Working Abroad

Want to shake up your career? Think about exporting yourself overseas. The rewards of working abroad can be especially rich for midlife women.

By Michele Marchetti

First order of business: persuade her husband, a professional photographer, to move his business. They decided on Ireland in part because Carr’s mother was born there, giving Carr dual citizenship. Then she started lining up clients for herself. "When you’re so clear about what you want to do," she says, "I think the stars align." When she broke the news of her impending move to her largest client, a Philadelphia-based sales training organization, she found an unexpected benefit: The company had a big European operation and needed people with Carr’s specialty. They would have plenty of business for her.

This past summer, Carr and her husband sold their house in New Jersey and found a new home in the village of Kilcrohane, near Bantry, where their girls are enrolled in a two-room schoolhouse. "I’m incredibly proud that I’ve put myself in a situation where I don’t fully know how it’s going to turn out,’‘ Carr says.

Of course, settling into a new job and new country isn’t all romance. Your host city may have a Starbucks on every corner, but everything else — from plugging in your computer to bonding with colleagues — is different. Success hinges on your ability to crack the code.

Dianne Geoghegan turned 40 in London, directing European finance for a large U.S.-based entertainment company. She found she could balance the company’s books just fine — but couldn’t get the lightbulb in her office changed. Her repeated messages to the office maintenance man were ignored. It was when her administrative assistant cajoled him into the office that she saw the error of her ways. As the man worked, the assistant brought him tea and thanked him profusely. Such graciousness, Geoghegan realized, gets things done in London. "I’d still be sitting there in the dark if it wasn’t for her," she says.

Letting go of the management style, tools, and habits that made you successful at home can be a problem for new expats. "There are a lot of people who have great pedigree and background, but they just can’t break that ‘this is the way we did it’ mentality," says Laura Lee, 50, who worked as a marketing vice president for Pacific Century Cyberworks in Hong Kong. But Lee thinks midlife women who have established a track record and worked through many barriers are well suited for the delicate art of crossing cultures. She’s comfortable saying yes to some new experiences (eating the jiggly fried jellyfish at her first business dinner in Tokyo, wearing a kimono to an event celebrating Japanese culture) and no to others (shaving the nape of her neck when she donned that kimono, because, she was told, a shaved nape is considered alluring).

Experienced expats recommend that if you’re considering a move, you visit the country first and talk with American women who have lived there. Consider every opportunity, and look at the trade-offs. France isn’t "an up-and-coming global business location like India or China, but once you factor in quality of life, it becomes really attractive," says Rebecca Powers, a consultant at Mercer. Conversely, China can be overwhelming, with its high costs, cumbersome travel, and extreme pollution. But experience there — or in another emerging giant, such as Brazil, Russia, or India — will give you a huge career boost.

Wherever you go, don’t stint on research. Emigration, tax, and benefits issues are complex. If a company is relocating you, ask whether the employer will cover your income taxes, which are often higher abroad. Also get independent advice. And if you’re making a move on your own, you’ll need good counsel on many logistical issues.

At the same time, once you suss out the system in your new country, you may look at the U.S. in a new light. When Helen Peters relocated to Munich at age 48, she had recently divorced and was looking for a sense of freedom. From the first day at National Semiconductor, German colleagues taught her a new approach to time management: Work hard on weekdays, but leave the office behind on weekends — and during her six weeks of vacation. "It’s a myth that Americans are more productive," she says.

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