Do the next right thing
Role Model portrait Mireille
I am delighted to introduce you to our Role Model of the month: Mireille. In this portrait, we will learn how everything unfolded in hindsight. While there was confusion in mixed feelings in the midst of the expatriate experience, all her small steps lead to her having a job and family life she is very happy about. Learn about the important ingredient of networking and finding the common threat in your life. Enjoy reading and get in touch with her here for further exchange.
Off to Singapore
In the Netherlands, Mireille worked as a business consultant for a well-known global consulting firm. After studying civil engineering and art history, she took a job at Roland Berger. Interestingly, Roland Berger does not only hire business students but is interested in a healthy mix of non-business majors. A good proof that it is always worthwhile to look for jobs in other fields. She really enjoyed working at Roland Berger. She was surrounded by a start-up vibe and appreciated the interaction with colleagues and clients. Later she worked as an in-house consultant in a large hospital, OLVG, in Amsterdam. There she was responsible for improving patient processes, and a merge with another hospital. Mireille was very challenged in her job. At the same time, she lived in a long-distance relationship. Her partner was often abroad on business at that time. She did not know it any other way. When she started her first corporate job, he lived in Abu Dhabi. She could have gone with him, but the timing didn’t feel right. She wanted to focus on herself and her own career first.
After several years living together in the Netherlands, her husband got a job offer in Singapore. This time the situation was different. She had already gained a lot of work experience and had reached a point in her career where she was wondering what to do next. Would her current job make her happy in the long run? Her husbands job offer abroad sounded tempting. The two set off on a look and feel trip. The first impression was accelerating and the acceptance of this new life came easily over her lips.
Expatriation and the re-tradionalization of family roles
Looking back, Mireille realizes that she approached the whole adventure abroad somewhat naively and without any forethought. Most expat partners feel that way, including me, and that’s probably a very good thing! How many projects would we not take or how many decisions would we not make if we already knew exactly the challenges involved. Sometimes opportunities arise in life that need to be seized spontaneously, and the full implications of which only become apparent in retrospect. In Mireille’s case, she wasn’t quite sure what exactly would happen with the work permit. In Singapore she learnt that a local employer would have to apply for her work visa, reducing her chances of getting a traditional corporate job. Plus most typical expat jobs would also involve working many hours and traveling, something she wasn’t willing to do at the time with a little girl to care for as well. Suddenly continuing her career became a big question mark.
But also in smaller, more daily life situations, she found herself pushed to her limits at unexpected moments. At the bank, for example, she could only open an account with her husband’s power of attorney. When the bank employee asked her about her profession, she hesitated. What should she say? The clerk immediately suggested the term housewife. This was factually correct at this point in time. But to see it now in black and white felt strange and unfitting.
She was also initially very self-conscious about spending money from their joint family fund. This hesitation is very common amongst expat families. Especially when a dual-career couple turns to a single breadwinner household. Mireille felt reluctant to buy clothes for herself from the joint household money. Although her partner supported her, it felt unusual, and so she changed her consumption behavior almost subconsciously. I also discussed this in passing in my article on “Negotiating the Expat Package”. You can find it here.
The roles within the family were also suddenly shifted. In the Netherlands, she and her partner had established an equal family model in which they both took care of their daughter. They both worked four days a week and shared the care responsibilities well. In Singapore, the cultural work-life balance was suddenly something completely different. Here, 4-day weeks were not established at all. Also, her partner was on business trips multiple days per month. In retrospect, Mireille is very glad that she didn’t anticipate these cultural differences in their entirety when deciding for the move abroad. For her, she always tried to incorporate work in her private life whereas in her new host country the question was how to incorporate life into the work world.
What comes after arriving?
Within the first months abroad, Mireille focused on the progress of arriving and making the family feel at home. There is an incredible amount to do and organize. With the difficulties with the work permit in mind, Mireille did not immediately throw herself into the job market. However, she quickly found access to a non-profit organization. For many expat partners, volunteer work is a great introduction to a foreign labor market. It’s a great way to get out of your private expat bubble, immerse yourself in the local culture, get involved, and make contacts.
A friends’ friend in Singapore brought AIDHA to her attention. AIDHA is a non-profit organization that helps migrant domestic workers, and low-income women achieve economic independence through financial education. Mireille volunteered as a mentor and taught a group of maids about every two weeks. While this did not keep her busy the whole week, it was a great way to interact with locals and invest herself in a topic she cared for.
She was suddenly able to use her skills again and make a difference in the lives of other women. While in private she was often in contact with other expats, this work also gave her the opportunity to interact with people from very different social backgrounds, to learn from them and to get involved. One day there was an opportunity to set up a new curriculum for the organization and Mireille increased her involvement. She brought in her learned project management skills and experience in coaching start-ups. Looking back, it was a great opportunity for Mireille. She was still not financially independent on starting a paid job, but was able to put herself out there in a completely new environment. By that time she had accepted that she wouldn’t get a paid job and also didn’t look for one. Mireille was happy with the volunteering and the mental stimuli, being able to meet people, and the results it brought in terms of contributing to the maids lives. In retrospect she notes how perfect this commitment was for her situation at the time.
She was just feeling at home in Singapore when her husband was offered a new job. This time in Switzerland. They would have liked to spend a few more years in Singapore, but the offer sounded tempting. They liked the idea of being closer to family in Europe. It is not only quite a few hours flight between the Netherlands and Singapore but also quite a time difference. So there was only a small window of time each day to interact directly with their family. In the meantime, their family had grown and they were blessed with another child in their midst. So the decision was made: It went directly from Singapore to the vicinity of Bern in Switzerland.
The 2nd move: This time I will move with more intention to my professional future
With this second move, Mireille was much more aware of what was coming and what she needed to do if she wanted to kick-off her professional plans this time. The circumstances had changed. As a European, she automatically had a work permit. She didn’t want to just let things happen to her this time, but to actively take the lead. So, she felt the need to find a daycare possibility for her then 1-year-old baby, to improve her German, and to apply directly. She took the traditional approach and applied to several jobs. Once she was narrowed down to the final group of candidates, but the local job market didn’t seem to be very welcoming. She remembers one encounter with a local recruiter in particular. After looking at her resume, she was not very optimistic about her chances in the Swiss job market. Not linear enough, too little professional experience. Swiss companies are more interested in hiring someone who has not studied outside the field and has more practical work experience.
I found this part of our conversation very interesting! Often it is precisely such encounters that have a decisive influence on our perception of our situation. She could have thrown her hands up in horror and given up on the whole project. Didn’t just a local expert tell her that she does not stand a chance? But for Mireille, it was just interesting information to better assess her chances of success in the job hunting process. It helped her not to take rejections too personally. Again, looking back, she is very glad that she was not accepted by one of the consulting firms she had applied for. It would have been a great job professionally, but at the same time very challenging to reconcile with a regularly traveling husband and caring for her two children. And little did she know back then that her actual job was just a conversation away.
The power of networking
If you followed the role model series and have read through other profiles you will know what comes next. May I present to you: The power of networking. Networking also played a huge role in Patricia’s job hunt in Germany and Flor’s path to re-enter the workforce after taking a break for several years.
Mireille spoke with a local friend who promised to help her translate her resume. During the discussion, the conversation also turned to this friend’s husband who had a company and a job to fill. They noticed how suitable Mireille would be for this position and immediately suggested her to apply. Long story short: Mireille got the job and started part-time in an online marketing company, in their support team. They help small and medium-sized companies to market themselves and to set up an online concept. This was not something in which Mireille had any special expertise. A lot of things were new for her. However, she had created websites for charities in the past in the Netherlands and Singapore, so it was logical for her employer to hire her. The learning curve was steep. Anyone who knows anything about online marketing knows that this is a whole different language, but it was lots of fun and it felt amazing to be back in the working game. Later Mireille did change into a different role in the company. To say it in her own beautiful words: „And I guess what I’ve learned is to use any opportunity and grow from there. But also that it takes time, and sometimes coincidence, as people need to get to know you, to learn to value you, etc.“
If you look at this position from a career planning perspective you might wonder how this position fits into her resume. Online Marketing was not what she was passionate about in the first place. It was also not at all connected to her study degree or her former work experience at Roland Berger or the hospital. However, this did not stop Mireille from giving her best and turn it around into a perfect fit. She loves the entrepreneurial spirit of her boss and that he takes her ideas seriously. A year into the pandemic, her boss decided to create a new remote service for their clients to teach them how to take their business online. And suddenly Mireille was able to use her work experience from Roland Berger and even the volunteer organization in Singapore as once again she was co-responsible for putting together a curriculum that provides real value. She now holds weekly webinars to their clients and feels she has arrived where she belongs to be.
What is the definition of a career anyway?
Have you ever asked yourself what a career means to you? What role does a career play in your life? And if you are not working at the moment, how does not working right now affect you?
For Mireille, there was a time when she stopped going on LinkedIn. It subconsciously put pressure on her to watch her former colleagues climb the career ladder while she followed such a non-linear path. Today, she has made peace with it and understands that every decision has its consequences. Instead of a linear corporate career, she has managed to find a family model that allows her time with her children and the benefits of an international lifestyle. It was important for her to be able to show her children that their mother also works.
She wants to contribute herself and her skills, grow on her topics and have friends in exchange with colleagues. In this sense, Mireille has arrived at her current position. One day she will probably go back to the Netherlands and she is already excited (“and honestly, also a bit scared“) about the path she will take then. Her current situation gives her the necessary confidence and trust that, in retrospect, it was always the right decision.
Mireille’s tips for you
When Mireille looks back on her two experiences abroad, it was important to remain confident and self-assured. Of course, experiences like in Singapore at the bank or in Switzerland with the recruiter are difficult. It’s not easy not to take something like that personally and let it take over your life. But it is important for Mireille to say that these things and experiences do not define her. You decide for yourself what makes you who you are and what direction you should take. I couldn’t agree more. As an expat coach, I see time and time again what a turning point it is when expats step out of the victim role and take charge of their future with confidence and energy. However, it is not always easy to deal with setbacks, especially abroad. That’s why it’s good to exchange ideas and reflect on your thoughts with someone. (If you want to learn more about coaching please have a look here).
Mireille also advises you to be open to new things and not to reject opportunities just because they don’t objectively fit your interests or your resume. And Mireille is the best example that great opportunities arise when you are open to thinking outside the box.
Thank you so much Mireille for sharing your story! It was a great pleasure to interview you and hear your story and thoughts. I wish you all the best for your time in Switzerland! And who knows where life will take you next 🙂 I hope you keep us posted!