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Valerie Khan (Handout)
Valerie Khan (Handout)

My Career Abroad

Move to Denmark requires more ‘sparring’ at work Add to ...

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.
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