How to become a globetrotting CPA 

International assignments let you experience new cultures while you work. 
by Courtney L. Vien 
Published January 20, 2015

How to become a globetrotting CPAEver dreamed of living abroad? Now that business is becoming more global, CPAs have more opportunities than ever before to combine work with travel. Nearly 40% of companies sent more workers overseas in 2013 than they did in 2012. And the number of global assignment locations keeps growing. The average multinational firm sends its employees to 22 locations; by 2020, that number is expected to rise to 33.

“Because of the sheer number of U.S. businesses operating overseas, there are many roles available abroad for people with U.S. qualifications,” said Stephen Weatherseed, a managing partner at Mazars, Hong Kong, who has decades of experience working in Asia. “Knowledge of U.S. standards is a scarce resource in some countries.”

Working internationally is exciting and can increase your professional cachet, but it can be difficult to land that first global assignment. If you’re serious about working abroad, start early and plan your career accordingly. There are more opportunities for overseas work in industry than in public accounting, and at multinational and foreign-owned firms than at domestic ones, said Karl Halteman, CPA, CGMA, corporate finance director for contract research organization WIL Research, who is on a yearlong expatriate assignment in France.

Weatherseed believes it’s best to work for a firm that has a well-established overseas mobility program. “Individuals need and deserve a lot of support for international assignments to be successful,” he said. “Choose a company that has a truly global workforce at all levels, one whose HR department is experienced in dealing with issues like immigration procedures, overseas housing, and the removal of goods and effects from the U.S.”

How long does it take to land an international assignment? That depends both on your skills and on your company or firm’s needs. Certain international assignments require specific skills and experiences that people typically don’t acquire until midcareer, Halteman said. But other companies may prefer to send you abroad early in your career, before you’ve built up a portfolio.

Foreign language skills, while an asset, aren’t as essential to working overseas as you might think, as much business is conducted in English, Halteman and Weatherseed both said.

Halteman stressed the need to be vocal if you’re serious about working internationally. To land a long-term expatriate assignment, “you need to be both patient and aggressive, as such opportunities don’t come by often,” said Halteman, who waited about 15 years for his chance. When his company acquired a site in Lyon, France, he was quick to volunteer to work there should the need arise. Then, when an opportunity became available, his boss knew who to recommend.

The challenges and rewards of working abroad

Working overseas isn’t all noodle shops and trips to the Eiffel Tower. In fact, you should expect to face many challenges, including juggling time zones, getting vaccinations, securing visas, experiencing jet lag, researching health and safety issues, and, depending on your position, learning local tax laws and reporting standards.

If you bring your family abroad, their happiness can have a huge impact on the assignment’s success. “The personal side of managing a transfer overseas is even more important than the business and strategic side,” Weatherseed said. “If your spouse or partner isn’t happy and settled, even if you don’t have children, the assignment isn’t going to work.”

Adapting to cultural and other differences can also be a struggle, especially on your first assignment in a new country. “You need to psychologically adjust to the fact that things in the foreign country will be different from the one you come from,” said Weatherseed.

Even seemingly little things such as climate, food, and what side of the road people drive on, he said, can affect how you fare in your new location. “In Singapore,” he pointed out, “it’s 30–32 degrees Celsius [86–90 degrees Fahrenheit] and humid nearly every day of the year. If you’re used to having seasons, it can get on your nerves.”

Doing online research, or talking to people in your company with extensive international experience, can help you know what to expect before you go abroad, Halteman and Weatherseed said. “Minimize the amount of shocks or problems that are going to hit you by doing research and thinking through important issues like schooling, housing, and health care beforehand,” Weatherseed said.

But both men believe you learn the most through lived experience. “Consciously and actively try to immerse yourself in the culture of whatever location you’re assigned to,” advised Halteman, a 2010 graduate of AICPA Leadership Academy. “You need to observe and listen.”

Despite the hardships that can come with international work, both Weatherseed and Halteman said it’s incredibly rewarding. For Weatherseed, who first came to Asia a week after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and whose tenure there has spanned the rise of China’s economy, a career became an opportunity to watch history unfold. “It’s been a real privilege and opportunity to witness those events first-hand,” he said.

Sometimes, taking an international assignment can be fulfilling precisely because it is so challenging, Halteman said.

“It gives you a great sense of accomplishment,” he said. “You feel like you can overcome anything your career throws your way.”

Courtney L. Vien is an associate editor with the AICPA Magazines & Newsletters team.

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