Sunday, February 6, 2011

Expats and the job market

A recruiter called me a few weeks ago: a major new diagnostic testing facility was going to open in Maastricht in the next year and they are looking for an experienced leader.  Would I know anyone qualified for the position?

The facility will have state-of-the-art instruments, found nowhere else in Europe.  It will be run as an academic / government / commercial partnership, bringing together sharp minds and leading ideas with commercial links and technology transfer opportunities.  And it will be pan-European, with an expectation of having a Continental flow of patients and research, partnerships and spin-outs.

Intriguing stuff: I applied and passed the screening interview.  To my credit, I’d worked in business startups, commercial-academic collaborations, organizing teams, and technology transfer.  However, I was new to this particular field, had managed products instead of services, and was an expat applying for a high-profile position in a government sponsored venture.  I did my homework, reviewing business plans, visiting similar facilities, and planning a strategy for branding, supply chain, pricing, and costs that would establish a solid operating footing and a growing customer reputation within one year.

And, in those aspects, the formal interview (2 hours long) went well.  As with all Dutch negotiations, the folks were well prepared, had practical and pointed questions, and genuinely listened and dug beneath my answers.  Well and good: after four years I’m comfortable with that style and was ready with references and anecdotes from working with scientists in for-profit Dutch settings.

The hardest questions were about how I might handle press interviews and investor meetings as an expat and without Dutch fluency. I can see the worry: in times of economic stress and public debate about immigration, integration, and cultural homogeneity, a non-Dutch CEO could be controversial.

And, while praising my preparation, plans, and style in the interview, they did chose someone else.

I hate to lose, but I don’t feel too bad about this one: I would have made the same choice.

But it does set me to thinking about how expat applicants compete in the professional job market.  It seems like there are two alternatives:

One is to go toe-to-toe for professional positions against qualified Dutch applicants.  In that case, you do have to be both ordinary and exceptional.  Ordinary in the sense that I would have an established local presence, know the language fluently, and integrate transparently into both style and culture.  Exceptional in the sense that I would still need to bring an international reputation, a network of established connections, a history of high-profile success.

The alternative is to serve international markets, more in the style of a trader and facilitator, conducting business from US perspective within a Dutch base.  In this role, I am ordinary in being comfortable in either setting, exceptional in having dual sets of local knowledge and experience, parallel access to resources and network.

I’m probably more effective in the latter role, building on my expat status rather than suppressing it.  It’s an important distinction from a practical sense to: from skill-building to personal branding, the choice drives many decisions that build into business and personal success.


Sculptures and paintings by Lucia Nogueira, on exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge.  Photos of Untitled, 1989, metal, glass lenses, gauze, which was my favorite, for the way the work changes as the viewer moves through the space around it.


Jules said...

Language is definitely the biggest hurdle to getting hired. My Dutch has gotten exponentially better this year, and I definitely see a huge difference in how I'm treated if I can wrangle out a few sentences in semi-fluent Dutch before relapsing into English.

Dave Hampton said...

Hi, Jules, I think you're right, and it's probably relevant to either sort of job. Certainly, any long-term plans to stay in the Netherlands will require both income and language skills.

How did you get exponentially better this past year?