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

Going Overseas

Blythe McGarvie has great memories of the years she spent working for the BIC Group in Paris: waking each morning to the aroma of baking that wafted up from the patisserie downstairs; the glint of sunlight on the Louvre as she drove past on her commute in a company-issued BMW; relaxing after hours with a glass of vin rouge at her neighborhood bistro, Cafe Rostand.

But the best thing about McGarvie’s job abroad is the way it transformed her career after that savory, French-press version of the daily grind. The experience took her in a completely new direction, one she hadn’t foreseen when her old employer in Maine was sold and she took the job with the BIC Group, the Paris-based maker of products such as pens and razors. When McGarvie returned to the United States, she was delighted by the number of calls she got from headhunters. She turned down some good offers and took a different leap, launching the LIF Group, a speaking and leadership firm. McGarvie, now 51 and based in Williamsburg, Virginia, loves the turn her life has taken. She says she never would have imagined herself as an entrepreneur before her experience in France.

Working abroad sounds like the stuff of fantasy, an adventure more likely for a footloose twentysomething. But with globalization a mantra in every part of the economy — business, education, the arts — making it happen is easier than in the past, whether you work for a company or on your own. And a stint abroad can have a bigger payoff, beyond even the intrinsic pleasures.

Midlife is an ideal time to do it. "You have a confidence level in your 40s and 50s that will help get you through the cultural differences," McGarvie says. After climbing learning curves for years, you can be more forgiving with yourself. "When I was in Paris," she says, "I gave myself permission to make three mistakes a day."

Working abroad can be a great fit with personal lives too, whether you are a mother with a newly empty nest or a single woman yearning for change. Women in dual-career relationships report that their spouses or significant others are often quite willing to take a break from already established careers. Other couples decide that the spouse will stay home, a decision that’s not as stressful in a time-tested relationship. (McGarvie’s husband stayed put, visiting on holidays and over the summer.) And if you’re newly divorced, this can be a great way to flip the script of your personal and work life.

Ticket to Ride

American companies and organizations are sending waves of people across borders; 69 percent of multinationals reported an increase in overseas postings in 2006, according to one relocation firm. And the number of women working abroad for North American companies in 2006 was up nearly 400 percent from 2001, according to Mercer, a human resources consulting firm.

The same surveys show that it’s tough for companies to fill these posts with able, willing candidates. Despite all that demand, midlife women still encounter lingering resistance. Managers may not expect them to be willing or able to pick up and go abroad. In other cases, "There’s a cultural expectation that a woman has done the big climb up the ladder, and now is the time she gets to relax,’‘ says Perry Yeatman, 43, coauthor of Get Ahead by Going Abroad: A Woman’s Guide to Fast-Track Career Success. "But the reality I see today is that a woman hits 40 and says, ‘Damn. What else is it I really want to do with my life?’"

In 2001, Ellen Carberry, an entrepreneur with 20 years of experience, sold the Internet company she had cofounded to IBM and subsequently went to work for the corporation. She told her boss there that she planned to parlay the sale into a job with the company in China. They’d worked together at the start-up, and he had faith in her skills, she says. But "he laughed me out of the room.’‘

Nineteen months later, Carberry, then 42, moved to Beijing. How did she make it happen? When someone at IBM Asia Pacific asked her to send a PowerPoint presentation on a particular business problem, she persuaded the executive to bring her over to make the pitch in person. Before the short-term consulting assignment was over, she had a job offer.

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