CIO career as an expatriate in the post-corona world

CIO career as an expatriate in the post-corona world

Is it still worth gaining experience abroad in times of remote work? Ralph Ostertag, Director Digital & Technology Asia Pacific at Heineken, explains why a stay abroad is so important. […]

Before the corona pandemic, career experts agreed: for managers, a longer stay abroad should always be part of the curriculum vitae. But the past two years have just thrown the international career paths into disarray. Is it worth it for IT experts and CIOs/CTOs to gain foreign experience on site in times of remote work?

By the beginning of 2020, the case was clear: for expatriates, i.e. employees posted abroad, the stay abroad was a career booster. As a rule, they are allowed to take on more entrepreneurial responsibility, they often work directly for the country CEO, acquire a wide range of knowledge and often move in a freer environment than in the hierarchy of the headquarters. So many things that mature the personality and let the wealth of experience grow.

While longer assignments abroad for classic management functions on the way to the top management levels were part of the planned path, in the IT sector this career springboard seemed to have just been discovered for itself – until the pandemic put a damper on these ambitions. Secondments are currently more time-consuming for all parties involved: quarantine periods, ever new vaccination and visa regulations make international removals difficult, even in a professional context.

In marketing and sales, large corporations tend to encourage managers to go abroad to get to know the global company better. If you are successful, they will offer you a next step after your stay abroad, such as management tasks, management of a business unit or P&L responsibility.

On the other hand, in the IT sector (as well as in the HR or finance sector), you are already working very internationally with other colleagues and departments – working remotely, even across several time zones, has long been a standard in IT. Other managers had to learn this in the pandemic. At the same time, before the crisis, companies rated a career move of an IT manager after a stay of several years as not absolutely necessary, probably did not even envisage it in the first place.

But let’s look to the future: I still believe that international experience is just as crucial for future CIOs and CTOs today as it was before the pandemic – if not even more so. There are several reasons for this:

The corona crisis has been a catalyst for digitization in almost all industries and has once again emphasized the central importance of IT as a business partner of top management. If CIOs want to make a significant contribution to digital transformation and other central strategic realignments, IT managers are required to align their cvs and experiences with management standards.

At the same time, the increasing shortage of management and skilled workers in the tech sector is leading companies to gradually signal a greater openness to international candidates – a trend that is likely to intensify in the coming years. The more international IT teams become, the more CIOs/CTOs benefit from it, whose openness to new experiences and influences should also be reflected in their CV.

Ralph Ostertag, Director Digital & Technology Asia Pacific at Heineken: “I have worked in local, regional and global roles. That was crucial for my career.“ (c) The Heineken Company

“Intercultural experience is invaluable and nowadays a prerequisite for a senior leadership role in a globalized business,” says Ralph Ostertag, Director Digital & Technology Asia Pacific at The Heineken Company. “It also helps a lot in terms of diversity and inclusion as well as avoiding prejudices against different regions, countries and cultures”,

Ralph Ostertag is a positive example of how international experience can take an IT career to the next level. Within less than six years, he has risen from a clerk in Germany, through a first stay abroad in Asia and a stopover at HQ with global leadership of the IT strategy to Vice President & CIO Canada, Mexico, Latin America. There he was responsible for the Digital / IT department of Mercedes-Benz in six countries and was a member of the Board of Mercedes-Benz Canada.

His career accelerated further when he first went back to Asia with Daimler and then switched to Heineken, this time with a broader area of responsibility both technically and geographically with more than 20 countries and a direct reporting line to the Board of Management. “I have worked in local, regional and global roles. That was crucial for my career and a great advantage over people who only know one perspective,“ he says.

In order to ensure that the connection in Germany works seamlessly again after the much-praised stay abroad, expatriates should always maintain contact with former superiors and colleagues during a stay abroad.

I think curious and ambitious IT managers do not regret a foreign job. Precisely because the pandemic has shown across all management levels that a good manager does more than just distribute tasks via virtual chat. Remote management is challenging – it is therefore all the more helpful if you have experienced other (working) cultures up close and not just via conference calls.

Employment opportunities are therefore increasing at all times, because companies are increasingly looking at “soft skills” such as empathy and resilience in the selection of their future management since the pandemic. These and other social skills are sharpened or further developed by a stay abroad.

There are a few tips on the topic of staying abroad that are worth following. It is wise to complete this career building block early, perhaps even before family planning. Moving with family is always complex, although not impossible.

In addition, the more international the environment at the international station, the better. Vienna is also abroad for German executives, but the language barrier has been removed and this makes the move easier and certainly also everyday life.

However, international competencies are more likely to be sharpened at locations such as the USA, China or South Africa. “You gain the ability to empathetically deal with people from different cultures,” says Ralph Ostertag from his experience. “Working only from Germany or nationally is relatively easy compared to a heterogeneous-complex global working environment. When you work with many different cultures in an international environment, you are forced to delve deeper into the culture and history of the respective countries and to constantly adapt your thinking and behavior“.

It is also important to plan a longer stay of three to five years. This provides the necessary international parquet security. But short-term assignments or even short-term visits abroad are certainly better than nothing, but they do not show the desired effects to the same extent.

IT managers who are actively planning their careers and have ambitions for a prominent CIO position should not shy away from a stay abroad, even in the “New Normal”. In the long run, this step is worthwhile in any case: both for personal and professional development.

*Sabine Thiemann is a Principal at i-potentials and is mainly responsible for search mandates for the positions of Chief Information Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Digital Officer and Chief Security Officer.

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