Itchy feet

Half of you have thought about working abroad, according to the results of a
survey by recruitment consultancy Robert Half, although you are as likely to
want to do this as a subsidised way of travelling and seeing the world as to
further your career prospects. Are we really that surprised to find out that the
major accountancy firms report more demand for placements in warm and sunny
locations than those erring on the cold and dark side?

 The research, conducted among 1,800 finance and HR professionals in 11
countries, shows that most think that the best time to travel is after two
years’ experience, although a substantial minority feel that the right time to
pack their laptop is straight after qualifying. Even though all the major firms
have well-managed programmes for moving their people around, 40% of those who
make the move abroad do so through the open market.

KPMG reckons that over the last five years there has been a 50% increase in
accountants working abroad. This year the firm will see 220 take up internal
secondments abroad.

This figure is set to increase, not least because KPMG, along with its
counterparts in the Big Four, is considering making overseas experience
compulsory for those who wish to become partners. ‘Although it may not do you
any harm if you have no overseas experience, it does you a whole lot of good if
you have some,’ says Lucy White, senior manager at KPMG in charge of global

There was a time when accountants would work abroad because they thought it
might be fun. But once overseas, they might have found it hard to settle, or
moved into areas or levels of responsibility that were not recognised on their
return to the UK. This led to frustration, with both the firm and the individual
losing out.

Today, firms are more organised and disciplined about the overseas
experience, the backup given to staff and the return process, not least because
the major firms use their international links and their possibilities as a major
recruiting tool. The days when ambitious accountants were advised not to go
abroad as they would lose their networks and place in the UK queue are long

But Samantha Weston, human resources director at Grant Thornton, points out
that working abroad is not right for everyone. ‘For some, it’s an important part
of confidence training or learning new technical skills. For others, this can be
gained through internal moves or moves to clients.

Life-changing event
‘We use our foreign secondments as part of our talent management programme. It’s
not just a way of keeping those who have itchy feet. Going abroad is a
life-changing event and must be thought through carefully. I have never heard of
anyone’s career suffering because they went abroad – or because they didn’t.’

Not everyone shares Weston’s views. Steven Rolls, human resources director at
Ernst & Young, concedes that staff can progress up the career ladder to
partner without having international experience, but ‘those who have
international experience seem to become partners quicker and more successfully’.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that 41-year-old Mark Otty, who in July will step
into the role of chairman of E&Y UK as the youngest ever in the firm’s
history, has experience of working in both South Africa and Canada.

Anthony Kennedy, a senior manager with KPMG, spent three years working in
South Africa before coming home in 2001. ‘The higher up the ladder you go, the
more likely it is that you will be dealing with clients who have an
international perspective, and you must be able to match that,’ he explains. ‘To
get the most out of any foreign assignment you must be positive, you mustn’t sit
back and most of all you must manage your return by keeping in contact with the
home office.’

Although the major firms do a much better job of making sure individuals
benefit from their experiences abroad and are reintegrated at an appropriate
level, problems still crop up.

For some, being a bigger fish in a much smaller overseas pond may be good for

experience, but not so healthy for their ego, and they can find it difficult to
come back to a more rigid hierarchy. Others are genuinely put out by the lack of
recognition of their experience. The firms admit that there are always
casualties who find it difficult to settle down after their foreign assignments.

Two years after qualifying, Tim Lincoln, a partner in Grant Thornton’s Leeds
office, spent two years in the Paris office. ‘One reason I joined GT was because
they had foreign offices,’ Lincoln admits. ‘I did my degree in France and it was
somewhere I wanted to work.’

Lincoln’s experience in France was positive but even he admits that gaining
confidence, having access to a wider professional network and developing
technical ability can all be achieved through secondment to other parts
of the UK. ‘I think where some people make mistakes is that they don’t plan
their return,’ Lincoln warns. ‘Unless you do, you could end up back in the same

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