How to return to NZ

Timing and networking are critical for expatriates returning to New Zealand.
Timing and networking are critical for expatriates returning to New Zealand.

It seemed as if Mark Adam had pulled a rabbit out of his hat.

Having spent most of his 22-year career working in Europe and the Middle East, developing commercial opportunities for multinationals across several sectors, he wanted to provide his daughter — who at age 10 had already lived in four countries — stability in her intermediate school years.  

Setting aside trepidation about readjusting to life in his home country, it took Adam 12 days to land the perfect job. 

He was hired as the chief commercial officer for the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), just in time for the Rugby World Cup.

“I already had a network within NZRU and it was sort of, we found each other,” Adam says. 

“They were looking for someone to take the All Blacks and NZRU brands global.” 

Expats that make a successful transition home follow the same pattern. It’s no magic trick. 

They know that whether they are away from New Zealand for five or for 20 years, they have to build and maintain a professional network. But what’s the best way to do that? And is it really so easy to advance your career at home when everything has changed? 

Face time

As a theoretical cosmologist studying the physics of the early universe, Richard Easther is not like many returning expats, but his career follows similar rules.

In 2011, Easther returned with his wife, journalist Jolisa Gracewood, and their children, to take up the role of head of the physics department for the University of Auckland. He’d lived in the US since 1994.

“I think one of the nice things about staying away in terms of networks is I know everyone in my field,” says Easther.

Back home, professional ties remained important.

“Whenever we came back, I got involved in something,” he says. 

“I would visit the university; sometimes it was tied to academic events ... Before we had kids, it was every year. The longest we went not coming back was two years. It was usually for a month.”

Former expats say it is important to make that return trip home as often as possible. 

Cameron Taylor returned once a year while working as an attorney and earning his MBA overseas.

“I would often look on the Herald website to see what was going on and if I saw someone was doing well, I’d just drop them a line,” he says. “But there’s no substitute for a quiet beer with someone. The three-dimensional meeting leads to new connections and new experiences that you otherwise wouldn’t get talking on the telephone.”

Taylor and others say informal networks are as important to maintain as the formal ones you might gain through organisations like Kea, the Kiwi Expatriate Association. It was through an informal connection that Taylor was recruited and offered a partnership at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts in Auckland.

Says Adam: “Email is great, a phone call is better and a face to face is even better than that, but I think you need to touch on all those points to build your network as long as you’re offshore.”

Fancy footwork

Networking has its merits, but it’s no guarantee of a role. Searching and researching are paramount to finding the right situation, whether you’re coming home or heading out for the first time.

When Blair Jagusch decided to test his mettle in the hospitality business in London, his instinct was to pound the pavement to smooth his way.

“I probably contacted about 50 people,” says Jagusch. “I had a pad and pen and list of people I wanted to work for. It was much harder than I’d anticipated.”

Jagusch researched firms through the International Special Events Society and after three months of crashing past the London gatekeepers, including 10 attempts with his future employer, he landed his gig.

He went on to manage an award winning event for 30,000 employees of Sky TV and their families. The prestigious event helped ease him into his current general manager role with Urban Gourmet in Auckland.

Returned expats suggest the job search starts well in advance of a return and may include a fact finding trip for interviews and introductions. “Reach out to networks early, even if you’re thinking about coming home in a year or two,” says Taylor. “It’s important to work with your networks, to ask questions, to do research and find out what’s available, but there’s no substitute for being on the ground.”

Former corporate communications manager for Microsoft New Zealand, Lucy Powell, did just that six years ago when she and her husband, architect Daryl Maguire, decided to return to New Zealand from California. They wanted to accelerate their careers closer to family and friends.

“We came back in April 2006 for probably all of a week and had arranged interviews beforehand,” she says. “We did it all online and we used recruiters. It’s a bit about timing, but we’d had the experience and skills that was needed and we both got job offers.”

They returned to New Zealand the next month. Timing is everything, which implies a ‘Goldilocks zone’ that perfectly balances career and personal goals with opportunity. It’s crucial to weigh the pros and cons, but it’s no easy task.

Powell was communications manager for Air New Zealand in the Americas, back when Lord of the Rings artwork on planes promoted the company as the ‘airline to Middle Earth’. She was there when they debuted the Auckland-San Francisco run.

“In that five year period, I probably had as many career highlights as it might take other people 10 years to attain,” she says. “But in hindsight, I’ve always wondered if we were too hasty in accepting the first jobs that were offered to us. My advice is don’t rush in for the first job offer if you’re in a good position financially and don’t need to work straight away.”

Easther had his ‘Goldilocks’ moment last year. “There are only probably a small number of places in New Zealand that would employ someone that does what I do and jobs at those places, especially at a more senior level, would come more infrequently,” he says. “So the fact that Auckland was looking for a professor and someone to be head of department was just a happy coincidence.  

“I could have waited five years for that to happen and by that time it might have been too late; we might have become so entrenched in the States. Five years ago, I  might not have been senior enough to take the job.” Says Adam: “To be honest, I wouldn’t move back unless it was the right job. It is an absolute mistake to come back and take on an interim role, both career wise and psychologically. Stepping sideways is okay, but stepping down is a mistake that most people would regret.”

A graceful entrance

Expats have to brace for culture change. Not only has New Zealand changed in their absence, but how business gets done will be unfamiliar. 

Taylor says the level of investment and venture capital opportunities were far more extensive than he’d anticipated while living in London, but his eyes had to adjust to New Zealand’s different light.

“Perceptions shift once you come home and you really have to recognise New Zealand can be a little parochial. It’s not always as fabulous as you’ve made it out to be in your memory.”

Adam thinks returning expats may careen headlong into a “certain Kiwi mentality” — an insecurity among those colleagues that have never worked abroad.

“It’s a lack of confidence, in my view, where they will shy away from the advice people who’ve been offshore are giving because they will think, ‘well, we already know it here’,” he says. “The expat coming back has to have the confidence that they do have value to add and they shouldn’t be shy about it even if there is a negative  response.”