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How high-flying expats can secure a successful career back home

Whether it’s by choice or by factors outside your control, returning home to a new career after years of working abroad can be daunting. Career and transition specialist Margot Andersen explains how to make the move successfully.

Expats Returning Home

Senior executives who return to their home countries after years living and working abroad often find the career transition much harder than they initially anticipate. One of the biggest challenges faced by many is trying to retrofit international experience into a home market that may or may not value it.

With 2020 decimating human mobility, more professional expats than ever before have faced or are facing this challenge, a challenge further compounded by the fact that many are returning on time frames that aren’t their own.

“Oxford Economics predicted 10 per cent of the largely expat population in the United Arab Emirates will leave due to pandemic job losses and thousands of UK and US expats have departed lives in Hong Kong and Singapore.”

This has included more than 500,000 Australians, a record number of Irish citizens and so many Kiwis that the country had the first citizen gain since they started collecting data in the late 1970s. Oxford Economics predicted 10 per cent of the largely expat population in the United Arab Emirates will leave due to pandemic job losses and thousands of UK and US expats have departed lives in Hong Kong and Singapore.

As someone who advises returning expats on career management, I see expats without a job that takes them home, falling into one of two groups. The first are the expats who are still living overseas but already anticipate the challenge of adapting to their home job market and want to secure a role, or be confident in securing a role, before they jump on the plane to come home. The second are expats who have already returned, have struggled to make meaningful headway finding a role and have hit a wall – generally at the three-month mark.

The key for both groups of expats is preparation and here are the areas I advise individuals to focus on.

Assess the ‘drivers’ of your home market

Expats often get caught assuming they still know their home market well, despite being away for five, 10 and even over 20 years.

The first step is to assess the size of the home market and the value that market places on international experience. Many expats return to home markets that are much smaller and more domestically focused than the market they have been working in as an expat. Expats returning to countries like New Zealand, Ireland and Australia from markets like Hong Kong, London and New York may not find like-for-like roles and will see less demand for international experience.

Key is identifying what the local market values and to match it with universal skills and achievements gained while working abroad.

Recently, I coached a senior supply chain executive who had been working in Asia for nearly 10 years for a global brand. There was no like-for-like role, market or brand in his home country. However, by focusing on his universal ‘transformation’ skills and experience, he has secured a general manager role at a local manufacturing company that is embarking upon an aggressive growth strategy.

Also important is being clear about expectations around salary. While many expats return home for lifestyle and family reasons and understand they may not be able to command the same expat salary, the perception among many recruiters is that ‘expat’ means ‘expensive’. A third of all recruiters in Australia say that expats misjudge their earning power at home. It is vital that you are clear on local salaries and that the headhunter or hiring manager understands your position.

Identify whom you know

Identify who can help you understand the market as well as those who can help introduce you to local headhunters and business hiring managers.

If you feel like you have lost contact with home country networks, start with your current networks and the connections they might have to your home country. Whom do they know that could help educate you about the market you are heading into?

Start contributing to your industry back home

One senior investment professional in my network took three goes at returning to Australia with a role after a 15-year career in France, London and the US. What eventually made him successful was a decision he made 12 months before he eventually returned home to contribute to his industry by speaking at conferences and participating in trade publications, while still living overseas.

What insight or knowledge from your adopted country could be useful to a similar organisation back home? Do you have a contact in your adopted country that could help a local business that you might like to work for in the future?

Embrace a staged approach

It can sometimes be frustrating for senior executives who have had successful expat careers to realise that their career may have to run at a slower speed in their home country, particularly for those who want to retain some of the international element of their previous career. My advice is to take a staged approach and to not expect that your next role will tick all the boxes.

A member of my community returned to her home country after two decades in Hong Kong, the UK and the US, initially to a role at a lower level than she had previously held working for an international bank. While, at first, it was difficult for her career to gain traction at home, she has now navigated into the fintech startup scene helping to lead a local company and is now on a board that recognises her Asian experience.

Connect with other repatriates

Other repatriates will understand your experience and the challenge of finding a job in the local market. Seek them out to help with your education of the market, potential job opportunities and, importantly, for support.

Support is vital because the chances are your job search is going to coincide with a giant dose of ‘reverse culture shock’. While the first weeks coming home are often a blur of logistics, re-establishing a home life, potentially settling kids into school, after a few months, many former expats are hit with the full impact of reverse culture shock and this is where people who have shared this experience become invaluable.

Margot Andersen is a career and transition specialist. She is the founder of talentinsight Australia, a career management and leadership consultancy and the Insync Network Group, a community designed to connect and support returning expats both professionally and personally. Margot is also the host of the podcast Boomeranging: Expat to Repat.

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