In the future, reaching the executive suite without a stint in China on your CV might not be so easy.

Staying on in China

Not every expat is ready to return home once they've experienced life and work in a different culture. Rob Muir, who was general manager of Henkel’s China detergents division, resisted returning to the company’s Dusseldorf, Germany headquarters despite the offer of a senior global role.

“I always wanted to be on the front line… making decisions and getting my hands dirty,” he said. “In China there was always change. Back in Dusseldorf, everything was always the same.”

Henkel allowed Muir to stay in China. But not all companies are as tolerant — and many want their best and brightest to return.

“Someone who understands China, Russia or the Middle East can be a great asset,” said executive recruiter Adam Fairbrother.

Expatriate assignments are often the hallmark of a senior global career on an upward trajectory. Indeed, many executives have gained valuable experience in other markets as they were groomed by their companies for upper management.

Previously, this might have included three years in the United States, two years in Singapore, perhaps another three years in Germany — all important markets for many global corporations.

And now, there's China.

“An increasing number of hiring briefs… for global or group-wide leadership roles, stipulate China experience as a real requirement and benefit,” said Adam Fairbrother, head of the Shanghai office of executive search firm Odgers Berndtson, citing the automotive and retail sectors in particular.

However, learning to successfully navigate China's market complexities — government opacity, shifting regulatory frameworks, highly fragmented supply chains — often means companies require employees to stay for longer than the typical two- or three-year assignment in order to be effective in their roles. Indeed, some expat postings to China last up to five years long.

But this length of time away from head office carries a risk: out of sight, out of mind.

While China is an important destination for an executive on the rise, some have reported a career slow down due to a long stint away from the power centre that is main office. So how do you keep your career momentum? For starters, be strategic and know that, eventually, China experience will give you an edge.

The perils of absence

Expat managers must work harder to make sure they aren’t forgotten, regardless of which country they’re posted to, said Rob Muir, a South African who worked in several countries for the German chemical and detergents group Henkel. And, over time, these managers run the risk of identifying more with their local operations than the bigger picture at head office and therefore finding themselves becoming less relevant, he said.

“Then headquarters starts to think of you as a specialist,” Muir said. Would-be executives who are gone from home longer than a couple of years must be even more diligent about this.

The good news is that most companies don’t like losing contact with their best people.

“Many large, well-known (multinational companies), particularly US businesses, have strict limits on the length of postings for executives abroad to ensure that fresh ideas and talent are circulated freely,” said Fairbrother.

However, despite these good intentions, political winds at head office can change, business strategies can be revised, or a key career mentor may shift their support of a previously favoured overseas executive to one at home. Likewise, promotions may be determined informally by individual managers, rather than by transparent company-wide searches.

To combat this, “you must manage your own career,” said Graham Thompsett, vice president of human resources at the Chery Jaguar Land Rover joint venture in China. That, in large part, means maintaining links to your mentors and biggest champions at headquarters.

Modern technologies such as FaceTime, Skype and Telepresence can help employees conserve those links to head office, said Thompsett, but face-to-face contact is essential.

“Twice a year, you should connect with people who have an impact on your career,” he said, and that contact should be in person.

Rob Muir, the former Henkel manager, suggested even more visibility.

“You need to be seen walking the corridors of power – and to be known at headquarters.”

Unless your company has moved decision-making to regional offices — which could make it difficult to get approval to travel to head office — Muir advocates returning to the main office four times a year.

The Route Home

As important: planning ahead. Before you accept an expat posting, negotiate with your managers and, if possible, secure the head office role to which you will return once your assignment is complete.

Muir remembered a gifted Chinese employee at Henkel who accepted an overseas role but failed to plan for his return to China. He found there was no appropriate job available for him when he came back. Restructuring had taken place in his absence and he had to accept a position below his level of competency.

Muir and others said anyone making a formal agreement about a future role should be as specific as possible.

“Executives should ask for complete clarity regarding their future route back,” said Fairbrother. You should get specifics on questions including: How long is the posting intended to be? What role will be lined up on return and under what terms? What support will you receive should the posting not work out and you have to return prematurely?

While working in China carries with it the danger of distance from head office, its position as the world’s leading emerging market means that executives posted there have a significant edge over colleagues posted to less economically important countries.

And despite the potential pitfalls of an overseas role, the upsides usually outweigh the dangers: you are at the vanguard of a company’s growth prospects.

As China grows into what will be many companies’ biggest market, executives posted there will likely see their influence expand too.

“Working in a China joint venture has been a great cultural awakening,” said Thompsett, who after nine years in the country is returning to the United Kingdom to be head of resourcing at Jaguar Land Rover. “When you are exposed to the limelight, it’s even more difficult to be forgotten.”