Global Know-how: The Career Imperative

If you're American, it's relatively easy to get overseas finance experience. If you're not, landing a finance gig in the United States can be tough. But either way, if you want to be a CFO, working abroad is an essential step.

On the career track to CFO, there seems no end to the list of events and circumstances that could derail the quest. Increasingly, though, just to board the train you have to be a seasoned traveler already.

The idea that international experience makes an up-and-coming finance executive more appealing to multinational companies is nothing other than logical, and it is far from new. But it does seem lately to have achieved a sort of critical mass. With the globalization of business accelerating nonstop, what was a very desirable trait even a couple of years ago is now practically mandatory.

“I can tell you with great conviction that global experience is one of the highest priorities in virtually all of the large searches we do for global companies,” said Michele Heid, co-managing partner of the finance practice at executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles. “The trend over the past couple years is that not having it has become a real barrier to getting a shot at a CFO role. And now with so many companies opening knowledge-management and data-processing centers overseas, that’s just going to continue.”

But while having that experience on the résumé is a big advantage no matter where a person is from, not everyone has equal access to it. Because of the U.S. government’s tight quota on visas for foreign professional workers, it is much more difficult for them to hone their knowledge in the United States than it is for U.S.-born finance professionals to do the same in many other industrialized countries.

That presents what some see as a fairness issue, particularly since no place is in greater demand for providing that education than the United States. “Yes, it is unfair. There is a disadvantage for foreign nationals who are very qualified and educated and seek to have that U.S. experience,” Elena Park, head of the immigration practice at Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O’Connor, told CFO.com. “No matter what, people still want to come here — they see this as a land of opportunity and that having a U.S. employer on your résumé means a lot all around the world. To be prevented from doing that is frustrating.”

That frustration is shared by companies trying to bring professional workers into the United States and, in many cases, being shut out. Park said it’s somewhat less difficult to get visas for workers in some fields, including accounting, in which there are affiliated international professional associations, but there is far from a guarantee in any particular case. “It’s not as if the government has decided there are enough U.S. workers, or not enough, in any certain field,” she said. “It’s just, ‘Get in line.’ There’s no rhyme or reason.”

The government tightened up on visa approvals over security concerns in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, but many see the policy as a net negative for American companies. “Why do we limit the talent we have working with us?” said Blythe McGarvie, former CFO of Paris-based BIC Group and now president of Leadership for International Finance, a corporate finance and leadership consultancy. “There are fear mongers like Lou Dobbs who are trying to erect walls, but I’d rather tear them down so we can get the most talent in the right places.”

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