Pierre Cardin is head of public affairs for Airbus in Canada and the Airbus representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization. He is based in Montreal.
I’ll admit it. I had some very good luck when I set out to move my career from Canada to Europe. On the other hand, I worked hard to make that luck happen. And so can anyone else who wants to take the plunge.
Of course, there is a relatively easy way – get a job with a multinational company in Canada and then impress everyone to win a posting in another country. Besides the fact that this is uncertain and takes a long time, when I wanted to move overseas 30 years ago those opportunities were a lot less available than now. I chose a different route.
I had graduated in law from the University of Sherbrooke and went to work for a law firm in Montreal but I really wanted to make my career in Europe in aerospace law. I realized I couldn’t just wait for that to happen – I had to do it.
A two-pronged approach
My approach was two-pronged. First, I discovered a program at the Sorbonne in Paris that would help me convert and add to my professional credentials. I then sought a position with a Paris law firm that would allow me to pay the bills while I studied. Using contacts from a kind Montreal colleague, I asked for interviews on a short trip to Paris and was successful. Thankfully, the acceptance from the Sorbonne followed soon after.
When my studying was complete, I started the process again to find a position in the corporate sector. That’s where the luck came in. The day before I contacted a prominent Parisian legal headhunter, the agency had received a mandate to find a bilingual, North American lawyer for a French aerospace firm wanting to build its export markets.
The match was made and I became general counsel for Matra Marconi Space in Toulouse, France. The firm eventually became the core of the satellite business of Airbus Defence and Space. Airbus is still my employer nearly 30 years later. After various positions in a number of very interesting and challenging roles with Airbus in Europe and the United States, I am now back in Canada as the company’s head of public affairs, a new position reflecting Airbus’ growing activities in Canada since it took over the A220 commercial aircraft program from Bombardier (originally the C Series), though Airbus has been active in Canada for 35 years since the Airbus Helicopters facility opened in Fort Erie, Ont.
Three success factors
I believe there are three important factors in successfully moving one’s career overseas.
1. Provoke things to make it happen. You can’t just wait for an opportunity. Develop a plan, think it through and then act on it. It’s not simple and can be scary, though it’s likely easier now than 30 years ago because of much improved communications and travel. Overseas is not nearly as “foreign” as it used to be.
2. Embrace the change. I wanted to live and be with people from France, or whatever country I was in, not with an ex-pat community. I wanted to eat and live like they did, not just because it was simpler to do so, but it was more rewarding personally. I have made many good friends as a result and expanded my horizons.
3. Remain Canadian. While I embraced the change, I did not want to fully integrate into my new milieu. Remaining Canadian was important for both me and my career. It made me distinctive in many circumstances and conveyed advantages. I could act outside established social or business norms in a way a native person could not. For example, my “foreignness” excused me in being more direct or less impressed with hierarchy than my native colleagues could ever be. This allowed me to make stronger impressions on people and undoubtedly helped my career. Despite decades abroad, I was always proud of and kept my Canadian passport as my only one.
As most Canadians who have lived or even just travelled abroad know, Canadians have a good reputation around the world. This is valuable in business. We are North Americans without being Americans. We are well-connected to Europe without being Europeans. As residents of a small country we are not bullies, but we are respected.
All this gives Canadians great opportunities to successfully take their careers outside of Canada, as I did. Just give it some good thought and planning, and then pack a little luck as well.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
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