Learn Grow Succeed Conversations: How To Make Relocation Work As You Develop Your Career

Reading time: 18 minutes

Interviewer: Welcome to the Learn Grow Succeed Podcast, and a special welcome to Anne Parker. Anne is a learning manager in a large multinational organisation, working on learning strategies and skill-based training that is delivered across the globe. Anne has also developed a unique training programme on how to be successful in relocation, which I imagine a lot of people listening will be relating to the conversation that we have as we go through the next half an hour. This particular programme has also led to Anne co-authoring a book and creating an online training programme. Anne, first of all, welcome.

Anne Parker: Thank you.

Interviewer: Thanks for joining us. I guess a great place to start really, and I’m sure some of our audience will be interested to hear this, what were some of your experiences and observations of people relocating that led you in the first instance to create the international skills training programme that you have?

Anne Parker: Yes. I was born in New Zealand, and then by the age of 12 I’d lived in Hong Kong, Bahrain, Jamaica, been back to the UK, where I’m originally from, following of course my family and my father’s work. After that, I then went travelling as a backpacker. I ended up for 14 years in Australia, and now I’ve been in The Netherlands for the last 14 years. In all that time, there are times when I’ve moved, and I moved a lot in Australia as well, where I found the move easy. In fact, it was just fun. It was an adventure, and there was everything to gain, and it was easy. There were times when I moved, and it was really difficult, and I struggled. I started to ask myself that question, “What’s going on for me?” someone I would consider has a lot of experience moving, “And why do I find it hard sometimes?” Then what’s going on for other people? How can I create some kind of solid answers, and actions, and understanding of that process so I can be more in control of it?

Interviewer: We are living, aren’t we, in a world where I think international career opportunities are probably more popular than ever. The challenges of moving to a new country or even perhaps a city may put some employees off. Or employees want to move, but their partners are unsure. There’s wider career implications or family implications for them. What in your experience is the starting point for any employee that’s considering a relocation?

Anne Parker: I think that for this kind of question, I answer it using Einstein’s theory, E=mc squared.

Interviewer: I’m curious. Go on.

Anne Parker: Bear with me here. For me, expat equals managing change squared. Whatever happens, you want to be aware that you’re going to be dealing with change in every area of your life. It’s 24/7, and it’s not a holiday. I think when you have that as the context, you can take the experience seriously and prepare for it properly. I was just preparing for our chat today, looking at some research. HR News in the UK had a really fascinating statistic that 70% of failed moves are a result of the family issues. That’s because there are so many different people to bring with you and to rebuild their lives. It’s a very big process.

Interviewer: It is. Let’s say once someone has made the decision to move, how do they draw on their career and their life experiences in order to help themselves and the family or the person that they are taking with them if it’s a partner?

Anne Parker: I think it’s really important that people are very clear about why they’re moving. There are two aspects to this. One is, if you like, the reasons why you’re moving away from where you’re living. It might well be that you say, “This country doesn’t have the career opportunities for me. This country doesn’t have the weather, the lifestyle.” All of these are completely valid, and that’s why you’re leaving and able to leave. But the other question is, what has pulled you towards the country you’re choosing? What are the reasons why you choose that country over any other, because when you move, that balance of just wanting to get away towards choosing this country is going to be so important for everybody that’s moving, the employee, and the partner, and the kids, if the kids are involved.

Interviewer: Is it about choosing a country and then looking for the opportunity and the right role? I think sometimes when I’ve listened and chatted to people about relocation, it’s almost felt like it’s the job that’s been the priority, and that job happens to be in X country. It’s not been a case of choosing a country. How does that influence things, because that is a little different.

Anne Parker: There are so many reasons why people end up in the countries they end up in. It could be that they chose a job and relocated directly to that country, and the job was the job of their dreams. It could be that they were travelling and they stayed. It could be that they went with a partner. It could be that they found a partner while they were there. For whatever the reason that has you there, I think it then becomes the same process for everyone. Be very clear about what your goal is there. What are the opportunities for yourself? What kind of life do you want to make for yourself? Are these realistic goals based over time? How do you build yourself towards them?

Interviewer: That’s interesting to hear you talking about building a vision for your life and life goals because so often we can do that more regularly in terms of work, and yet maybe don’t automatically take those work skills and translate them into life skills and building that vision, as you say, for your family. I know in terms of the international skills programme that you created, that you’ve related that to Ernie Shackleton’s story. What made you do that, and the relevance really to today’s explorers, because that’s what people are when they’re taking up international assignments.

Anne Parker: Yes, exactly. I wanted to look for an empowering context that we can find ourselves in, in this complex experience because we are not tourists. We’re not on an extended holiday. For me, everybody that moves internationally, and anyway, it can be across a large country, we’re the modern-day explorers. We’re up for adventure. We want a challenge. We understand that it may be difficult. That’s where the success, and the reward, and the satisfaction comes from. For me, it feels like if we say that about ourselves, we’re the modern-day explorers, we have some context, and everything is right. When things are tough, that’s part of the process, and nothing’s really wrong.

I looked at Shackleton in particular because I wanted to use an approach to this topic where I could look at someone else and we could learn from their experience and pull it towards ourselves. With Shackleton, everything about his 1914 expedition to Antarctica went wrong. The ship sank. Everything went wrong, and yet it’s ultimately a story of success. Yes, it was a long time ago, and yes, he was British, but that’s not why I chose him. There’s a Hollywood movie being made at the moment. Actually, as we speak today, there’s a five-day expedition in the Weddell Sea looking for his sunken ship. It’s totally topical, and it’s a most amazing adventure.

Interviewer: I like it. I imagine people listening to this podcast who have had experiences relocating themselves or with families will recognise the stories that you share around that adaptation process. It’s a great model, and I just wondered if you could touch on that for us a little.

Anne Parker: Yes. A couple of things to say here. The way I approach the adaptation model is around the topic of approaching relocation from a business management perspective. I wanted to look at change management, project management, and self-leadership tools to understand the competencies and the attitudes I’ve developed relocating and other people have, sometimes unconsciously, but that we can use to be in control. I say that first because the adaptation model is a very useful model for us to consider. The only caveat I’d put to that is it feels like you’re kind of out of control. Diane, who wrote the book with me, has a lovely analogy, which it sounds like you get off the plane or the train in your new country, you have the culture shock virus. It’s a virus that there are no antibiotics for. You just wrap up warm, and if you’re British, drink tea, maybe watch Netflix a lot, and you will eventually pop out the other side feeling better. There is absolutely something to the adaptation process. Many people go through it. I’ve been through it. I’ll describe it first.

When we arrive, we can be very excited. We’re on our adventure. We’ve got there. But the next step is that we can start to find that our expectations are not met by the reality of this country. Bit by bit as we set up our lives, we are constantly met with disappointment or surprises. Lovely if they’re nice surprises. These can bring us into a state of feeling quite rundown and quite unhappy. That’s that state in the adaptation process culture shock curve. What the curve says is that given enough time, you will come out the other end of it. Your well-being will go back up, and you will feel like you accept the country that you live in. My question was, from a business management perspective, what can I do about that? What can I bring here that will help me control it or move me from one place to the other? Why is it happening?

I’ve talked about the setting-up phase when you start realising it’ll take six weeks for WiFi, the time differences to be in contact with home, and food doesn’t taste the same. You don’t really understand people and what they’re saying. This is a constant reassessment of our expectations. But then there’s a stage, which people don’t talk about and it’s really not shown in the adaptation curve, where we really hit a place of emptiness where nothing’s really going on past the setup, nothing else to buy, but nothing really to do either. At home, we’d be busy. Here, we’re not. That’s really an area to protect and to try and move out of quickly. That’s when we start creating structure, and building our lives, and making our life as busy and as successful as it was before. Yes, the adaptation process, but the question to ask when you’re looking at it is, “Why am I here, and how can I move to the next stage?”

Interviewer: I can relate to some of the things that you’re describing having relocated north, south of the UK and back again at different times. You described structure. Can you give us a few examples of what you mean by a structure that will help people perhaps move from that emptiness place back into a more positive state? What are some of the things that practically people can be doing for themselves, and also thinking about it, Anne, from a family perspective because there can be multiple people involved in this experience?

Anne Parker: Okay, big question. Thank you. The first thing to consider is just what are the kinds of skills that you need to relocate? What are the business skills? I would say you need things like project management skills to move you and to set up your life. You need leadership skills to lead yourself to set short and long-term goals and to prioritise your action for you and your family. You need to also have change management skills where you set realistic expectations, where you’re prepared to be agile when things don’t go your way. You review your achievements and say, “Look how far I’ve come,” not always looking up the mountain and how far I have to go. These are some overarching approaches I will talk about.

When we get somewhere a bit more detailed, I like to consider the visualisation that when we’re rebuilding in a new country, we’re rebuilding three maps in our life. The first map is actually one we would all think of. It’s the geographic map. Where am I, and how do I get anywhere else? As I walk out my new door, how do I move around this city, around this place? We expect to colour in that map over time. The second map is our activity map, the kind of things we used to do outside of work, our social life, our hobbies, our sporting activities. How often did we do them? That’s when we start enjoying our lives. What can happen is when we move, all of that has gone, and we have to rebuild it. I always say to people who are in the emptiness phase, “Get busy. It doesn’t have to be the kind of hobbies you had before, but just get busy because otherwise, you’re kind of waiting.”

The final map, which is really a killer map, this is your identity map. Our identity is complex, but two things that really impact it, who we see ourselves to be, and who others reflect back to us. If we were back in our own country, recognised for our qualifications, people understood the companies we’d worked for, it was meaningful to others and to us. Then that helps us to keep a sense of ourselves, our worth, our contributions. But if we move to a new country where our qualifications aren’t recognised, where people don’t know where we’re talking about, we can become instead reflected as the new person or the partner, and so our identity starts getting smaller. Maybe later I can talk about some specific steps, but at this stage, I always talk to people about a business management approach and rebuilding the three maps.

Interviewer: Just thinking about maps, what role do you think generally our mindset plays in that whole managing change piece because we do live in such a fast-paced world where change is literally a constant, isn’t it? That doesn’t mean to say though that everybody is comfortable with change. How do the mindset that we bring and our family members bring impact the success that we can make of this change?

Anne Parker: Yes, good question. There are really only three responses that we have to change. Either we can pull it towards us and say, “Bring it on. We’re ready,” we can resist it and say, “I don’t want that. No, thank you,” or we can take an approach called wait and see. I do hear a lot of people going, “Well, I had no expectations, so I was fine.” That’s the wait and see approach. It really does depend on how people have decided to approach the entire move and parts of it. One thing is to be really aware of what kind of response you’re having to change and really to have a self-reflection on how you’re feeling, how you’re responding.

One of the things I like to talk about is the thinking equation. I call it that. It’s about the way that our minds think at speed, and sometimes we’re unconscious of it. It starts with our expectations, sometimes unconscious. “I expected the house here would be as big as the house back home. I expected that my salary would be getting me much more for my money than I actually have,” big expectations that we didn’t really think we were creating, and then getting this big reality check. It can create, if you like, a plus or minus emotional response. What happens then is we at lightning speed and unconsciously make an opinion or belief. We decide something because we are meaning-making machines. “Right, so this is what this means, and I need to understand it for next time.” Again, that in a way is not the issue, but our belief will either help us to have more action or less. That’s the problem.

I’ve talked to people who said, “I am realising I have unconsciously decided that because I can’t speak the language, this cannot be home, and the actions I’m taking are less than I would be at home. I’m not going out as much. I’m not meeting as many people. I’m not rebuilding my activity map.” Therefore, given enough time, you might find that a corporate is suddenly going to have them or their partner in front of them saying, “We have to go home,” because we think something is wrong with our experience.” What I like to say to people is, “You’re normal. You’re absolutely normal. All these thinking processes and all these beliefs are just an unconscious process that you can with reflection take control of them.”

Interviewer: Yeah. I guess that’s the thing, isn’t it, that with reflection and then wanting to make that choice, that actually if you can look at the positives of the experience, because I imagine it can be quite easy if you’re in an unhappy place at the bottom of that curve that you described to look at what’s not working rather than looking at what is working and what progress have we made in this transition. If I was to continue working on different things and building my activity map, etc., that actually we can make this an ultimate success.

Anne Parker: Yeah, exactly. Something else I like to consider is a model that people find very useful to find themselves in is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where the irony for me is that people move on adventure to work at the top parts of the needs where it’s about developing human potential, exploring being the best you can be. We move for that, but the reality is some of us end up dealing with the bottom needs where we’re trying to work out, “Where do I live? What food do I eat? Am I safe here? How do I find a sense of belonging?”

Between partners, they can be having very different experiences. An employee on the one hand certainly can move and take the job for their career and for their potential. They will have a lot of responsibility for having moved a partner or kids with them, so there’s a pressure to do well. On the other hand, you have the partner who’s trying to re-setup the house, re-set up their life, dealing on a daily basis with more time than they’ve ever had. Their identity might be a little less than it was before. The balance in their relationship in terms of contributing has changed. They’re dealing with a very different level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They don’t plan for that kind of difference in experience.

Interviewer: I think within that as well, you’ve touched on something that, if I use this general word of culture and adapting to the culture, we haven’t talked specifically about culture. The things that you’ve been describing, how do people deal with quite significant cultural differences? We probably have got people listening who are thinking, “Yeah, I am in a totally different culture, and I’m dealing with some parts of it. Maybe I’m struggling with some others.” Are there some thoughts that you can share there, maybe a couple of practical tips you could share to help people?

Anne Parker: Right, yeah. I think it’s really a great point because I absolutely think we have to look at culture and cultural adaptation when we move. It’s a very big part of this topic. It’s just not the only part. Sometimes it becomes the only part. Meeting your neighbours and understanding your neighbours is a big deal. What I like to describe is the fact that deep down inside we usually have the same values. We find the same things important. However, when it starts to show up in what we say and we do, it can be reflected very differently.

An example of that is, for instance, having lived in different parts of the world, I know that there are parts of the world where my message is delivered through my words. What I say is what I mean. That’s all you need. You don’t need my facial expression, you don’t need body language because they’re not necessary. They could actually distract you from my words. In other parts of the world, let’s look over at us lovely British, we might say one thing and mean another. Our humour is like that. Our body language, our facial expression, our tone will really be where you know what the message is. The underlying value for everyone is to be understood, and to understand, and to respect people as we communicate, but the way it shows up is very different. I think it’s important for people to try and remember that we’re the same underneath, we want to connect, and that it’s not personal, these cultural differences. Then of course if you’re going on an expedition, you can prepare well. Read about this culture and understand it better.

Interviewer: Some good advice there. From your experience, Anne, what are the different strategies that you could recommend that would allow a person to make the most of their experience abroad on top of what you have described and shared with us so far?

Anne Parker: Yes. I think there are two types of strategies that you can use, emotion-based strategies that help you to manage your thoughts and your feelings, and action-based strategies, which really solve problems and create results. An emotion-based strategy, for instance, to manage thoughts and feelings is, “Hey, I take life step by step, one day at a time. I’m not going to make it too overwhelming. I’m going to break it into pieces.” It’s rather like how I walked up the Himalayas. Just look down, take one step at a time. Do not look up that mountain. Breaking challenges into small pieces, and really looking back and seeing what I’ve achieved instead of always looking forward. There are emotion-based strategies. The one

I would highlight to be careful of, is a lot of people say, “Well, if it goes wrong, I can go home.” It’s certainly a way I’ve moved to some of the countries I’ve moved to. I made that decision to move and at the last minute panicked like, “Well, I’ll go, and I can always come home.” The problem with that is you could be living a half-life, waiting for life to turn up, constantly assessing, “Is this the right place?” And living very differently than someone who’s like, “You know what? I’m not leaving. I’m in.” They’re building at a different rate and in a different way. It’s fair enough to say, “I can always go home,” but at some point, you might be saying, “And now I’m staying.”

Interviewer: Right.

Anne Parker: Action-based strategy is, I’m focused on me building these three maps. I am really making my home a home. I’m acting as if I’m staying for good. No matter what I do – and I might leave – I build as if I’m building for a future.

Interviewer: Just going back to the emotional piece that you mentioned, it reminds me of the one that you highlighted to be aware of is almost like a bit of self-sabotage, isn’t it? Perhaps to go in with that mindset of, “Well, I can always go home,” is that unconsciously, if we’re not careful, that we’re setting up that self-sabotage pattern that means that we don’t necessarily take all the actions that we may well take.

Anne Parker: Exactly. This is a really great example to show you how I link that to Shackleton and the way that has no one being wrong but also being able to have insight on whether this strategy is helpful for you or not. With Shackleton, of course, when the ship sank, there’s no going home.

Interviewer: No.

Anne Parker: It changed the level of commitment of these men on the ice. It was like, “How are we going to get out of here?” Before that, they were just packed in ice, living on the ship, and waiting for the ice to melt, and they would sail home. No adventure, no success, but they were going home. As soon as the ship had sunk, it was a different level of commitment. They were building in a different way. I know people who have gone on a temporary assignment. The day that they sign that contract to stay, they tell me it’s completely different. Same country, same house, same colleagues, same job, and everything’s changed because in their head they’re building now.

Interviewer: You’re talking about people who make that long-term commitment. Let’s just flip it because I imagine that there obviously are people who come to the end of an assignment. Whether they decide not to take the next opportunity or not, the reality is that their decision is that they’re going to go back home. What about that transition back and still move forward if that makes sense?

Anne Parker: Two things here. One is if you look at statistics around returning home and corporates, it’s a very high percentage of employees who return back to their old work and do not stay. One of the reasons has been given that they go back into their old role, yet they’ve actually outgrown it. They come back with an expectation that everything they’ve experienced and learned in their new career they will be able to use, and find that in some way they can’t. There’s an expectational reality out there from a corporate perspective.

Secondly, from a personal perspective, you’ve got the same issue because people return home remembering home before. Their expectations sometimes are unrealistic. People have moved on. They may have started having kids. They are not accessing their life the way that it was before. Even when they visited for a week or two, they didn’t really have an understanding of how much life around them had changed. This is where I usually tell people who are returning home to be careful about their expectations. Are they realistic for life now? Also, you will have to rebuild your maps. You’ll have to not just fill in your old ones but start new ones. It’ll take more energy than you probably think.

Interviewer: Yeah. As someone who has moved across the globe with a family, including children, the partner who’s taken the job opportunity, the primary job opportunity, what additional things might they need to be aware of when it comes to their partner? I know you’ve talked about self-identity and shifting identity. Are there any additional things that you think the working partner needs to be aware of?

Anne Parker: I do training with just the employee, and I do training with just the partner, and I do training with both of them together. What I find amazing about any one of that mix is that at some point in the training the employee will begin to realise that it’s a very real experience. When they’ve seen Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when they’ve seen the adaptation curve, when we’ve looked at how the thinking equation can have you form beliefs that can have you either in a virtuous circle of activities or a vicious circle of fewer activities, they begin to understand that they’re having a very different experience than their partner. It’s very hard for a partner to articulate this. At the end of the day when the employee comes home, they might be saying, “Well, yeah, I didn’t feel that great today.” That doesn’t explain I’m at a lower level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to you, and I’m at a different place in the adaptation curve than you are, and therefore my experience is different, valid, and I’m normal. In a lot of ways, I think both sides find it very useful to understand that.

I have seen some employees want their partner to get up and get going, and, “Come on, because I’ll feel better, to be honest, if you are busy.” At times, it’s called cocooning, we need to regroup. We need to re-get our energy. We’ve taken a lot of energy coming to a new country. So much more, in my view, has changed for the partner than the employee who gets structure, and rhythm, and social life, and an instant ability to contribute. Sometimes partners need to regroup. That quietness is fine. It’s just to ensure that it’s helping them just staying at home and regrouping, and when is it time to start moving out. The other thing I would say to the employee is no matter how tired you are on that weekend, you’re going to have to go out a bit to make sure your partner gets to go out the house because they’ve been waiting all week for that. These are the things to consider.

Interviewer: Fantastic. I guess as we begin to draw our conversation to a close, are there any final words of wisdom that you can share because I think perhaps if I’d been having this conversation with you 20 years ago when I probably made my first move, there would have been some differences perhaps to my experience. Any final pearls of wisdom that you can share with people?

Anne Parker: Okay, here we go. I think it’s to understand that there is a larger conversation to have about relocation than just the adaptation curve and cultural adaptation. To be successful in relocating is really to be able to adapt to a new environment. It’s to use business skills like managing change. It’s to use the ability to communicate across cultures. It’s to be able to lead yourself and to lead others. There are just so many skills and competencies from the business world that we can pull over to help people use tools, get into action, and manage and motivate themselves through this process, and ultimately stay. Stay happily.

Interviewer: Fantastic. Thank you for that, Anne. It’s been a real pleasure. Great having this conversation with you today. I’m sure lots of people have got a lot of benefit out of the ideas and the practical suggestions that you’ve been able to share. Thank you very much.

Anne Parker: You’re welcome.