Becoming your own boss abroad

When I moved to China 5 years ago, I gave up my career.

I didn’t have a work permit.

I didn’t speak Chinese.

After years of working and being able to provide for myself, the move to Beijing meant dependency (aargh) and few job prospects (nooooo). Or that’s what I thought anyway.

Luckily, I’d lost my job in The Netherlands 2 years before during the economic crisis. Luckily, yes. Because I felt so miserable during those six long weeks of unemployment (that I did not know then would be only six weeks), I knew that I couldn’t afford to sit around moping and waiting for a prospective employer to knock on my door in Beijing.

Even before departure, I made a promise to myself. A promise to keep developing myself abroad. Whatever would happen abroad. Even if I wouldn’t be able to find a paid job, even if it wouldn’t work out to have a baby.

What I didn’t realize back then, is that I made the choice to become my own boss.

Margot the CEO.

My business was undefined at that point, and it had only one staff member. Me.

Take responsibility for your career

Moving abroad means taking responsibility for your career. Especially as an expat partner giving up your job. Sounds counterintuitive? It isn’t.

Moving abroad means you will have to rebuild your life, friendships, and the way you spend your days. And your partner will try and support you, but they cannot replace your career. Don’t expect them to either. They are trying to keep afloat in their own new job. They also need to take responsibility for their career, as they may be less visible in Headquarters or are dealing with large challenges.

What about your partner’s employer? Surely it should be able to support you finding a new job abroad? Don’t count on the company. If you are lucky (like me), they will provide some education funds, but that’s usually it.

Nobody will give you bonuses, performance reviews, promotions. You will not be selected for a high potentials programme, and there will be no Friday drinks with colleagues.

Hard landing or still standing?

BOOM. It feels you fell off the career ladder. Who are you without a business card and an office to go to?

But you didn’t fall off the ladder.

You’re redefining the ladder. Your ladder.

Moving abroad means you will need to set new career markers for yourself. You are choosing a different way to the top than your colleagues and friends. What is “the top” anyway?

What will make you feel like you have achieved something abroad? What skills are you developing or deepening? What challenges are you overcoming?

Find your internal success indicators

As Monique Valcour writes in her Harvard Business Review article Make Your Career a Success by Your Own Measure:

People do not advance in the broader arenas of career and life by taking linear steps and acing assignments that are carefully constructed to allow them to prove mastery. They do it by navigating the unpredictable events and conditions that both work and non-work life throw at them and responding and adapting in the ways that make sense for them. If you are dependent on external markers to judge whether your career is successful, you will find them, but only in some realms and on certain dimensions of achievement. If you only pay attention to only this limited set of success indicators, you are less likely to experience your career as successful. Imagine going to a sumptuous buffet dinner, but only tasting the salad. It won’t be satisfying.

There are so many options to develop yourself abroad. Finding a job, completing a study, being a good Mom or Dad to your kids, raising money or volunteering for a good cause, starting your own company, everything is possible. However, if you keep rating your performance by the standards of your former career, it is a recipe for unhappiness.

Managing Yourself

So how to get started being your own boss? In his classic HBR article Managing Oneself, management expert Peter F. Drucker suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How do I work?
  • What are my values?
  • Where do I belong?
  • What can I contribute?

These will help you on the path to fulfillment in your life and your career. And then request your boss (you!) to let you take the next step in your career. Whether it is finding a paid job, volunteering, learning the local language, doing an MBA, an online study or taking parental leave.

My next career step?

I relocated my business from China to Brunei. Apart from my husband, 2 new little stakeholders were involved in that step.

My boss has just approved a new training course for me. I’ll be taking the Gallup Strength Finder coaching course in Manila next month. So I can help my clients in Brunei and abroad even better with determining their strengths.

My boss always has my best interests at heart.

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