At 37, Charles Sims had already risen to become chief financial officer for Franklin Templeton Investments Corp. in Toronto.
But he knew one move could take him even higher: a career posting abroad.
"I looked at it as moving from being a big fish in a small Canadian pond to becoming a small fish in a much bigger pond, where there are more challenges but much more potential to grow," Mr. Sims says.
He proved his point when he accepted a position as vice-president of finance for the company's North American operations, based in California. Though a lateral move, "it was great for my career progress," Mr. Sims says.
In eight years outside Canada, he rose to become chief administrative officer for global distribution at parent company Franklin Resources Inc., and expanded the business in Asia.
The broad experience paid off when Mr. Sims was recruited last year, at the age of 44, to return to Canada and become chief executive officer of Mackenzie Financial Corp. Last May, he was also named co-president and chief executive officer of parent company IGM Financial Inc.
There has never been a better time to take a page from Mr. Sims's career play book, the experts say.
Years of economic expansion and the globalization of business have created a demand for leadership talent virtually everywhere in the world.
Taking advantage of that opportunity translates into a lasting career advantage, recruiters say.
International experience is becoming "the equivalent to stamping your passport in the business world," says Tom Long, Toronto-based partner of executive recruiter Egon Zehnder International Inc.
"An international assignment on your CV gives you an edge over competitors because it shows breadth of experience and adaptability."
In previous decades, making a move across borders may have carried career risks, because employers were looking for continuity and loyalty, Mr. Long says.
But "that has flipped on its axis now. It's almost a negative to have worked for only one organization and not have an ability to do business globally."
In fact, foreign opportunities for senior executives are growing much faster than those in Canada, Mr. Long says.
In recent years, many multinationals have consolidated their management to head offices in the United States or Europe, he says.
While all those backpacker dreams of youth might seem to spur people on, it's surprisingly common for people who would seem to be prime candidates for international postings to say they have never considered the possibility of moving their career outside Canada, says executive recruiter Steven Pezim, managing director of the Bedford Consulting Group Inc. in Toronto.
In fact, "it can still be difficult to get people to relocate from Markham to Mississauga (two suburbs of Toronto)," Mr. Pezim says.
While exact numbers are hard to come by, Canadians haven't exactly flocked to jobs outside the country.
There are about 1.5 million Canadians residing abroad at any given time, according to Statistics Canada. Of them, about 170,000 have registered with Department of Foreign Affairs consular offices.
In the 2001 census, just 68,520 Canadians reported they were working beyond the country's borders, according to StatsCan.
Reluctance to relocate is not just a Canadian phenomenon.
Just 37 per cent of 2,700 executives surveyed worldwide report they would consider taking an overseas assignment, according to a poll done last year by executive search firm Korn/Ferry International.
But more executives should consider the benefits, Mr. Pezim believes.
Those who take the opportunity invariably grow into stronger leaders, he says.
"The Canadians I have placed internationally have always become better executives because of the insights, contacts and broadened experience they have gained."
And the experience will continue to pay benefits in a more global business future, he adds.
"Borders matter a lot less than they used to," Mr. Pezim says. It's a connected electronic world where companies may have divisions around the world, and you have to be willing to make a move if you want to get ahead.
PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP Canada actively encourages its employees to get career-enhancing experience at an overseas office, says Penny Partridge, senior manager for Canada of PwC's global mobility program.
"We've found it is extremely beneficial to those who take them. On a personal basis, people who return from an assignment that may last from one to two years have increased confidence, a better ability to work independently and an ability to take different approaches to a problem," she says.
Career-wise, it expands their experience and offers opportunities to move from one specialty to another.
PwC sees corporate benefits as well, Ms. Partridge says.
"It's a bit like moving chess pieces around. We get the right people, at the right place, at the right time."
The international exchange spurs global networking among employees, gives them an understanding of different cultures and gets them thinking about alternative ways of approaching problems and solving them, she says.
Of course, packing up and moving presents huge challenges as well.
Family issues can make or break an overseas assignment. A lot of executives recruited for international assignments end up turning them down because the spouse doesn't buy in, Mr. Pezim says.
"If the spouse of the executive we are pursuing has a career, you have to deal with the potential loss of the career of that spouse."
School-aged children can also resist a move.
"I've seen a lot of executives in the prime of their career turn down a promotion because they are not willing to make a move until the kids are in university," Mr. Pezim says.
A 2004 study by Cendant Mobility of 548 employees posted internationally by major U.S. companies found that family adjustment was the biggest hurdle, called a "major challenge" by 32.7 per cent and "a challenge" by 35.4 per cent.
And 57.7 per cent reported career prospects declined for their spouse or significant other.
A number of other challenges can cause difficulties while assigned overseas, the respondents said. Among them:
Diminished contact with family, reported by 51.7 per cent.
Less contact with friends, reported by 57.9 per cent.
Less contact with colleagues, a problem for 20.1 per cent.
Housing conditions declined for 23.1 per cent.
Diminished health and medical benefits were a challenge for 27.7 per cent.
Balancing that, those surveyed said they gained leadership and technical skills, global awareness and workplace savvy.
More than 90 per cent said the experience was "moderately" or "very helpful" to their professional growth.
That's certainly Mr. Sim's conclusion.
"There were a lot of challenges, but when I look back on the experience, I learned many valuable lessons," he says.
The ability to look at things through different lenses. "If I bring anything to this management team, I am coming at it from a global standard rather than strictly a Canadian standard. It's not that there is anything wrong with the Canadian standard, but we live in a global world. "
The value of communicating clearly and effectively.
If you use the wrong tone when you say the Mandarin Chinese word for buy people will think you want to sell, Mr. Sims says.
The need to understand other viewpoints.
"You realize when you live somewhere else how different philosophies and attitudes can be."
The value of broad experience. Mr. Sims was able to gain experience in finance, operations and marketing that he wouldn't have gotten by staying in the smaller Canadian branch of the operation.
Confidence making decisions in unfamiliar territory.
"You might not be right all the time, but you have to be decisive and learn from those that don't work out," he says.
Travel experiences. Adorning his office are photos he took of the Great Wall of China and of his golf-course nemesis, the eighth hole at Pebble Beach.
The ability to adapt to change, something his wife and two daughters also learned.
At PwC, there is a global job posting board that allows employees to see available foreign positions. About 14 per cent of its 4,200 Canadian accountants and managers have used the program to work abroad.
The global mobility program, in operation for about five years, has shown that the best timing for an international move is very individual, Ms. Partridge says.
"But we have a lot of opportunity for employees to make a move at every stage of their career. Our goal is to give people a broad perspective of various clients and industries."
Most postings are long-term, which means they last more than a year.
People early in their career take an overseas posting to broaden their experience and live in another country. More senior people, however, move to fill strategic needs for skills.
But short- or long-term, global experience will permanently raise your career potential, says Jeff Rosin, managing director for Canada for Korn/Ferry International, which recruits senior executives.
"For jobs at any level of the corporate ladder, having experience dealing with different cultures, with people from different backgrounds and language makes candidates stand out in job competitions," Mr. Rosin says.
So even if you are adamant that you want to build your career in Canada, a sojourn to work abroad is an important asset, he says.
"All things being equal, if a multi-national has a senior leadership position to fill, they will favour the person with that international experience," he says.
Now that he has returned to Canada, Mr. Sims says he'd recommend going international to anyone.
"It's very hard to shake yourself out of a routine that's safe and secure," Mr. Sims says.
"But I look back at the advantages of getting into a bigger market to grow my career and contacts and the experiences it gave my family, I have no regrets.
"It is a career and a life-enhancing experience."
The world is your workplace
Experience working in a foreign country is considered a career-boosting asset and opportunities abound around the globe. Yet, experts say that many prime candidates don't think of making the move.
NUMBER OF CANADIANS WHO REPORT WORKING ABROAD.
PERCENTAGE OF CANADIAN COMPANIES THAT RELOCATE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONALLY.
PERCENTAGE OF 6,000 EMPLOYEES SURVEYED WHO CONSIDER FOREIGN WORK CREDENTIALS "ESSENTIAL" OR "EXTREMELY USEFUL."
PERCENTAGE OF 2,700 EXECUTIVES SURVEYED WHO WOULD CONSIDER TAKING AN OVERSEAS ASSIGNMENT.
Where the jobs are worldwide. Proportion of international executive searches by continent in the third quarter of 2005.
North America: 44.3%
Central/South America, 7.6%
The breakdown of execituve searches by economic sector in the third quarter of 2005.
Professional services: 2.7%
Life sciences/healthcare: 12.1%
Consumer product: 17.5%
SOURCES: STATISTICS CANADA, 2001 CENSUS; GLOBAL RECRUITMENT CONSULTANCY ROBERT WALTERS; KORN/FERRY INTERNATIONAL 2005 SURVEY OF EXECUTIVES WORLDWIDE; CENDANT MOBILITY 2004 STUDY; ASSOCIATION OF EXECUTIVE SEARCH CONSULTANTS
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