Managers on the Move: An Exclusive Look at Expat Executives
Ever considered boosting your career by moving abroad? Choosing to live in another country is no longer the privilege of a select few: a 2015 survey among more than 14,000 expatriates features plenty of bright young things looking for an international education, romantics following their heart to the ends of the earth, or mature respondents starting anew in their sunny dream destination.
In comparison to the total number of participants, the group of expats working in a management position shrinks to a more exclusive circle: only 18% of those interviewed by InterNations, the world’s largest global network for people who live and work abroad, have climbed the corporate career ladder at least to middle management.
Even fewer, namely 6%, identify as top managers or senior executives. However, the latter have made a highly lucrative choice and are noticeably more optimistic than other expats about their professional life.
What’s the average expat executive like?
According to the Expat Insider 2015 survey, he’s probably British, has an MBA or a comparable post-graduate degree, and is 45 years old. And yes, the pronoun has been chosen deliberately. While the survey population in total skews female (53% women vs. 47% men), this ratio changes drastically among executives: only 27% are women.
The British make up the most numerous nationalities in upper management, with nearly every eighth top manager hailing from the UK. They are followed by US Americans, though the latter are slightly underrepresented among the senior ranks as compared to their strong showing among the general expat population. Indians, Australians, and South Africans, on the other hand, are a little more likely than the average survey participant to aspire to a senior management position.
Top managers work in geographically quite dispersed locations, though the US, some Middle Eastern destinations (such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia), a few Asian countries like China or Thailand, as well as Switzerland, emerge as their most frequent countries of residence.
As is typical of people in their mid-forties, most expat executives have settled down in life, though not necessarily in their current location: seven out of ten are in a committed relationship and about 60% have children, but these numbers drop once again when it comes to women.
Less than half of the female managers have found a partner or spouse, and fewer than 40% have started a family. Despite familiar exhortations to step up and lean in, it seems that even expat women with high-powered international careers can’t have it all.
How do they describe their professional life abroad?
Unsurprisingly, their career was the main incentive for moving abroad in the first place. Nearly one in four senior executives is a foreign assignee and was sent abroad by their employer. While an intra-company transfer is the biggest chance for breaking into the executive ranks abroad, it is by no means the only one: 15% found a job on their own, and one in eleven top managers was recruited from abroad, either directly by a foreign company or by a headhunter.
Interestingly enough, this kind of position also attracts quite a few ambitious and adventurous go-getters. One in five senior executives mentions the search for a personal challenge as one of their reasons for deciding to relocate.
The top five sectors that provide career opportunities for expat managers are manufacturing and consumer goods, travel and hospitality, construction, trade and commerce, as well as business services and consulting. Social services or the arts are scarcely represented.
Regardless of industry, top managers living and working abroad probably see a lot more of their office than of their new destination: nearly all have full-time jobs and spend 49.4 hours per week at work — seven hours more than the average survey participant! Nonetheless, they are only a tad less satisfied with their working hours and work-life balance than the general expat population. What’s more important, their job satisfaction is actually a lot higher.
This might be connected with the financial perks and career chances in senior management: three-quarters agree that their career has benefited from their decision to move, and 78% are generally satisfied with their financial situation abroad. Moreover, two-thirds think their present income is more than enough to cover the local cost of living; a significant percentage of 22% even describe it as much more.
As 53% of all top managers who opted to provide information on their personal finances have an annual household income of more than 100,000 USD, money shouldn’t be an issue.
Do expat managers receive enough support from their employer?
The vast majority of senior managers primarily moving abroad for a career-related reason do receive relocation support from their company. With 86%, support with housing in the new destination is the most popular option: managers on the move were either provided with company housing or had help with the local housing search. This measure is closely followed by sorting out the relevant paperwork for their stay (81%). Six in ten senior level expatriates were remunerated for their relocation expenses as well.
However, fewer than 25% were offered to participate in language classes or intercultural trainings, and not even one in ten was assigned a mentor to help with their transition into the new position. These figures point at some gaps in relocation support that might need closing for a better performance in the newly assigned role.
According to mobility studies from the global talent industry (Worldwide ERC 2012), failure rates for international assignments in upper management are estimated to range from 25% to as much as 50%. A mentorship program could help top managers to cope with the increase in complexity, responsibility, and visibility in such a position more easily. Intercultural seminars would lower the risk of misunderstandings within an unfamiliar business culture.
According to the Expat Insider 2015 survey, more than half of all expat managers speak the local language of their new destination only a little or not at all. Since English is the lingua franca of the global business world, the language barrier as such shouldn’t pose a problem. But a more in-depth knowledge of the local language helps to break down cultural barriers, as well as increasing the goodwill and trust of local employees and business partners.
Last but not least, the spouses of top managers are somewhat neglected by employers. Among the senior executives surveyed, 38% are currently in a relationship with someone they met before their relocation and who came along to another country for their sake.
Whereas employers are fairly supportive in sorting out visa matters for traveling spouses, they don’t invest much in language classes or help with the job search for family members: only 14% and 8%, respectively, of the managers mentioned above profited from that kind of spousal support.
Margit Grobbel works as a Senior Content and Communications Manager at the Munich office of InterNations, the largest global network and information site for people who live and work abroad. She is part of the team behind the annual Expat Insider survey, where thousands of participants around the globe rate and provide information on all aspects of living abroad, including their professional life.