When is the right time for an international move and to switch to
consultancy work. Advice by Neil Winter
Q: "At a recent conference an HR professional who has good UK
experience but none overseas asked, ‘When is the right time to consider an
international assignment?’ Then my HR colleague asked whether, given that he is
aiming for a top HR director job as his final career goal, an international
element to his career is essential?"
A: Taking the second part of the question first, it depends what you
mean by a top HR director job. If you mean HR director of a publicly quoted
company with international operations, then the answer is essentially yes –
some international exposure is vital.
If you are going to deliberately seek out an international element to your
career path, there are two typical times for overseas assignments. Both of
these will really help establish your credentials for board-level seniority
later on – but one is crucial if you are to have credibility at the highest
The first type of opportunity typically occurs early in your career. It may
be an exchange programme within your existing employer, or it might be a new
employer to you that has regular overseas HR requirements (as often happens
with the management of expatriates in the Middle East for example). The point
is that you are taking part in an exchange of interests in order to work abroad
and achieve learning and development. This is fine, and useful as a foundation
for your mid career, but not necessarily a stepping stone for the boardroom.
The second type of opportunity inevitably only happens as an internal
assignment within a multinational/international company. This is the transfer
to become top of the HR function for the major overseas operation of your
organisation. The reason why this is an important in-company move is reasonably
self evident. The implications regarding getting yourself in a situation where
you can take advantage of this sort of opportunity are highly important. These
– If you are interested in a top-level HR job within an international firm,
start working for that organisation, and building your career with them, in the
– Your expectation should be that at some point you will confidently aspire
to running HR for a major division overseas and you should actively work for
– You should actively seek out and promote your own successor at every stage
The rest of your onward career plan will lie in your own hands; it is a
matter of keeping contact with the international headquarters and making sure
you can re-enter at the right level at the right juncture.
Q: "A colleague who has always worked in HR roles within the same
(manufacturing) sector recently asked me about the benefit of moving into
consultancy as a deliberate career move, with the aspiration of broadening her
options. What advice should I give?"
A: As with all important career moves, this is the sort of
undertaking you should only embark upon if you have a firm understanding of why
it is you are considering the new option.
Possible reasons to consider HR consultancy include:
– Boredom with restrictions that your current job carries for doing
specialist work that you really enjoy
– The desire to get to a wider audience of people who you can serve
– The attraction of variety in both challenge and work timetables
Occasionally people are also attracted to consultancy because it will look
good on their résumés.
The secret behind using a period of consultancy as a boost to your career
path is to make sure that you clearly know the skillset that you are going to
sell as well as those capabilities that you are going to acquire. Never go into
consultancy simply to pass on an expertise you already have – always think
about what you can learn afresh and what can be leveraged in the future. You
also have to be absolutely immodest in using this period of consultancy
experience to demonstrate a new aspect to your continuing CV.
In terms of the ideal timing for a consultancy move, it should be once you
have some serious experience and knowledge to purvey. Look to enter consultancy
at just below the partner level so your consultancy work can move you either
progressively nearer a partner role in a consultancy or towards a director
level position back in the sector you inhabit.
Generally, careers that contain layers of contrasting experience tend to
extend further than those that focus on the HR ‘silos’, and in this respect a
period in consultancy can be a serious career-booster. However, don’t
inadvertently overstay your time in consultancy. If your objective is to get
back to your in-company HR career, do so within five years.
Neil Winter joined YSC Consulting in early 2000. He
previously worked at the US consulting firm RHR for six years, latterly as
manager in its London office. He has also worked as an organisational
development consultant at Coopers & Lybrand, having made the transition
from HR management in the energy sector, where he worked for Sun and Mobil Oil.