left behind that we can enjoy the benefits of what we actually have.

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