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Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in working abroad, 2003 alum Joseph Bubman shares a great alternative to consider.  

Some young professionals frustrated with their jobs falsely assume a binary choice between either grinning and bearing the monotony of a soulless job or risking everything by quitting on a whim without guarantee of a future paycheck. An often overlooked opportunity exists for high performers able to negotiate a secondment, a temporary transfer to a foreign office or to a related organization.

During a six-month secondment from Vantage Partners to Mercy Corps’ conflict management group in 2011, I worked with field staff, government officials, and community leaders in Kenya and Guatemala on tools and strategies for resolving disputes. My friend Brian Soloway joined KPMG’s Financial Services group in its Shanghai office for 11 months in 2008 and 2009. The secondments enriched both of us personally and professionally.

And you can arrange your own secondment, even if your employer lacks a formal program—mine did! Here are five tips for making it happen:Bubman Jan 2013 photo

  1. Pay your dues. Unlike perks such as year-end bonuses or vacation days, secondments aren’t routine. Position yourself for a secondment early on by demonstrating exceptional performance and a strong work ethic. Volunteer for less glamorous assignments. Help others with their work when they need it.  Do what is needed to exceed your managers’ and clients’ expectations. After all, your manager will want to be able to explain why you were selected instead of others.
  2. Develop key relationships and mentors. Neither hard work nor exceptional performance is sufficient for rapid growth within an organization. Just as you may need a senior manager’s endorsement to ensure a promotion, you may need an influencer to help bring a secondment to fruition. “Find someone senior who has enough authority, who you feel some sort of connection with, and who can advance your ideas,” Soloway says. “Seek out mentors and push them until they are impressed by the drive you exhibit and the value you deliver.”
  3. Generate your own ideas. It’s not your employer’s responsibility to arrange a secondment for you. And the last thing your busy manager wants to do is research the range of opportunities that might exist. Identify possible options for an overseas stint, investigate them as much as you can, and offer to do whatever administrative work (e.g., emailing contacts, drafting letters of reference) that might alleviate the burden on your boss.
  4. Articulate how the firm would benefit. My non-profit secondment placed me in challenging rural settings. I could no longer rely on my consulting firm’s partners or creative design team to do everything for me. Instead, I myself had to determine how to structure a workshop in Karamoja, Uganda, decide how best to engage semi-literate participants, and figure out what to do when the generator failed mid-session. My experiences overseas afforded me new opportunities once I returned to my firm in Boston. Determine what skills are in demand at your employer and describe how you can better develop those during a secondment.
  5. Maintain flexibility: Think about what you can agree to that costs little to you but that means a lot to your employer. For example, consider proposing that your secondment start only after you stick around for what is typically the busiest period of the year. Or commit to return to the firm for a minimum amount of time following your secondment. Finally, be open-minded. “You may want to go one place, but they have a need in a different place,” Soloway says. “Or you’re interested in working in one group but the need is with a different group. You’ve got to be flexible.”

Joseph Bubman is founder and CEO of Company Connector, an employer matching tool for job seekers. He is also an affiliate senior trainer on negotiation and conflict management at Vantage Partners, LLC, where he has helped leading companies across a range of industries to negotiate and manage their strategic relationships. He received his bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Northwestern University in 2003.

About Where The Wildcats Are
University Career Services’ alumni blog series “Where The Wildcats Are” features the career experiences and advice from Northwestern University alumni of all ages and stages. Learn where your fellow Wildcats are post-graduation and how they reached their career goals. Are you a Northwestern alumni interested in sharing your career development process with current students? Email careerservices@northwestern.edu and include “Alum blogger” in the subject line.