What Makes an Expat Successful?
September 2009: I was in the midst of massive change. I had just moved to Chicago from Singapore to start graduate school at Northwestern University. I had left full-time employment with McKinsey after nearly ten years to be a full-time student and I returned to living in the U.S. after more than six years abroad. I looked and sounded like everyone around me but didn’t feel like I fit in. I was again adjusting to living in a new city. I was re-learning to read academic literature and write papers; going back to school was proving more difficult than it had sounded before I started. I owned a car again after about eight years of living in cities where I didn’t need one and I was getting lost just about every day. Not to mention that I was constantly worried I would forget which side of the road to drive on. I was studying change management, and I was living through the challenge of change. Even change I wanted was tough!
Fast-forward to declaring my graduate thesis topic; I was still very intrigued by this idea of coming home and all the change that one goes through, and only slightly more comfortable driving and being a student. Upon reflection and guidance from my advisor, I decided I had to first look at what makes expatriates successful before I could investigate how one repatriates. In our increasingly global world, more and more of us are working outside our home countries or with colleagues from other countries. I have been on three expat assignments for more than six years, living in Austria and Singapore. I was curious about what made expatriates, those working outside their home country, successful.
As I reflect on my own experience, the many conversations I have had with expat friends and colleagues, and scoured literature to understand what the secret sauce is that makes expatriates successful, I came to five characteristics that I hypothesized describe successful expatriates:
- Adventurousness: the expat’s desire to have exciting and new experiences both at work and in life outside of work
- Cultural sensitivity: the expat’s ability to understand the culture in which they are living and working and to integrate/fit into it
- Curiosity: the expat’s interest in learning about the new culture, environment and job
- Flexibility: the expat’s willingness to try new ways of doing things
- Open mindedness: the expat’s ability to look at their new environment with desire to learn about and understand it, and the interest in seeing things differently
I surveyed nearly 200 expats, all whom were or had lived and worked outside their home country for at least two years. I asked them first what they believed had made them successful. Next, I shared the five characteristics above and asked how important they felt each was to their success as an expat. Finally, I asked them to rank the five characteristics above from most to least important. The study validated my hypothesized characteristics; all five are seen as moderately or very important to 95-97% of the survey respondents.
Read the executive summary of the research I did as part of the MS in Learning and Organizational Change program: Characteristics of Successful Expatriates: Unleashing Success by Identifying and Coaching on Specific Characteristics.
Today some of my leadership coaching clients are expatriates and I am able to leverage my research regularly. For example, I coached an American client living and working in Pakistan. We spent time discussing how to tell his unique story as he considered returning to the U.S. and his next ideal job. Another client, an American client living and working in Uganda and Rwanda, strategized with me how to bring curiosity into her communications role with an NGO. Read more about my coaching work.