There you are – Career Advice for the “Trailing Spouse”

There you are in a new country, the other half of a dual career couple and having given up your job to follow your spouse! How can you continue your career once the assignment of your spouse is over? Here is some career advice for the “trailing spouse”, a lot of which has to do with managing perceptions.

“Trailing spouse” is not a positive label. However, that is how future employers will perceive you, so better get used to it. Whereas future employers will empathize with your decision to follow your spouse rather than continue your career, risk is that this interruption will reflect negatively on the value you can add in the future.

“Trailing spouse” means discontinuity in the eyes of a future employer: discontinuity in staying abreast with developments in your profession, your sector, technology, customer relations, network; discontinuity in being part of an organization and working in a hierarchical structure. What is more, there is no denying that you have chosen family over career.

The challenge therefore is to construct a credible story that the intermission is a positive contribution to your employability: that there is more continuity than the stereotypical expat spouse can muster.

Self-awareness is the key to managing perceptions. So now that you know how you are perceived, you can do something about it. No sense in denying or hiding that your have chosen to follow your spouse. It is all about convincing future employers and business partners that your professional development has not come to a standstill, but actually has progressed.

Successful career development depends on making sure the right people know what value you can add and why you are different: Motivation, Skills, Identity, and Network. The good news is that thanks to technology the world has become significantly smaller: “Overseas” is less far than it once was. Now you can learn, work and network from a distance. Let’s now look at these four items one by one.

MOTIVATION

Think about the long term first. Develop two or three career scenarios for the post- assignment future: More than one scenario to avoid becoming dependent on one and not more than three in order to focus your efforts. It is helpful to involve your spouse in this thought process as you will need his/her support to pursue your career. Then think about what motivates you. What are the activities, situations, context that make you perform beyond expectations? What gives you energy? Perhaps you want to pursue a particular purpose of find a particular meaning in your professional life. Such personal reflection should be based on your personality and your past experience of situations that motivated and de-motivated you.

SKILLS

What is you professional profile? Do you see yourself belonging to a particular sector (e.g. FMCG, Public Sector) or a particular profession (Law, IT) or are you an entrepreneur? Make sure that you keep abreast of the development in these fields. What skills does this sector/profession require in the future? Then find activities locally in your new home and/or online that allow you to keep your key skills up to date and perhaps give the opportunity to develop new and relevant skills.

If you choose to work part-time, a clear emphasis on those activities that build your skills is even more important to get the most out of the time you invest in work.

If it does not put you in any financial difficulties, finding an activity that builds your skills in relation to your career scenarios is more important than a paid activity. E.g. if you are a finance professional, being a pro-bono treasurer of the local golf club is more valuable than getting paid for teaching Spanish. Similarly, an activity that makes you formally part of an organization – even if unpaid – is more important than informal work. E.g. President of the Parents Association trumps volunteering to tell stories in your kid’s school. Employers feel that it is difficult to reintegrate someone who has become disused to being part of a hierarchy or a team. Owning your own company by the way counts as formally belonging to an organization: it has a legal structure and you maintain formal business relationships with customers and suppliers. As a rule of thumb, skill-building activities are more important than being employed. Being formally part of an organization is more important than being informally active.

Skills can be developed also through formal education and training, of course. Perhaps this career break is the occasion to do that MBA you never got round to doing. MBAs most of the time contain projects, internships and electives. Choose those well, so that they support your career scenarios, the more so if one of your scenarios involves a change of career.

IDENTITY

What makes you different from others in the same profession? Ask the people you have worked with how they see you. What, in their view, made you stand out from others? Think about what it takes to maintain your edge. It is important to realize that you professional identity is subject to change. It will definitely change as a result of your expatriation. The more reason to actively manage your professional identity and therefore the way you will be perceived by future employers and business partners. Your identity is also your brand, which you should make sure to communicate through your online profile, CVs and elevator speech.

NETWORK

Nourish your existing professional relationships by staying in touch, feeding them with information, and keeping them abreast of your professional development. Think about the key persons, who have been important for your career progression. Who are the people that have helped you through difficult times? Such people may again be precious to your success in the current and future situation.

Map your network for each of your career scenarios. Strategically focus on building and maintaining a network in those areas where you have the biggest gap. When contacting new and existing members of your network it is helpful to present yourself not as who you have been but whom you expect to be once the assignment is over. The information gained through networking will help you to adapt your career scenarios to the realities and opportunities of the labor market.

Communicate your added value, and your difference (your brand) through networking, your CV, an elevator speech as well as social media for professionals. It is helpful to be active on such social media – LinkedIn, Xing – as a way to communicate your brand as well as to demonstrate that you can add value to a professional relationship by sharing information and by contributing to your connections’ learning. Be vigilant that your image on other social media¬† – Facebook, Instagram – supports or at least does not do injustice to your professional brand.

Once it is known where you will go after your spouse’s assignment is over (back to where you came from or to a different country), you can narrow down your networking activities to that geographical area. This also allows you to perform an analysis of the market constraints and opportunities and finally develop a strategy to realize the most promising scenario.

A successful repatriation really determines whether an expatriate assignment adds value to a career. For it to be successful, the expatriate needs to pro-actively manage the repatriation and to start doing well before the assignment comes to an end. It is no different for the expatriate spouse.

Good luck !

Blogpost by here we are Key Ressource Person Paul Vanderbroeck. Paul Vanderbroeck is an executive coach and organizational consultant specialised in dual career opportunities and women leadership. Paul originates from The Netherlands and currently divides his time between Switzerland and Italy.

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