Moving abroad for work is a big decision no matter your situation. It can be a huge commitment and a life altering step. However the benefits of taking your career abroad are plenty and it can often serve to propel your career on to the next level. Leaving aside the obvious personal benefits which come from expanding your horizons, from a professional point of view there are many potential benefits to be had. From learning new skills and new ways of working to getting a global understanding of your industry and building a wider network of contacts, there is much to be gained.
Ben Hawksley, Commercial Director at TM Lewin, understands the benefits better than most. Following roles with East, Blue Inc. and Moss Bros, he took the decision to move to the Netherlands to take up a position with Hunkemoller, where he stayed for seven years before returning to the UK to take up his current role. Ben spoke with Dave Mann and Victoria Corner of Michael Page Retail about his move and what he has learned along the way.
Making the decision to move
‘When you talk about moving abroad there seems to be some kind of romanticism or mystique about it. In reality you need to start by making sure that it is a good career move. Forget where the role is based and analyse whether the role is a good one for you and your career.’
That is what Ben did before he took his Head of Merchandising role with Hunkemoller in 2009, taking his career trajectory into Europe. It was the biggest business he had worked with at the time, with 450 stores (the brand has continued to grow and currently has over 700 stores worldwide) and there was lots of space to grow. It was a role that made a lot of sense and Ben subsequently moved into a directorial role 18 months later.
‘You must be thinking about the job itself first. Whether it’s based in Holland, Dubai or next door, you must be able to link it back to your career strategy. I wasn’t looking to move abroad necessarily, there wasn’t a strategic choice or thought of ‘I need to move abroad for my career,’ it was classic right place at the right time and it made a lot of sense career wise.’
Even if an opportunity to further your career is available, moving away for work isn’t for everyone. Ben had to juggle his professional life with his home life and family; ‘Originally it was going to be a two year endeavour. I spoke to my partner and we agreed that my family would stay in the UK and that I would work away during the week, flying home for weekends and holidays. That plan changed and at the end of the original two years we decided that I would stay for a further five. Professionally things were going very well and I had a very well defined work/life balance.
Ben made 585 flights between London and Amsterdam during his seven years with Hunkemoller. Being able to clearly separate your life between working and family time can work really well but Ben cautions that the personal side won’t be for everyone and requires serious consideration. ‘A lot of the big challenges of this type of move are very personal and emotional, particularly if you have a family and whether or not to bring them with you.’ When I moved my kids were two, nine and eleven; a crucial time in school for my older two. That was the biggest factor in deciding my family would stay in the UK.
Relocation packages are changing
In years gone by companies would break the bank to convince talented individuals to move abroad and packages were often generous and open to negotiation. While there are certainly still such opportunities available, the cosmopolitan nature of most large cities means that many relocation benefits are not as easy to come by. ‘Moving abroad can’t be about the money alone. The potential increase in NET earning simply isn’t enough. It is also becoming more common not to get home travel allowances as part of the deal. This all just reinforces the fact that the job needs to be the right one.’
Learning a new way of working
One of the biggest differences many people find when moving abroad is different working styles. What hours do companies work? Do they prefer meetings? Is office etiquette strict or relaxed? This can change dramatically from what you may be used to. In his managerial capacity Ben found some unique challenges thrown his way.
‘It really changes your management style. The work/life balance in the Netherlands is very different. People work 9-5 four days per week and everyone takes lunch between 12-1. When we brought more people over from the UK many came steaming in and expected everyone to adopt a British way of working. That wasn’t to be the case. You can’t expect 250 people to fundamentally change the way the work, you need to be sensitive to things like this.’
‘Helping different people with different work styles to be efficient and productive together was a real challenge but a skill which I have found truly valuable. My management style is relatively relaxed so I adapted pretty well. There were some more stubborn people who joined and refused to adapt which just doesn’t work out in the long run.’ Clearly methods which energise and inspire retail teams in a UK operation may not have the same effect in Europe or further afield, being able to adapt your style and approach accordingly is crucial to making a success of an international move.
The challenges of expatriation
A few years into his time in Holland and with Hunkemoller growing, Ben began to recruit people from the UK to follow in his footsteps. Now on the other side of the relocation discussion Ben found his own experiences a great help.
‘You cannot make an international move for the lifestyle alone, it’s not a holiday. When you live somewhere you really live there; you pay bills, you do food shops, you sit in traffic. When we interviewed people from the UK we would put them up for the weekend, invite their partner to spend the weekend in the city. Try to give them a sense of what it would be like to live there while being realistic about the challenges.’
There may be language barriers, particularly when discussing work, meeting clients/suppliers, or liaising with third parties. Also leadership style can change dramatically by country. For example in Holland leadership tends to be based on merit, competence and achievement but consensus among a team is mandatory. In Germany there is likely to be a clear chain of command, while in Sweden, leadership is often democratic and decentralised. Corporate culture will vary along similar lines.
However these challenges are there to be overcome and the result will be a myriad of personal and professional benefits which should equip you well as your career progresses at home or abroad.
Ben certainly echoes this. ‘Relocating did without a doubt help to advance my career. But it was my achievements during this time and the things which I learnt along the way that are most important. The fact that I gained them in a foreign country is secondary. If you are thinking about moving abroad it must be for the right opportunity above everything else.’