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Building a Career in Global Mobility – Insights from Industry Veterans

All too often when you speak to seasoned global mobility professionals about their background and how they found themselves working in global mobility you’ll hear the phrase “I just fell into it”.  It’s a niche field, and perhaps not obvious as a career path until one is well established in the workplace. Be that as it may, over the past couple of decades global mobility has grown from the old “expatriate management” positions acting as a bolt-on to the wider HR generalist field, to a career path in its own right. But the world is changing, and mobility specialists starting out now have a very different future in front of them than previous generations. So, if you are in the early years of a global mobility career, or thinking about moving into or specialising in global mobility, what do you need to know and consider?

Is a degree necessary for a role in global mobility? 

Firstly let’s look at the standard requirements. Most job postings for entry level or junior level global mobility positions will stipulate that a degree is mandatory, even though this is a role for which learning on the job is essential. So – is a degree really required, or can you get by without one?

The simple answer is that in the majority of cases, yes you will need a degree. However the degree requirement is usually stipulated to indicate a level of ability in terms of understanding and interpreting data, rather than a body of knowledge in a specific area. As such, the degree subject is usually of secondary importance to the actual qualification itself. Chad Lee, Regional Talent Mobility Leader at Nike, explains:

“I don’t think a degree is necessary, but the individual’s specialisation or major in school probably gives the employer a hint on the interest or strength of the applicant, which is useful when the employer is trying to assess suitability for the role. For example, if the applicant specialises in statistics, he/she is probably pretty good at analysing data and this may be a huge advantage for global mobility roles that are focused on reporting, data analytics or predictive analysis.”

So, does a qualification in HR give you an advantage? Chad goes on to state “A HR qualification is definitely only a desirable and not a requirement as I have met many global mobility professionals who came from non HR backgrounds who have excelled in their careers.” Sean Collins, Managing Partner of Talent Mobility Search, agrees, stating that a degree is not an “indicator of success” – but that companies are often looking for someone who is of “degree calibre.”

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Tax qualifications – are they necessary?

Those entering in house mobility teams from the Big 4 firms will typically have a tax qualification in expatriate tax. However it is rare to find this stipulated as a requirement by in house teams at the junior levels. If your interests veer more towards the tax technical side, obviously, you should consider attempting this route however it is perfectly possible to forge a career in GM without a tax qualification behind you. Do be aware however that at more senior levels, a tax qualification can be a more concrete advantage. Some companies – Sean Collins highlights finance companies by way of example –  may indicate a strong preference for a tax background, as their programmes are large and they have a need for more specialist expertise. However, for many roles, it’s communication, again, which is important. Chad Lee’s view is:  “The ability to articulate a topic that is so technical in a way that is easy to comprehend to an employee is the key.” So – understanding the issues, and being able to explain them in layman’s terms, is more important than being able to calculate an assignee’s tax return status when considering an in house career.

What you can bring to the table

It seems therefore that in order to “get a foot in the door” a degree is usually expected, however, excelling in mobility will depend upon the individual’s personal skills and aptitudes. To understand which kinds of aptitudes are required to be successful in mobility, it is useful to look at the nature of the role. Global mobility requires the ability to learn a variety of specialist subject matter (tax, immigration etc), but more importantly, it requires the ability to disseminate that knowledge in an appropriate manner to a wide variety of stakeholders. For example, you may be explaining the tax treatment of an assignment package to an assignee in layman’s terms. You may then need to explain the same package in terms of the tax implications to the company to a business stakeholder. You may then need to explain to that same stakeholder why the assignee cannot immediately relocate to their host country due to immigration restrictions – and do so in a manner which is constructive and accurate, without alienating them and offering solutions where possible. In brief, communication skills within mobility are key. Sean Collins points out that unlike other areas of HR, in GM, you will need to communicate with senior stakeholders even when you are at junior level – explaining packages to senior assignees, or summarising policy to line managers. Whatever the situation, this is a unique opportunity to hone your communication skills.

Chad Lee defines the most important personal skills he looks for when hiring as “thirst for learning, ability to work in a team and an effective communicator”. Remember that in GM, more so than any other area of HR, you will often be the bearer of bad news – immigration law is rarely designed to facilitate international movement as easily as businesses would like, for example. The cost of assignments is immense. The operational burden inherent in moving a person’s life across the world means that hiccups and snags are almost inevitable. The skills you need to navigate this tricky environment therefore are vital. Learning how to communicate effectively, how to be a team player, and how to be flexible, should be a priority for anyone entering a career in GM.

Vendor vs In House

Another route into in house GM roles is to switch from the vendor side into an in house role. Sean Collins has seen this kind of switch often, usually when a consultant with a Relocation.Management Company has been working on a particular client account for some time and an opening arises with that client’s team. In such cases, the experience gained with the vendor is extremely valuable. Sean states: “Those managing accounts in outsourced RMCs are useful for junior in house roles. If you come from that background, it could serve you well.” Note that there is a slight caveat here – those specialising in Household Goods may wish to gain broader RMC experience – it’s the client account management experience which is useful for in house roles.

This route also brings with it the advantage for vendor employees to gain exposure to many different clients much earlier in their career. Typically those who stay in house will need to move several times from one employer to another to get a solid overview of how the theme of mobility is approached in different companies and sectors. In a junior vendor role, it’s likely that you will have exposure to many clients over several sectors at the same time. This gives a breadth of knowledge and experience, which, coupled with an ability to critically analyse and assess the approaches, could put those with early years vendor experience at an advantage.

However, vendor environments are usually less complex than in house environments, and the subtleties of interaction required for a GM consultant in an in house role may be a shock to those used to a simple client/provider relationship. Chad Lee states: “There are merits on both sides. Employees with vendor experience will have more exposure to different clients and a better understanding of and insights into market practices that will be beneficial for organisations that are looking to transform or improve their programmes. Employees with in house experience may be able to navigate around highly matrixed organisations better and pull the right levers to influence an agenda. I do not think that in house employers have a preference over the other. I think it is more important to be thinking about whether the employee has the ability to practically apply his/her past work experiences to bring value and move the organisation forward.”

The times, they are a changin’

The routes into mobility – from a Big 4 environment to vendor switching to “falling into” a role, have been established for some while. But the world is changing rapidly, and what was good for mobility professionals in the past may not continue to stand up in the future. The advent of reliance on technology and tech driven solutions is a new development junior GM professionals will need to be aware of. The rise of Assignment Management Systems, and cloud based mobility tools, is just beginning to become apparent. It’s impossible to say at this stage what impact this may have for GM professionals in the future, but it may lead to a reduction in in house roles at the more operational, less strategic levels, as companies outsource these roles to external providers. Solid vendor experience utilising new technology may therefore open more doors in the future than has typically been the case in the past and hones project management skills. As for any sector, it therefore goes without saying that young GM professionals should ensure that they are up to speed with technological developments in mobility, and position themselves accordingly to take advantage of the most exciting opportunities as they evolve.

Chad Lee also sees the advent of data driven solutions as producing a new requirement for future GM professionals in terms of skillset – the ability to use and analyse data: “As the need for GM professionals to use data to inform or drive business decisions or predict growth, it is becoming more of a requirement than a desirable for us to master the fundamentals of knowing how to use data. GM professionals who are masters in data analytics and predictive analysis are more and more being valued at the work place.”

Location, location, location

Another interesting aspect of the changing business environment to consider is the advent of Shared Service Centres and the affect this is having on opportunity globally. Shared Service Centres typically undertake the kind of work which would previously have been undertaken by those at the more junior levels, and this trend is likely to continue. It is therefore probably fair to say that the future for a young GM consultant in Manila likely looks very different to that of a young GM consultant in London. In the early years, those in the more traditional locations of London, Western Europe and the US may find fewer openings than those in locations such as the Philippines. However, it remains to be seen whether the more senior roles will tend to still congregate in the “traditional” locations or whether GM will typically migrate to an entirely Shared Service Centre environment in the future. In terms of location, Sean Collins is seeing a lot of Shared Service Centre activity in the Philippines and Eastern Europe. He also believes that Ireland is “one to watch”. This is a big unknown for everyone – but if you’re just starting out, be aware that mobility is likely to be more meaningful for your than for previous generations in terms of your own career. Stay alert to the trends you see in your company and your friends’ companies. And if the chance to relocate yourself arises…..well, it’s very difficult to come up with any reason why that would not be a great path to follow.

Final Advice

Global Mobility is no different to many HR environments in that the early years are characterised by a need to learn the basics and hone your operational skills before you can move on to the more interesting, strategic elements of the role. In order to be truly great at your job when you are in the early years of a global mobility career, you need to be operationally excellent. But guard against being the operational workhorse who does everything brilliantly, but without fanfare. I’m not advocating a lack of self-restraint, however, if you want the best opportunities, you have to ensure that people know this. They will know that you want to progress when you volunteer to take on more work or when you ask to be included in the big projects being undertaken by the more senior members of the team. GM is such a heavily operational field that you can get lost at this level. Progress doesn’t happen automatically because you’ve been around for a while – you have to go after it.

Perhaps the best advice that can be given is to expose yourself to as much as possible, as early as possible. As Chad Lee explains: “To quote one of Nike’s maxims – Be A Sponge. For consultants just entering the world of mobility, you probably wouldn’t know where your passion lies as the breadth of work is just immense. Be a sponge and absorb all you can learn from everyone (peers, superiors, vendors, employees, other functional colleagues etc.) and don’t be afraid to make mistakes”.

Caitlin Pyett is a Mobility industry veteran with 20 years’ experience gained in London and Singapore. Currently in Hong Kong due to her husband’s recent relocation, she now finds herself in the unenviable position of “trailing spouse” – a fresh perspective on mobility after 20 years! Caitlin is available for senior in house opportunities in HK, mobility consulting work and freelance writing assignments. She can be contacted on +852 9655 6657 or connect with her on LinkedIn. 

Here’s what Shield Employees have to say: 

Coming from a country where less than 20% of the population has a college degree, I’d say it’s not crucial to have a degree to have a great GM career. Commitment, discipline, hard-work, curiosity, instinct and other qualities sometimes are more valuable than a degree. But a college degree “sells” so to speak. In Mexico, elite companies don’t even interview people without degrees. Any position that involves GM will most certainly require someone with a degree. 

– Brenda, Our Account Manager 

It (not having a degree requirement) makes sense in principle. But I tended to side with the quotes from the article, we want people who are “degree calibre” and the easiest way to see that is if they have a degree. It is a simple way to filter people. I am guilty of this in our recruitment and to be honest you have to have some filters otherwise the volume of applicants is overwhelming.

– Tim, Our Co-Founder 

Being in GM for 8 years now I believe that you can learn ‘on the job’ all you need to know within GM (not inc Accountants/Legal etc). Common sense, communication skills, good work ethics are the core of what we do on a daily basis. Without those skills your degree within a GM role is useless.

– Nikki, Our Global Mobility Team Lead 

I don’t think you need a degree to do most things, all it does is demonstrate to potential employers that you had the requisite academic proficiency to get into university, and it’s an easy tickbox for HR professionals when looking at CV’s.

– Duncan, Our Co-Founder 

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