I think that it would be safe to say that your points of reference change when you relocate to a new city, especially when it involves a new continent. For example, when I was living in Halifax, I would have never dreamt of spending 10 days in Egypt, or a long weekend in Dubai, much less 36 hours in Stockholm or an afternoon in Germany, but all of these things are possible when you live in the centre of Europe.
I have been very lucky to be able to travel as much as I have over the past two and a half years, both as a facilitator for regional training courses through work, and also personally. Traveling outside of the country is one thing, but when you actually live in a foreign country for an extended length of time, you start to experience more of the culture and gain a better understanding for the people. I have also been fortunate to get to learn a few things about the Czech culture – from their festivals, movies & humour, to their food.
I have ‘suffered’ from the travel itch for a very long time, and so a long-term secondment has really been the right fit for me, though it isn’t for everyone. You need to have an open mind and a positive attitude. If this sounds like you, then I would really recommend that you speak to your performance manager once you start about opportunities abroad – I wouldn’t change a thing!
In September 2006 I found out that I had been given a placement and on October 24th, 2006 I first set foot on Czech soil. A lot of people who know me were not surprised that I would agree to a long-term placement in a country I had never visited, knew no one, nor spoke the language. To some it sounds ‘brave’, to others, ‘crazy’, but I truly believe that you develop the most when you are put in situations outside of your comfort zone.
Prior to making my move here I had been promoted to manager, but accepted the role of supervisor here in Prague for the first season in order to have a chance to learn IFRS and Czech GAAP and adjust to the whole situation. I was extremely lucky to have extremely supportive colleagues, managers and partners and quickly differentiated between areas where I could add value and those where I could not.
As an expat who doesn’t speak the local language, there are a number of things that are challenging, or even impossible: dealing with non-English speaking members of the client team, understanding the more obscure accounting and tax requirements, even buying milk was tough when I first arrived. That said, I was assigned a portfolio of largely English-speaking clients so I found it easier to communicate with their head offices abroad, preparing memorandums in English was obviously easier for me than someone for which it is their second or third language, and I have invested a lot of time with my staff coaching them on their written and spoken English. In the summers when my colleagues have been focused on statutory financial statements, I have facilitated regional technical courses and this year I will be developing and customizing course materials. As you can imagine, the key is to find, and focus on, the positives.
A lot of people ask me whether or not language has been an issue. I have been pleasantly surprised with the level of English spoken by my colleagues, and I have yet to have any problems that I couldn’t laugh about later. After work is a bit of a different story with English being less widely spoken in some areas, but I have to say that one of the unexpected benefits from living in a foreign country for any length of time is stellar charades skills – to me it’s all part of the adventure!
In 2007, I was promoted to manager and since then I have been managing a portfolio of 15 – 20 companies/groups of companies with a variety of different deliverables required, from audits and reviews of group reporting packages, integrated audits (involving testing of internal controls) to audits of statutory financial statements and agreed-upon procedures. This was a major change in focus for me as the majority of my Canadian clients were owner-managed businesses, so reporting to a group auditor was a pretty foreign concept, but I have adapted.
One of the biggest challenges in my first year as a manager was building relationships with my clients and having the tough discussions about issues and their level of preparedness (or lack thereof in some cases). In the end I was able to negotiate some significant overruns and provide my clients with some value added feedback which has been pretty rewarding.
This year, one of my personal development goals was to focus on my business development skills. To accomplish this, I have gotten involved in the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and have found that to be an excellent way to meet some pretty interesting people in the business community. I have also attended two charity dinners (for 8 people) hosted by the Honourable Michael Calcott, Canadian Ambassador to the Czech and Slovak Republics … not exactly a regular occurrence for me when I lived in Canada, but entirely possible in a smaller expat community.
Looking back on the last two and a half years I can honestly say that I have experienced a number of things that I otherwise would not have had I not been on secondment. I have been involved in a number of interesting projects from IPO’s to debt issuances, I have been forced to work on my communication skills to get the point across when you don’t share a common language, and I have had a chance to develop my soft skills. Most of all, I know that I have become more confident as a result of this experience, and that’s something that I will always treasure.