How to be a successful expat?

Guest Post by Greg Satell

In an increasingly globalized world, it’s tough to build a career without crossing borders and more and more executives are spending at least a few years overseas.  I’ve worked in foreign countries for more than a decade and I thought it might be helpful to for me to share some of what I’ve learned about being an ex-pat manager.

  • Focus on technical expertise: Your local employees are going to question everything you do, even more so than in your own country.  They are usually a bit resentful that they have to work with an ex-pat and not someone who shares their nationality, culture and language.  So, at least for the beginning, you will need to emphasize your area of expertise in order to gain their respect.  Once they recognize you as an expert, they will begin to respect your opinion in other areas.
  • Try to learn the language, but don’t embarrass yourself: Many ex-pats get by without learning the local language at all, but I recommend that you at least make an effort.  Even if you never achieve a high level of proficiency, your local staff will appreciate the gesture and you will be much more aware of your environment.  However, avoid using the local language when you need to be seen in a position of strength.  Unless your proficiency is very high, you will appear childish and not particularly bright.
  • Don’t hide your cultural identity: Your presence in a foreign office is not just a cultural experience for you, but also for those  with whom you are working.  There’s no point in hiding who you are, nobody is going to confuse you for a local.
  • Double check your instincts: As an ex-pat, you will tend to use the information that is most easily available:  What you see in your daily life and the people who speak your language.  In both cases, you are being given a warped view of your environment.  In many cases, people will use the language barrier to manipulate you.  You won’t be able to trust your gut feelings as you do in your home country
  • Re-examine your assumptions: One of the most difficult and gratifying parts of working abroad is that you will be working with people who don’t share your assumptions.  Often, when you state what is for you an obvious truth, they will ask “why?”  If you think about it honestly you will find the answer is one of three things:
    1. There is a good reason that you can explain coherently
    2. Your statement was one of several valid options but the one that you expressed became standard for your market.
    3. Your statement was either completely wrong or was valid at some time but not anymore.

    It is probably this last point that makes working abroad such a valuable and enriching experience.

    I hope this has been helpful.  I’m sure others out there also have some tips.  I would love to hear them.


    Greg Satell is an expatriate media executive with over 10 years experience in board-level management roles. He’s developed and implemented winning online and offline strategies in Poland, Russia and Ukraine.  The original post can be found here.

    One response to “How to be a successful expat?

    1. working abroad is a valuable and enriching experience for sure but one should not hide one’s cultural identity and should have an eye on instincts.

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