The pros and cons of mobility plans

The UN provides humanitarian air service plane to transport staff and volunteers to remote parts of the world. Global development professionals benefit from mobility, allowing them to travel and further their personal and career experience, but it can be very challenging as well. Photo by: EU/ECHO/Philippe Royan / CC BY-ND

Large institutions such as U.N. agencies and development banks grapple with how to best foster a global staff with specialized skill sets, knowledge and experience — at the same time staying flexible and nimble to respond to changing needs. Along with the growing trend of localizing aid efforts, these multilateral agencies are also trying to localize their efforts by getting more of their staff out of high-rise headquarters in places like New York, Geneva or Washington, D.C. and into the field.

Last month I attended the International Organization’s Career Development Roundtable in London, a conference of human resources and recruitment professionals. This annual gathering is a chance for global development HR professionals to share ideas, resources and help navigate the many complexities of human resource management in large international, public sector agencies including UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, IMF, DfID and SIDA.

While attendees discussed many issues, such as performance evaluation and recruitment best practices, one key theme on everyone’s mind was mobility.

Mobility, the term often used by HR professionals to describe the movement of staff across global locations, has always played a key role in career management at large.

Rather than an individual spending their entire career in one place, many of these agencies either encourage or require frequent rotation to new offices, regions and areas of focus, often moving locations every two to five years. The idea is to expose career professionals to varied experiences, contexts and approaches that help develop a well-rounded workforce that can better understand and navigate a large bureaucracy, ultimately making the organization as a whole more effective.

In this way staff members can benefit from the sharing of best practices, the cross-fertilization of ideas and the opportunity to develop new skills and new areas of expertise. Sounds great, right? But in practice, mobility plans can be very challenging to implement and even more challenging for staff to navigate.

If you are currently working in, or considering a career in, an institution that has or plans to have a mobility plan, here are some pros and cons to consider:

Pros

1. Professional development

This is one of the biggest benefits of a highly mobile staff. Moving around to different countries, departments or even agencies exposes you to new ideas, people, approaches, challenges and solutions helping to develop new skills and expertise. You will likely serve in different functional or even technical roles that will challenge and grow you professionally. The exposure to different positions and locations may also help you hone in on what you do best and enjoy the most to further develop your career in that direction. Organizations with a lot of mobility give you the opportunity to try on many hats to see which one fits best.

2. Develop best practices

When you are moving to new locations and projects, you are able to apply what you learned in a previous experience in a new context and learn how to adapt and tailor approaches accordingly. This is how best practices are born spurring innovation, creative thinking and a constant infusion of fresh ideas. This is good for development and good for you as a development professional.

3. Grow a global network

Working in various locations and departments will help you grow and develop a global network of colleagues and professionals that can help you succeed in your current job, get settled when starting a new one or even help when you are looking for your next gig. Having a strong network is an important ingredient to a successful career and moving frequently gives you a unique opportunity to foster a truly global and diverse one.

4. Exposure to new cultures and experiences

Frequent moves expose you — and your family if you have one — to new cultures, languages and experiences that you simply would not have in your home country or one of the Western cities where development agencies are typically based. Even if it is not your preferred location, chances are you will always be living in a place that will feel new and exciting. 

Cons

1. Hard for families and dual career couples

While frequent moves can be exciting and keep your work interesting, it can also be very hard on family members and significant others. Children have to frequently change schools, saying goodbye to old friends and having to make new ones. Duty stations aren’t always family friendly, so mobility often means leaving your family behind while you serve in a non-accompanied post. Likewise, for dual career couples it can be extremely difficult to navigate both spouses’ careers when one spouse’s job takes them to a new country every few years. (Read Dual Career Couples on the Move). This can often disproportionally affect women and undoubtedly plays into the gender gap in senior and leadership positions at international organizations. (See Challenges Affecting Women’s Advancement in Global Development).

2. Jack of all trades, master of none

With frequent moves it can often feel like you are leaving just as you hit your stride. It can sometimes be harder to specialize in any one area when you are frequently moving between different roles. If you have foreign language expertise, you could be hired for a position where your language skills were put to use only to be relocated to a location where that language isn’t spoken. Your resume may be filled with a diverse set of experiences, which may make you an asset within your institution, but it may make it harder to market yourself to employers other than your own if you ever want to leave.

3. Out of sight, out of mind

For some institutions that still have a majority of their international workforce based at a headquarters office, being one of the few that moves frequently can often make you feel out of the loop. Senior management is typically based at headquarters, so if the majority of your career is spent in the field you may miss out on networking and mentoring opportunities with senior managers — relationships that could come in handy when you need references for a promotion or recommendations for advancement.

4. It can be a logistical nightmare

Never mind the logistics of moving your household every few years; managing your career in an institution that requires mobility can often feel like one big game of chess. You need a position that matches your skills and expertise to open up at the same time your current position is winding down, often having to apply and go through a standard application process, competing against other colleagues and external candidates. Sometimes you can’t be picky about the location, however if you have a family you will need to consider whether they can relocate with you or not. Dual career couples then have to dedicate time to a job hunt for their spouse or partner. Very often couples will have to live separately for months, or even years, while they try to get their career and locations to align.

What do you think about mobility for international development professionals? Is it good for development or does it spread its expertise too thin? What other pros and cons do you see and what challenges and opportunities has mobility brought to your career?

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About the author

  • Warren kate 1

    Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.