When my friend Sarita Felder of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) Executive Women’s Outreach Committee asked me to participate in a recent panel discussion in New York titled “Uproot Yourself and Grow: Leveraging the ExPat Experience,” I agreed without hesitation. After all, I was fresh off the expat boat, having just returned to the United States after 16 years abroad and felt qualified to speak with pretty extensive personal knowledge on the topic. So on the evening of the event I walked over to the venue at Pfizer headquarters on East 42nd Street and took my place on the stage.
The first question I was asked was about the circumstances that led to my expat assignment, and whether I’d had the support of my boss and senior management. As I began to recall the backstory behind the last two decades of my life and share it with the audience, I immediately saw looks of recognition on the faces of the aspiring expat women in the room when I recounted my boss’s reaction to news that management at global headquarters in Switzerland had offered me an assignment there.
Putting it mildly, I said she had been reluctant to let me go, even though an expat assignment had been listed as an explicit priority in my professional development plan for the past several years. Somehow, it never seemed to be the right time, and there were always legitimate reasons to put it off. If you’re a valued employee, you’ve got to be prepared to have your home organization want to keep you around. My CEO wanted me to stay, too, but he told me that if my wife and I thought it was a good move, then we should go for it.
It was a huge and agonizing decision. But the company’s management in Switzerland had a specific business need calling for an American to help build bridges between Europe and the U.S. and pave the way to greater media exposure in the world’s largest health care market. And there’s nothing like a definitive business need to overcome personal and political barriers. Besides, headquarters had the power to make it happen, and so it did, all the way back in June 2001.
Did I expect to stay as long as I did? Probably not, but once my wife and I decided to take the leap of faith, our normal approach to planning transformed into something else. Leaps of faith will do that – change you in ways you may or may not realize, and that sometimes take you time to discover and understand. More than six months after my extended tour abroad, I’m still trying to figure out how it changed me. But here are the lessons I’ve learned.
Leap Lesson 1: Beware the Trials of the Trailing Spouse
On the long trajectory of our Great Leap of Faith, the first realization was that the challenges for my wife and me would be as daunting as we’d imagined, but very different. We were going into this thing together, but would be facing our respective demons alone.
I should have known something was up when my initial interview with the expat coordinator at headquarters included a couple of questions about me and eight or nine about my wife. “Who’s getting the expat assignment here?” I asked. The response came in the form of a question: “Do you know what the single biggest factor in failed expat assignments is?” my counselor asked me. “It’s that the trailing spouse is unhappy and can’t adjust.”
A small kernel of expat wisdom that is ignored at one’s peril. But how do you know how you’re going to react until you get there? And what if things turn out wildly differently from what you’d expected?
I always say the two biggest lies my HR counselor told us before we took our leap was that it never gets very hot in Basel in the summer, and it will be easy for my wife to find a job. Neither was true. The second came close to dumping us on the statistical heap of failed expat experiences.
Thankfully, my wife, who was born in Taiwan to parents from mainland China, came to New York at 19 and devoted herself single-mindedly to her education and career as a lawyer. After finding work in Switzerland proved unsatisfying, frustrating and ultimately fruitless, she used her time in Europe to fill in the gaping holes in her knowledge of Western art and culture. She calls the time we spent in Switzerland, using it as our base to explore much of the world, her “finishing school.” If she hadn’t made that adjustment in her thinking, our leap of faith might have made us miserable. Instead, it enriched our lives and brought us bucket-lists full of precious experiences and a lifetime’s worth of memories.
Leap Lesson 2: Get Ready to Swim in a Different Sea
As for me, on the surface of things, my transition was a lot easier than my wife’s. I got up in the morning and went to work in a building with the same name over the door as the one back home. I turned on my computer in a similarly nice office and set my mind to new assignments, but much else was the same, except…
Except that I was a smaller fish in a much bigger sea. At the company’s biggest and most important affiliate in its biggest and most important market, I was an integral part of every major corporate communications matter. At the company’s powerful global headquarters in Basel, I was a cog in a giant wheel, in a culture that keeps people in their assigned lanes and punishes rule-breakers. That was one lesson this old dog never learned.