There can be a perception that the experience of living and working abroad best suits an extraverted, risk taker. A person with no ties, or responsibilities, who can run head-first into change because after all, an expat is supposedly born with ‘a sense of adventure’.
However, cliches abound when it comes to describing the average expat.
This is why I loved it when my latest podcast guest, Claire Pales, challenged this one saying her four years living in Hong Kong DID NOT instil in her a sense of adventure. As a cyber security expert who has created a successful career helping organisations protect themselves from risk, I can see where she is coming from.
Instead, Claire cites the disciplines of becoming a good problem solver, learning to fall on your feet and finding the right people to support you as some of the things she gained from living as an expat. These experiences ultimately gave her the confidence to start her own business upon her return to Australia, arguably a risky adventure!
There are many skills expats learn overseas that have more to do with managing risk than seeking adventure.
Here are my top, risk adverse, adventure-less skills to be leveraged back home:
Reading between the lines
When you can’t rely necessarily on your native tongue to navigate life and work, an expat has to get used to looking for other communication cues. Immersing in an alternative culture, trains a person to listen more, look for signs and in some cultures, to realise what is said, is not necessarily what is meant.
Returning home, many expats express that they are now better in teams as they are more open to different personalities and ways of working and are comfortable working in ambiguous situations.
Business continuity planning
Claire Pales said when she lived in Hong Kong, she always made sure she had enough money in her bank account for airfares home, so if something went wrong, she had a parachute to safety. She took the same approach when starting her own business, ensuring she had enough money so that if she didn’t have any clients, she could still feed the family for six months. Living abroad without support networks, mean expats need to get comfortable planning for worse case scenarios, often situations complicated by language, logistics and money. But this ultimately equips expats when they return, with strong contingency planning skills and a great ability to assess risk.
Many expats I speak to who have been overseas particularly for 10 years or more can spend up to two years planning their return to Australia. The idea that many in the Australian community had during COVID that expats living overseas should have ‘just come home when the government told them to’, runs counter to the planning and decision-making process expats deploy when living overseas.
Claire said her expat experience helped her learn how to ‘fall on her feet’ which initially sounds counter-intuitive. However most expats express a sense of achievement learning how to live and work successfully in another culture. This ultimately instill as expat with comfort and a new confidence in abilities to learn new things.
Scott Cooper, one of this podcast season’s earlier podcast guests, started his business in New York knowing no one and eventually hustle his way into a brand new career. Back in Melbourne, he is now very comfortable with his suite of start-up businesses, in part encouraged by his past experiences starting, surviving and thriving in a new country.
Moving overseas into a new workplace, automatically moves a person into a new network – no awkward industry drinks and business card swaps required. Joining a new work environment requires relationships to be formed quickly and with effort, are relationships that often come home with an expat. You don’t have to be an cocktail-swilling, adventure-seeker out every night of the week to make great networks as the most powerful networks come from trusted, working relationships that most often cultivated during the course of the working day.
Expats who return home often come home with networks that could prove to be their most powerful asset. Keeping networks alive, both when an expat goes overseas and when they come home, is often one of the best things a repat can do to prepare themselves for a career back in Australia.
I recently ran a workshop on how to manage networks as part of a broader careers series. If you would like to access to the recording, please click here (access to the full series is also available.