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When overseas experience becomes too much of a good thing

International experience is a must-have for a future top executive. Well, Dimitrios Georgakakis from the University of St. Gallen, Tobias Dauth from HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management and Winfried Ruigrok, also University of St. Gallen, beg to differ. They say: “Executives who accumulate international experience are no more likely than others to advance their career at multinational companies.”


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A study from 2013 predicted that over the next 10 years, those assigned to international posts would increase by 50 per cent as firms seek to improve their global strategy by having people in place to work with foreign partners, subsidiaries, and managers. International experience became a must-have on a CEO’s resume. The Financial Times for example quotes Oliver Watson, managing director for UK, North America and the Middle East at job and recruiting firm Michael Page International: “Companies are operating over so many international boundaries, so the more languages and experience with different cultures you can bring to a company, the more you can help expand its global reach,” he says.

But according to Dimitrios Georgakakis and his co-authors in their piece “Too much of a good thing: Does international experience variety accelerate or delay executives’ career advancement?“, international experience helps only up to a point, and spending too much time abroad may actually hurt, rather than boost an executive’s career. The price for international experience may be high: missing out on the crucial profile-enhancing networking opportunities at headquarters, where strategies and careers are made.

The authors of the study surveyed 163 CEOs at some of the largest publicly listed firms with home offices in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. They calculated how many years the CEOs had spent working abroad, along with the number of countries they had been stationed in. The researchers also controlled for the size of each firm and its top management team, along with the CEOs’ level of education, tenure, and nationality.

The authors found: At the earliest phase is a carerr, acquiring knowledge of different foreign markets tended to speed up executives’ climb on the ladder. But after a certain point, extensive employment in international zones tended to hold back executives. The implication is: Executives with only remote contact with the firm’s center tend to miss out on promotions.

Being where the action is, is central and executives who spend time working in countries in close geographic proximity to their headquarters rise up the hierarchy faster than their counterparts in far-away locations. The authors therefore suggest that internationally oriented companies should make sure people with extensive experience abroad can still stay connected to key decision makers at central headquarters. To fully cash in on their international capabilities, the authors further recommend that firms should also strive to construct a top management team with a blend of executives who have experience in both close and distant foreign markets.

In a nutshell, the authors advise that executives “should continue to engage in international assignments but, at the same time, they should not assume that extensive levels of international mobility will necessarily lead to faster career progress. To quickly advance in their careers, Executives should acquire international human capital and, at the same time, maintain strong network ties with key decision makers in the firm.”

Find full articles here:
The Double-Edged Sword of Overseas Experience 
How valuable is international work experience?
Too much of a good thing: Does international experience variety accelerate or delay executives’ career advancement?

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