There are international business people who travel intensively whilst remaining based in their home market, & there are those who take overseas assignments as expats. Both options have pros & contras, but I’d like to look at what it takes to succeed as an expat far from home.

Those kinds of positions have become rarer over the years, especially during the last 20 months of pandemic and the stereotype of a guy dragging his family from one destination to another for a substantial executive expat compensation package, before finally retiring, is no longer such a frequent occurrence. Such positions have become increasingly hard to come by.

Many of these skills are of course also applicable to a digital nomad lifestyle, although of course there is probably less friction with a foreign team in many of those cases.

Intensive Travel from Home for Work

Whilst I’ve never had an overseas posting, I’ve always travelled intensively from my home base (in a foreign country of my choice). This option is referred to in Japan as being a seagull, because such managers often swoop in, poop on people’s heads & fly away again. I’d like to think that has never been my style of working, & I have pretty good connections to the “own teams” that I’ve managed be that in Istanbul or Shanghai so hopefully I’m ok on that front!

Realistically, this option is often chosen by companies who are doing channel sales and who are not ready to make the heavy investments into a market, which a daughter company represents.

It demands the same skill set as for succeeding as an expat (flexibility, naturally curious, open mindedness, a sense of adventure & cultural sensitivity) BUT obviously it means you don’t also have to navigate the foreign country with your family in tow. It also means that you’re not fully immersed, as you fly home for at least part of your social life and such technicalities as a bank account etc.

Culture Matters – Chris Smit & Peter van der Lende

Chris & Peter, hosts of the Culture Matters podcast, believe that in order to understand a culture, you have to recognise & examine the differences. Many international expansion attempts have failed when the companies didn’t do this. eg. the proposed merger of KLM with Alitalia or Walmart’s entry into Germany

If you can see differences, you can build a bridge.

Chris Smit, Peter van der Lende

Can culture be learned?

Yes, culture is something which can be learned to a certain extent, however you need to have a frame of reference, a basis, in order to start from. Consequently, one of the first steps to succeed as an expat and understand the culture into which you will be immersed, is to understand your own culture. That’s why it can be hard to explain to students that French people are more this, or British people more that, as they often lack the life experience to comprehend the issue…

When these kinds of discussions begin, the question of stereotypes always comes up. These are incomplete truths, which are not true for all of the population, but which sometimes may make things easier to accept. eg. if you have heard the stereotype that Dutchmen are always extremely direct, you may not take it personally when your colleague makes a remark in a meeting that you consider rather brutal, but just put it down to him being Dutch.

Bridge in traditional Chinese style
If you can see differences, you can build a bridge

If you know how your own culture “works” then you can probably better adapt to another one.

Having a model helps

Knowing how another culture views hierarchy, treats individualism, goal orientation or predictability can provide you with a toolbox to at least beginning to adapt. You can also read literature such as Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map.

It’s certainly not a magic bullet solution but it can help you avoid major failures as well as lead to

Global People Skills are no longer optional

An expat manager isn’t employed simply to do a job that a local could easily do – they are too expensive for that. If you send an expat manager overseas, you want them to build a bridge between the “head office” culture and the local market.

Normally, any manager who is promoted to a new position can feel relatively confident that their knowledge, experience and business network will ensure success. However, that gets turned on its’ head when a change of location to a completely different culture is added into the mix, and now additional skills are needed to succeed as an expat.

Don’t assume things

You can’t just assume that learning a culture is like learning a language or a new kind of software, where you can just figure out the rules and copy them. It’s more complex than that.

As I’ve said several times before, it’s always dangerous to assume things, especially in overseas markets & this is no exception. In this case, it would be easy to assume that in a professional environment, culture plays a lesser role. However when it comes to business decisions such as for example who signs off on financial investments, the culture certainly plays into the process.

Flexibility is a core skill

As I touched on above, attitudes to time and who decides about how to spend money can vary between cultures so you need to be aware of the differences between your home culture and the market you’re working in. When the proverbial hits the fan, our original “wiring” will almost always come out, which can mean an escalation of the situation when you’re already under pressure.

You can’t just assimilate into the local culture either (see what I mentioned above about being a bridge), however you need to perhaps “soften your edges” and be hyper-aware of how your team react in certain situations.

Diversity is “king”

Diversity isn’t just about ticking the box somewhere in a corporate report, statistic or press release. At the end of the day, diversity is about optimising the performance of your teams.

Diversity is the immune system of successful teams

Gabor Holch

After all, in order to reach the best decisions within a team, a certain amount of healthy conflict is necessary. That means that management teams need to be a mix of risk takers, cautious people, those who are competitive and those who prefer to collaborate. It also means that mixing up the cultural perspectives within a team, can add to this mix.

To succeed as an expat you need to accept some brutal truths

As I stated at the beginning of this post, as an expat you have your family in tow with you which can bring along a whole raft of other questions you need to think about, such as what will the trailing spouse do, how to transition the kids with their schools and friends etc.

It’s not a holiday

In the initial excitement of being in a new place (or before setting out from home) many families pore over tourist guides and travel sites imagining the wonderful time that they will have. 6 months in, when the honeymoon period is over, the cold hard light of reality may be making the advantages of expat life appear less attractive.

Whichever partner has been posted overseas is probably so immersed in the business challenge they’ve been assigned that they have little or no energy for family life. That can be especially hard for a trailing spouse, who has perhaps put their own career on hold in order for the family to move, and who is now faced with a set of kids who are struggling with the challenges of a new language, as well as a sense of loss for their friends and old routines.

Consequently, the exhaustion of the cultural disconnect and permanent over-stimuli can lead to a family crisis ?

An expat lifestyle, whilst it may certainly have advantages, it not simply a “cushy number” but can be pretty hard, especially in the beginning.

Yes doesn’t always mean yes

One of the key expat success factors is being able to “read the temperature” of your team. That means that you need to realise from the beginning that your task is not as simple as just “lego fitting” the solution you might have proposed (& been successful with) in your home market onto the new culture. You have to learn to understand how things work in your new culture.

succeed as an expat
Photo: Pixabay

If you fail to do this, it may mean that you’re blithely unaware of a strong undercurrent of conflict within your team. After all, a Japanese “hai” or Chinese “dui” doesn’t necessarily mean “yes I agree” – it can just as easily mean “yes I heard what you said (but I don’t agree)”.

Understand the difference between culture & customs

You need to understand this key difference as customs can be changed slowly over time (if you can show a good reason for it). You also should be aware that this also applies to your own behaviour & can happen unconsciously, faster than you think.

You’re highly unlikely to be able to change the inherent wiring of an ingrained culture though. This can result in clashes, especially when you put say a US American into a Japanese setting. In the US, being the loudest one in a meeting may get you noticed and seem as if you have “what it takes”, whereas in Japan being the loudest in a meeting is seen to be behaving like the village idiot.

It’s worth investing in cross-cultural skills

The so-called “soft skills” (that term really gets my ? as there’s nothing soft about dealing with people!) are often left out of the equation (at least in the company’s thinking) when an expat is sent abroad. The WHAT needs to be done is often in focus (eg what needs to be changed and the timeline associated with that) but often the HOW is hardly touched upon.

…and if you have no idea how to get your new team to work together with you on the mutual goals then at some point you’re going to crash.

Building New Teams Abroad

It’s important to ensure that you have sales capacity first of all (I guess I would think that, wouldn’t I?). If you’re a founder though (or building a completely new team) you need to ensure that you get 1 client and build from there to ensure feasibility in the market, as well as guarantee cash flow. You can then expand as your budgets allow, as long as you’re crystal clear as to what makes your product or service uniquely suited to the market.

Hire people who make you uncomfortable & don’t get hung up on needing to be the cleverest in the team. Also it’s essential that you don’t confuse language skills with competence – hire for the role, not for the language ability. In an overseas market it’s even more essential than at home to ensure that the team will be the ones who will be the best fit for your target customers. Your preference shouldn’t be first priority.

Multicultural professional is the way to go

Jason Durkee

Many aspects of life & work are already being improved by the use of AI. eg recruiting tools, or translation tools so that you can more easily communicate in adhoc situations. However much AI improves though in the coming years, it still can’t beat a human as the empathy is missing.

The last two years have also shown how much harder it is to build relationships that lead to fruitful business when you have to do things virtually. They have also highlighted the ways in which relationships and management are becoming ever more complex in today’s world. Realistically, succeeding as an expat doesn’t only mean that you can manage the bilateral culture between the head office & where you are now based, but also means you need to make sense of a complete “multicultural mix”.

Tips to sum up

Learn some of the language before you go

Besides showing your new team that you care, this will also get you used to making mistakes. It also starts you out seeing how language and thoughts overlap.

Read local news

That way you will know which are the topics that are relevant for your teams & you’ll be able to at least begin to participate in discussions, hopefully without landing feet first in hot water.

Don’t assume stuff

I think if I ever do a word cloud for this website, then “don’t assume” will appear in big fat letters!

On the other hand, you’ve also got to learn to ask questions in a way that is relevant so that people will be happy to explain things to you. eg. Next week is Diwali isn’t it? How will families be preparing for that?

Get help early

This can be a coach, but for sure you should have a committee of advisors. These can be business connections outside of the company, previous expats that your company has sent to the market, friends from the cycling club or whatever, but make sure you have a range of people that you can consult when problems arise. You need to recognise as early as possible that almost nobody succeeds as an expat alone.

Self reflection

Take the time to reflect. You need to be deliberate about analysing what’s going well and what’s not. Set aside a fixed time, or it won’t happen! This will also help you strategise and plan for your next steps as well as speeding up your “onboarding” time to productivity.

Patience + reflection = speed

Tom Roberts

Besides preventing you from going crazy (or driving your family crazy) & helping you to settle in, this will give you access to information about the country from a non-company perspective. Being open for those new relationships will enable to be more successful in your company setting.

Don’t forget to enjoy it!

Amidst all the stress of everything new, strange & well, foreign, don’t forget to embrace the adventure. Being an expat is a once in a lifetime experience in many cases so you should do everything you can to ensure you make the most of it!

What would you add??

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  1. […] My husband and I once sat on a minibus in Jordan for over an hour, squashed in with 2 rucksacks and what felt like a lot of people (but obviously not enough for the driver!). Nobody could tell us when the bus would leave, as there was no published timetable so we didn’t dare to get out. Instead, the bus driver only got in and started his engine (& the air-con!) once the bus was full. This attitude of “reacting when a specific event happens” can be infuriating to the more plan-oriented on any team. It can be especially difficult in project management or as an expat manager of a team. […]

  2. […] Have you read “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer? If not… ?… get right on it after you finished reading this post! This really is essential reading not just for anyone in international business, but also for anyone who is working with multi-cultural teams. […]

  3. […] There are often misconceptions about international expat postings. These succeed (or fail) not because of English (or other) language ability, but mostly due to an inability to assimilate fast enough in order to get the job done which you have been sent to do. See also my post about expat challenges here. […]

  4. […] If a staff member has been a major driver of your success in Italy and had the title of country manager, it’s hard to bring them back to head office and expect them to be satisfied with a middle management position in an insignificant department. You have to think about what you can offer them which will be intellectually stimulating and satisfy…. […]

  5. […] This is frustrating whether you are trying to sell to a partner or you are the manager/colleague in a multicultural team. […]

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