Laying the Groundwork for an International Assignment - Part 1: Eastern Europe

Budapest Parliament BuildingEarlier in my career, when I heard about colleagues who were starting an international assignment, I thought to myself, “What an awesome opportunity,” and also, “I wonder how that decision was made?”  I always thought it would be interesting to have the opportunity to work abroad.  When I heard of others getting assignments, I was always very excited for them; however, to be honest, I was disappointed as well. If the role was somewhat in my wheelhouse, I always questioned whether I had been considered for it or not.

Good news is, an international assignment, did happen for me (actually, I’ve had two entirely different international assignments, but you can learn more about that in my next blog). Here’s how the first opportunity came about.  It was a Monday morning and I was getting coffee before my boss began the staff meeting.  He was getting coffee too. I knew that an individual in the organization in a role in Asia would be returning to the States.  I was interested in who would be moving into the role as I would be working closely with that individual on several initiatives.  I asked my boss if they were getting close to making a decision and if they were going to backfill the position with another expat or with local talent.  My boss responded with, “Why do you ask?  Are you interested in the role?”  I was a bit surprised by his response (and likely had a look of surprise on my face) but quickly responded back, “Am I being considered?”  Within a second, several thoughts went through my head: “Were they already thinking about offering me the position? Would my husband support such a big decision?”

Before I could get any further in my thought pattern, my boss quickly responded, “Don’t worry, you are not being considered.  You’ll never leave St. Louis.”  The staff meeting was starting, so the conversation ended abruptly.  Needless to say, I could NOT get his last statement out of my head.  I was surprised but also angry with his comment that I’d never leave St. Louis.  The person I was angry with was myself!  I would call this a “Aha moment.” I always thought I needed to wait to be tapped on the shoulder for a role like an international assignment. But I had never shared my thoughts and ideas with regards to my career objectives in a way that would help people know if I’d be open to an international assignment.  People are not mind-readers and it was (and is) my responsibility to communicate my willingness to explore other roles; whether they be in other functional areas, business units or world areas. A huge lesson that I learned that day is that I did not have the right to be disappointed because I had not communicated to anyone that I would be interested in such an opportunity. 

Here’s what I did about it. Following the staff meeting, I asked for a meeting with my boss later that day.  During that discussion, I shared my feelings about our coffee machine discussion and continued with my thoughts, ideas and desires regarding my career.  We talked about various opportunities that could surface in the future and whether they were of interest to me.  We also discussed my strengths as well as opportunities for skills development.  I was so inspired, I immediately continued this discussion with my husband that evening.  The result of these discussions was that I (with the support of my family) would be open to an international assignment.

Fast forward about three months. When my boss had reviewed an opportunity with senior leadership and they wanted me to consider a role in Central Eastern Europe.  I was excited about the opportunity to grow my career and experience an entirely new Katalin Vicki Joe in Budapestculture and way of looking at the business! My husband was shocked by how quickly an opportunity presented itself, but he and my family offered me their full support.  This was at a time when we had one son in college and another son a senior in high school (leaving for college in the Fall), so we decided that my husband would remain in the States and I would go to Europe on my own.  This gave me peace of mind as we lived (and still do) near my parents. I wanted someone to be close in case they needed us.  It was very hard to be away from my family; however, technology (Facetime) helped a great deal.  We also became extremely good at planning out visits so that we had milestones to look forward to. 

Within a few months, I was a resident of Budapest, Hungary. Rather than passing the fields and factories of the Midwest, my daily commute consisted of beautiful and ancient architecture! The Castle District, the Chain Bridge and Parliament are all stunning and the food was excellent as well--Hungarian Goulash was my favorite.  Over the course of my three-year tenure, I learned so much about the varied cultures of Europe and how they worked together (most often in harmony). Each country has distinct cultural traditions, communication nuances and of course, languages, but they melded together seamlessly when there were common business goals involved  

I often think back at that coffee machine conversation and think to myself: “what if I had not asked that question that morning?” or “what if my boss had not responded to me in that way?”

The learning from this story is that we need to share what we’d like to do in our careers and not wait to be asked.  You may not always get the response or the answer that we want at that particular time; however, doing so helps eliminate some of the nagging questions in your head as to whether or not you were considered for a role.

My walk to work in BudapestIn my case, speaking out about my career goals and aspirations led me to a role where I grew both personally and professionally.  It also helped lay the foundation for future growth, including a second international assignment a few years later in Asia.  I’ll share more about this unique opportunity, living in Asia with my spouse, and the importance of building and leveraging a local Women in STEM community in my next blog

Have you discussed or accepted an international role? Share your challenges, successes and learnings with the community by replying below.