Leaving the US: What to expect from a job abroad

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Those serious about undertaking such an adventure should look beyond the glamour of an exotic move and get practical, writes the founder of recruitment firm Sasha the Mensch.

With the arrival of the new US president, many Americans have reached out to me about wanting to work (flee?) abroad. Traditionally, the joke is that antsy Americans should run north of the border to Canada. No disrespect to the big Maple Leaf, but that isn't the only option—the world is full of great places for adventure-seekers to hone their skills.

Working abroad can be personally and professionally rewarding. Nevertheless, those serious about undertaking such an adventure should look beyond the glamour of an exotic move and get practical. There are some common differences to expect between working in advertising in the US and overseas.

One major difference is in salary. For example, most creative director and other senior roles pay between 30 to 50 percent less in Europe than they do in the US, and the difference in pay for mid-level to senior roles is not as substantial there as it is here. On the other hand, workers in Europe can expect more generous social benefits and more vacation days.

Beyond salary, another important consideration for Americans looking to take their skills to another country is cultural. Can they adjust to the cultural and professional norms and to life in another language? The ability to adapt correlates with a successful integration into a foreign work setting, where people often encounter situations that strike them as counterintuitive.

Some struggle and unhappy times should be expected. Working in another country can be incredibly frustrating. Expats may grapple with an impenetrable foreign bureaucracy, or feel lonely because they haven't yet established close relationships in their new city. Their lack of fluency in the local language can give them headaches. "It's so amazing that you live in Paris [or Tokyo or Buenos Aires]," say friends and family back home, and they're right, it is—but ups and downs are normal. Being psychologically prepared for these feelings helps people to acknowledge them without letting them dominate their days.

Those who fare the best abroad learn to roll with the punches and enjoy the novelty of their experience. An executive creative director who works in Dubai once told me that for his first six months there, he kept telling his team about how he did things "back in London." He said, "Then it dawned on me: I am not in London, and I sound like a jerk. I've got to learn how to do it in Dubai."

Another challenge is that a person's work doesn't always translate in another market. Nowhere is this a bigger issue than in advertising, which often relies on humor, wordplay and local references. Humor is very difficult to translate, and some familiar American methods can baffle people in other markets. Of course, global experience on major brands is a plus, as it speaks to familiarity with international audiences.

It's also important for Americans to go where they can offer something special. That's one of the reasons why—though London is undeniably a great city—I tend to discourage Americans from making it their default destination abroad. Have some sense of adventure! The UK is full of native English speakers, and an American candidate's skills as a creative there are less likely to make him a standout candidate.

Instead, many of the best jobs are in non-English speaking countries where global brands have offices.These companies in Germany, Italy and France need native English copywriters and actively recruit them. They don't mind what kind of English accent candidates have or idiomatic expressions they use.

In a non-English speaking country, it is often easier for a native English speaker to aspire to more senior roles, more quickly. They may report directly to the chief creative officer, or be able to head up the local office of a global brand. Many people who work abroad are able to leverage that kind of experience when they return to the US.

Candidates often tell me they worry that if they go "off the grid" and work in a developing market, they will find it hard to get hired back in the States. My experience has shown me that the same rule of thumb applies everywhere: the more success people have in each role they take on, the more doors tend to open when they apply for new jobs. That's less connected to where they were working and more related to what they accomplished.

A final, practical thought: Americans working abroad are still required to file a US income tax return. Depending on what country they work in and how much they earn, they may or may not be liable to for income tax in the US.

Open-minded creatives who enjoy interacting with people from a variety of walks of life should give some thought to working abroad. Wherever they go, that new place will sharpen their vision and personal identity—and they won't forget it.

Sasha Martens is the founder of recruitment firm Sasha the Mensch.