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my career abroad

Valerie Khan

What's your name and job title?

My name is Valerie Khan and until June 28, 2013, I was the Nordic recruitment manager at Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance (RSA) overseeing recruitment and employer branding for the Nordic regions, covering Denmark, Sweden and Norway. My responsibilities were to set the strategy on how to attract and retain the best talent to support business growth. I returned to the RSA Toronto offices July 1, to take on expanded responsibilities as the global head of talent acquisition.

Why did you move to Copenhagen? What spurred you to make that change?

I transferred to Copenhagen on a two-year international assignment through RSA. My husband and I love to travel and experience new cultures. As parents we want our children to experience new places to broaden their horizons and perspective. The timing felt right as my children were six and 10 at the time, plus both my husband and I had come to a point where we were looking for the next step in our careers. I raised my hand at work and there was an opportunity in Scandinavia that fit my skills and expertise.

Why was that location the place for you to be?

Copenhagen is a fantastic city to raise a family. It has the all of the offerings of a big city with amazing restaurants, concerts, sports activities and events, yet the pace of life is more relaxed. In Scandinavia there is a focus on family and you can truly achieve a good work-lifestyle balance.

For example, if I needed to leave work to watch my children's school assembly then it was perfectly acceptable to prioritize family over work. Our family felt safe and secure in the city, giving my children much more independence then they have in Toronto. My 12-year-old could take the train on her own, go to the mall or amusement park with her friends – something that I would not feel comfortable with her doing in most cities.

The transportation system in Copenhagen is excellent (although sometimes you can hear the Danes complain if it is running late or delayed. They don't know how good they have it!). You can take your bike anywhere with proper bike paths, even in the country. Plus, you can easily travel almost anywhere in Denmark by train, even to your summer cottage.

What were you worried about before you left Canada?

We were most concerned about how our children would transition, although in the end they were more adaptable and settled in much faster than my husband and I. Before arriving in Denmark my daughter was upset and asked, "why do we have to move to 'Dumbmark?'" Then she didn't want to move back to Toronto.

We were also worried about whether my husband would be able to find a job. Copenhagen is one of the most expensive cities in the world and it was important that he not only keep busy and continue to build his career but we wanted to make sure we could afford to enjoy living in Scandinavia.

How was the transition? Any amusing stories?

The first few months were a much bigger adjustment than anticipated. My husband arrived a month after me with the children in July. We had imagined it would be the perfect time to integrate, meet people, head outdoors and get the children into some camps. Little did we know that most of Scandinavia takes the entire month of July as a holiday so not many families were around. My poor husband became the 24/7 playmate for my children – he certainly improved his soccer skills!

I arrived in June, 2011, so I could get settled in my new job. A month was the longest I have ever been separated from my family. The first week was a luxury but I soon found myself bored and lonely.

Here's an amusing story: Arriving in Denmark, the first thing you need to do is buy a bike. I bought a typical three-speed 'lady cruiser' – comfy, but it is like riding a tank. It was a few days before my husband and children were arriving and at the time I had no car to buy groceries. I miscalculated how much could fit in my basket for the ride home. I overloaded my bike, putting me quite off balance.

As I turned a corner, I managed to crash my bike, scattering my groceries across the road. There is little patience or politeness for bad bikers so I scrounged on the ground to pick up my strawberries, bread and milk. The only person who came to my rescue was a 10-year-old boy. Thankfully I had only injured my thumb and lost a few eggs and strawberries.

Here's a not so amusing story: Danes religiously follow the rules. For example, if the red man is flashing (do not walk) every Dane will patiently wait and never, ever jaywalk. My husband managed to rack up almost $1,000 (Canadian) in fines in the first month in Denmark, ranging from a speeding ticket on the first day we got our car (for going four kilometres above the speed limit), a parking ticket and a train fine (for having the wrong ticket in their strange zone system that not even the Danes understand). My advice: follow the exact rules (even though they can be a mystery to non-Danes) or you will get some expensive tickets.

How was the experience for your family?

Thankfully my husband was able to find a job in his field of IT security. This gave him a network of friends beyond the moms at the school. My children adapted well to their new lifestyle abroad and at their international school they met children from all over the world. They are eager to learn new languages as most of their friends were fluent in two or three languages. We were fortunate to travel around Europe and experience history coming to life.

What things did people notice most about you? And what were people's receptions to you?

First, I look Scandinavian so I easily blend in, which can be a blessing or a curse (some people didn't believe I do not speak Danish and simply repeated themselves several times). Danish tradition and culture plays an important part in Danish society so I was always asked about Canadian traditions or food. I always find this question difficult to answer, being a Canadian, where we have such a blend of traditions and are a 'newer' country by comparison.

People were friendly but at a distance. It can be difficult to integrate yourself into Danish society as an outsider, since you don't know the traditions or small nuances.

One interesting thing to note is being a woman on an international assignment. When meeting people with my husband they would typically ask him what he does and why he came to Denmark. Then we would explain that it was through my job and career that we transferred. It is disappointing to see that it is still rare for a female to take the lead and move with her husband.

I also didn't realize the challenge in meeting and connecting with people. I am a social person and outgoing person but found it hard at first to meet people. Many of the mothers at the international school don't work so they quickly would build relationships and at times I would feel like an outsider. At work, my colleagues were friendly and I enjoyed working with them but these friendships rarely extend outside of the workplace.

If you have a family, you head home to your family after work and not for a quick drink on a patio. My Danish colleagues have many friends and family in Denmark so they don't necessarily open up to invite you over to their house for a BBQ.

What things struck you about your location?

It is a beautiful city on the Baltic sea. Lots of green space, low buildings and minimal traffic. The houses are unique and well designed. No 'cookie cutter' homes. It is all about 'hygge,' a sort of coziness and closeness in Denmark. For example, the restaurants are intimate and romantic with candle light.

Is business similar or different compared with Canada?

The insurance business is not vastly different between countries. My role in recruitment was also not vastly different. Finding top talent is a global priority for many companies so this challenge of the 'war for talent' was no different in Scandinavia.

There were significant cultural differences. My role encompassed Denmark, Sweden and Norway so not only did I have to adapt to Danish company culture but there were significant differences between all of the Nordic countries. There are only a handful of expats or foreigners in the offices so I truly had to adapt. It is a consensus-driven culture so things take time to get everyone to agree, and I mean everyone, no matter what their position.

All decisions must be well thought through with a business case, analysis and more analysis that will be picked apart. This is called 'sparring' so you need to stand firm on your point of view and decision. Then once everyone is agreed that your business case is solid and you have everyone on board, then you can finally move forward. This can be frustrating as it can take longer to get to a decision.

Did you have to change the way you approach your business or change your actions in any way to succeed?

I found very quickly that my polite Canadian approach of 'can you get this to me by Friday?' was interpreted as 'okay, she doesn't seem to really need this so if I have time I will get it to her but if I don't then I will send it when I have a chance.' I had to be much more direct and specific: 'I need this by 4 p.m. on Friday.'

In Danish culture you need to be much more direct. Although in Sweden, it is important to 'talk' things through many times over before gaining consensus. You have to involve many stakeholders and discuss, then discuss some more. Even when you think you have a 'yes,' you need to go back one more time to make sure you really have agreement. It was incredibly frustrating at first, especially for someone like me who prefers to stick to tight project timelines. I learned to be patient and added two to three months to my plans.

I now have a new appreciation for the value of building a solid business case and not wavering on my decisions. Hold firm, be passionate and dogged to get things done then people will rally around you to make it happen.

Anything you would want to share with someone who might follow in your footsteps?

  • Do your research: be aware and adapt to the culture differences to succeed in the workplace.
  • Set clear goals and objectives in your role: it is expensive to send someone abroad so expectations can be high.
  • Stay in touch and connected with your home country office: this is extremely important when you are planning to return. I was fortunate to work for an organization that is supportive and encourages assignments abroad to strengthen our talent pool. It is critical to have this support, ongoing coaching and mentorship from other expats or leaders through your assignment.
  • From a personal perspective: have an open mind. Recognize that it will be stressful on your family but the rewards outweigh the negatives. Don’t worry about your kids, they adapt much easier than adults. If you are going to make the decision to relocate, then don’t choose not to go because you don’t think your kids can handle it. Think more carefully about your spouse. Having a supportive and happy spouse will make your experience a success.