If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door

Earlier in autumn, I created a workshop for the Club of Expat Partners for an organization of the Austrian government. This article shares the insights of my work as a global HR professional and expat partner myself on the ever circulating question: How to pivot your career abroad and continue your professional path?

The world of expat partners is diverse as a kaleidoscope (see the group picture!). You can find all professions, ages, life situations and roles among the group of human beings, who chose to follow their partners and support another path and put the focus for periods in life not on your own choices only.

Living in Ethiopia and Jamaica and having re-built my own HR career again in complex markets and since the last years additionally to a remote job also an own advisory business, I have followed and met many extraordinary partners. To give advice as HR Expert, it helps to share my observations and distinguish between the three types of expat partner I met:

  • Type A: You realized that you needed to pivot. You see the assignment as a chance (now), as an opportunity to go another path in your career. You know that opportunities need to be created by YOU (and you only) and you build this door. And three years later another door in another country. You almost live a life with no regrets. And earn your own income – or not. It does not matter, and you are in peace with your personal development and freedom.
  • Type B: You feel in between acceptance and still struggling to not be able to continue your career and professional path as you wished. You try and fail. You wish you create opportunities faster and easier. You work on projects, volunteering, investigate to set up a business or remote role that you can take also to other countries. You create first independent income.
  • Type C: You struggle – some days and periods less and some more – abroad or also back home. You lost a sense of purpose and personal development completely – the only focus of your last years was to make the family happen and enable a prosperous career or your partner. Any personal plans or dreams were hidden in the backburner. You crave financial freedom and to continue your career.

Here are my 3 HR nuggets of advice for you, if you are…

Type A – the Creator

  1. Continue your path – and do not let anyone tell you that anything is NOT possible. Any work permit, any visa, any business set-up. There are always one million stories out there. Do your research, connect with market insiders, and do what you are really good at: Ask the right questions, ask, ask, ask…
  2. Find a room that challenges you. Many times, you will find yourself in a room of a lot of Type Cs and some Type Bs. Only a handful Type As or other partners who did find a job or did set up a business. You need to surround yourself with people that challenge you and inspire you – professionally and in your field. Avoid complainers and rooms of set rules how this expat world needs to function or has always functioned (many times in diplomatic circles).
  3. Create your own budget and savings – and ALWAYS create bigger visions that are a stretch for you to reach it and then take your baby steps to reach them. If not, you’ll still find yourself as restless and not 100% happy since you always strive for more in life.  

Type B – Status: ‘In Between’

  1. Congratulations! You made it out of the zone of inactivity! This is a huge and the most important step when we go through life impacting transitions. You need to sit down and ask yourself: What do you really, really want in life? Is it income, purpose, impact for the community where you live, a safe job, a safe education…what is it? We can never have it all at once, but once we know our priorities, we can get out of the struggling phases faster.
  2. You need to create a powerful story of what you ARE DOING right now. What is the financial impact on the community if you volunteer? What focus do you choose in your education? You need to write YOUR story and what YOU contribute in your country right now vs. still focusing on the ‘I am only a trailing spouse’ story – which is not the truth if we see your activities. I’ve seen many partners who were incredibly active and funded charities, but still did not see this as an achievement. Do not sell yourself short any longer. Stop waiting for opportunities and start creating doors.
  3. If you crave to have a ‘stable, (remote), pension funding’ job – get realistic. I’ve seen more nontraditional jobs of expat partners, then traditional ones. Why? You compete in traditional roles as HR Manager, Accountant etc. with the local workforce and you will in many cases not be able to show your superiority. You need to OWN YOUR TALENT and what makes you unique – this is not about knowing your strengths and weaknesses (and you roll your eyes, I know), this is about knowing what you and ONLY YOU are really good at and why any company shall hire you and say yes to a partner who will leave after some years again. There is no chance for ordinary CVs on the local and remote market – unless you are a software engineer or work in a field of ultra-high demand.

Type C – The All-time Struggler

  1. We live in a world of the highest unemployment rates in centuries. If your last paid job and professional development investment was longer ago than 2 years (or even one year in those times now), forget to get back into your career through a traditional way like a job ad, sending your CV, contacting a headhunter. We all cannot help you. Unless you are a software engineer or again worked in any ultra-high demand field. Close this dream and find peace with it. 
  2. Start your Path NOW – THIS YEAR. Do not push your education, what you really want, another year, or another assignment, or when the kids are older etc. I know of doctors who started a pilates training, and now (8 years later) are back in a clinic as private pilates trainer for handicapped patients. This is the hardest step, and might take support as a therapy to get you out of an active – suffering – struggling zone that might be the case for years. A specialist can help you explore your purpose, your own goals, your passions again and can help you to bring personal development back on your schedule.
  3. Everyone can reach Type B and also Type A. ALSO YOU. It might sound completely unrealistic today, but I highlight again – we need to get you out of inaction into action and focus. Do your personal development homework, and get your interests and passions back to your schedule. And you’ll start trusting again, that your international journey had a positive impact on your life as well. YOU NEED TO TRULY BELIEVE this fact – otherwise no statistics and no article on this planet that states how incredibly important a global expat partner workforce is and what extraordinary assets you gained abroad will help you. In the expat world, opportunities are not knocking on your door, unless you create the door.