One attraction of working in a global firm is the opportunity to work overseas for a few years without disrupting your career. At the Big 4, they are known as international assignments. Are you ready for that?
Timing of the International Assignment
Big 4 international assignment, also known as international rotation, is arranged when there is a need of technical skills in overseas offices. Because they mostly want US GAAP expertise, only seniors and above are qualified, with most going at manager or senior manager level.
The terms of your global mobility contract is usually negotiated between home country, host country, and possibly also the client. Your home office pays a minimum expat benefits, such as basic relocation and storage expenses.
The better your industry and skills match with what is required in the host office, the more likely they will pay for extra benefits. This may include housing (rent and agency fees), full relocation expenses, meal allowance, education allowance for children, and assisting your spouse to find work in the host country. The higher your level, the higher the benefits.
Nature of Assignment
Given the nature of work, there are more international rotations in assurance than in tax and advisory.
There are exceptions, of course. My husband John started at Financial Advisory Services at PwC at the New York headquarters. A few months into his job, he was sent to Tokyo for a 6-month international assignment. He stayed at the Imperial Hotel for the entire time and ate so much sushi (on company’s account) that he got food poisoning… It was however very tedious work. There was a reason to send him there.
There are two types of international assignments: strategic and non-strategic.
Strategic Rotation: The Pros
Strategic means value-add in the eyes of the firm, but they try to align your interest. This means the opportunity also matches your industry and technical expertise. For strategic assignments, the firm will take care of you in the host country and make sure you come back to broadly what you want to do.
You may express your preference in terms of location, but for top performers willing to be placed in any office to add the most value, the firm has the most incentive to keep you happy with a generous expat package and a good position when you return to the US.
International assignments are great personal experience, and may help your career, particularly after the Big Four. The experience is invaluable from a resume perspective and shows to your firm and prospective employers you are willing to take risks for the right opportunities.
Strategic Rotation: The Cons
This isn’t for everybody, especially those with family and kids.
At the same time, some people have a hard time integrating back to the US office after a couple of years. Lots of client and staff turnover may have happened in past 2 years, and you may not be able to get back to your client and your team.
These are more random temporary relocations without much strategic value to the firm, nor do they offer long-term career development. John’s Tokyo assignment mentioned above is non-strategic.
If you are able to return to your own team after a few months, it could be a cool experience and an interesting stint to mention in the resume. However, you do run a risk of doing random, mundane and tedious work all day, with local staff whom you don’t click.
Compensation and Tax Issues
For most people I talk to, the compensation remains the same, with adjustment due to the difference in cost of living. For strategic assignments, the adjustment is usually favorable. For example, if your children need to attend expensive English-speaking schools in the host country, the firm will pay for that. You may be given a driver and housekeeper if that is the local custom.
For tax, you won’t be better or worst off. The firm pays your actual tax, then calculate the portion you need to pay them using a tax equalization mechanism. HR personnel specializing in expat arrangement will take care of this.
Does Big 4 International Assignment Accelerate My Path to Partnership?
It depends. Most strategic international assignments are jobs with large clients, which is always helpful in your track record within the Big 4. If the client is not only big, but also complex and generates lots of revenue, it is the best one you can get. If you are lucky enough to work under a popular partner in the host office, even better.
On the other hand, if your client isn’t meaningful and you work under an unknown partner in a small office, you are better off just getting to a big market in the US (New York, Chicago, Silicon Valley). From there, get on a high profile client and work as hard as you can.
If you like the idea of traveling, working with large clients give you enough opportunities to travel to their regional offices. Short trips to many different places could be a more interesting experience than one big international assignment.
How to Increase Your Chance of Success
Okay. You still want to do it. What should you do?
1. Strive to be Top Performer
Your are normally eligible to apply with an above-average rating, but those rated a 1 or 2 have the highest priority for strategic assignments.
2. Plan Early
Once you hit senior (or second year for high performers), discuss with your performance development coach, who can get additional information from HR.
3. Make Your Business Case
If you are interested in a specific country or region, identify the strongest industry there. For example, if you are interested in a Hong Kong rotation and banks are the highest-profile clients there, you should start manage your career and get financial services experience. The better you prepare, the stronger your business case by the time you are eligible to apply.
4. Brush up the Local Language
Many offices are fine with English alone, but some do prefer you speak (and even read) the local language. Again, it could only help your case.
5. Stay in Contact with Your Colleagues in Home Office
This is what you should do after getting the assignment, but very important. Keeping regular contact with your team and colleagues in your home office will help your transition back to the US much easier. Simple gestures such as emailing to say hi, sending Christmas cards to important people, and dropping by the office whenever you are back to your home town for vacation… there are many ways to keep people from forgetting you.
Best of luck to your exciting adventure!
For Your Further Reading