Becoming a Unicorn: Evaluating the Professional Development Benefits of Working Abroad

I think that working internationally is an amazing professional experience, especially for a recent college graduate. But obviously my opinion is a bit biased, since I am working abroad.

To objectively evaluate the professional development value of working internationally, I wanted to bring in an outside perspective. And to do that, I am bringing in CEO of Hootsuite, Ryan Holmes.

Holmes posted an article on LinkedIn titled “5 Signs You’re a Unicorn Employee,”  which he used to describe his ideal employee. His traits were:

  • You Aren’t Limited to Your Job Title
  • You Think Big and Small
  • You Have True Grit
  • You’re Respectful by Nature
  • You Get Sh#t done

I really like these five traits for a number of reasons, so I want to use them to help evaluate the value of working abroad. Namely: what types of traits can I expect the experience to instill in me and that I will carry with me into the future? 

You Aren’t Limited to Your Job Title

Startups or mid-sized companies in emerging markets are far more concerned with your ability to be flexible, learn on the fly and find a way to succeed than they are about what your degree is in or what your specializations are. Things need done and there is often not the time nor the resources to find an expert for every task. Even though the work may fall far outside the purview of your job title, it will be your job to find a way to make it happen.

And this presents an incredible professional development opportunity.

Startups or mid-sized companies in emerging markets are far more concerned with your ability to be flexible, learn on the fly and find a way to succeed than they are about what your degree is in or what your specializations are.

Getting involved in different departments, different types of work, reading up on different subjects or self-training how to do certain tasks are all part of a day’s work, forcing you to learn and explore other subjects you may not otherwise be motivated or interested in learning about. The ability to learn on the fly and execute is an incredibly valuable skill to develop and the information that you learn will be carried with you throughout your career, contributing to your development of a far more diverse skillset.   

You Think Big and Small

If you are able to land a job abroad, there is a good chance that you are going to be given professional opportunities you may not have had in your home country. It isn’t cheap for a company to bring a foreigner into a company or place them internationally. If you are being trusted to perform and execute overseas, or if a company is investing to bring you to them, you better believe the company you are working for is going to want to get their money’s worth.

As a unique touch point for your company, you may find yourself being asked how you would solve certain problems or asked to provide ideas on important projects because you have a unique perspective and voice in the room as someone from a different country and background.

If you are able to keep a big picture perspective and identify some high impact improvements to be made (new ways for the company to communicate, more efficient systems, etc), there is a chance to make a bigger impact than you may otherwise have at home.

This is an opportunity to hit the ground running and make a big impact from the day one, and you should always be looking for ways to capitalize on it.

You Have True Grit

Language barriers, torrential downpours and flooding, learning to ride a motorbike or local transportation, dealing with work visas, illness, loneliness, navigating a new culture, finding friends…at times, handling life abroad can be a bit much.

two people jumping in a rain puddle
It takes grit to succeed in your work while learning a new culture.

Yes, trying to navigate adult life for the first time, a new job for the first time, and a new culture for the first time can be really stressful. Those are three big life components that you have to learn simultaneously.

But, man oh man, if you can figure it all out, get your shit together, and excel at your work with all the rest of that craziness going on in the background? If that doesn’t take grit and persistence, I don’t know what does.

You’re Respectful by Nature

Stepping into a new workplace is nerve-wracking. New people, new policies, new rules, figuring out the office politics and the rest takes some time.

And that is just if you are doing it in your native land. Figuring out a new culture and a new company culture at the same time can be properly challenging.  

The best perspective to take when working in a new country is to understand yourself as a guest. Just as you wouldn’t go to someone else’s house and tell them what should and shouldn’t be on the coffee table, and the same goes for when you are living and working abroad.

Yes, it can be frustrating. Hair-tearing, neck-wringing, sweat inducingly frustrating. But you came to them, they didn’t come to you. And you have to respect the culture that has been set in place long before you arrived.

Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t get to share your opinion. I am always amazed how much more open and welcoming of other opinions and ideas people of cultures other than the US are.

But you don’t come in and tear the house down. Take your time, learn the rules, ask why things are done out of genuine curiosity, and then you can begin identifying alternatives that may be a more effective way of accomplishing things.

And if you can do all of that, cultivate your sense of being a guest while also providing value with your opinion, you can be described as nothing but respectful.

You Get Sh#t Done

In the article, Ryan Holmes cites a Linkedin status by Linkedin CEO Jeff Weiner that reads “In the simplest terms possible, the people I most enjoy working with dream big, get sh*t done, and know how to have fun.”

This nicely sums up the other sections about grit and going beyond your title. When you find yourself abroad, remember three things 1.) you are being trusted with an awesome opportunity 2.) it is your job to make the most of it and 3.) enjoy it!

You will face tough challenges and some frustrating/sad/difficult moments. But if you can excel in your job while navigating another culture, you can safely claim you really know how to get sh#t done.

Have you worked abroad already? What areas of your professional skill-set do you feel it helped you developed? Let me know about your experience and any other thoughts you have on Twitter at @12hrdifference.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.