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A comparison of intra- and
global careers

Comparison of
intra- and interorganizational
global careers

Repeat expatriates’ and international
itinerants’ subjective experiences


Malin H. Nasholm
Ume˚ School of Business and Economics, Ume˚ University, Ume˚ , Sweden
Purpose – Although research has shown differences between self-initiated experiences and expatriation,
this differentiation has rarely been made when it comes to more long-term global careers. The purpose of
this paper is to identify similarities and differences between repeat expatriates and international itinerants
in their career paths, subjective experiences, and narratives of how they relate to their context.
Design/methodology/approach – A narrative approach was used and interviews were conducted
with ten repeat expatriates and ten international itinerants. The career paths of the 20 Swedish global
careerists and how they narrate their careers are analyzed, and the two types of global careerists
are compared.
Findings – Results show that the repeat expatriates and international itinerants differ in their subjective
experiences of global careers, and how they narrate them. Three broad domains are identified that
integrate a range of issues that are important for global careerists. These domains are the organization
and career domain, the country and culture domain, and the family, communities, and networks domain.
The repeat expatriates and international itinerants differ in how they relate to these and what is important
to them.
Practical implications – The differences found have implications for organizations in terms of
recruitment, management, and retention of a global talent pool.
Originality/value – This research contributes to the understanding of subjective experiences of
global careers and integrates a range of aspects in the context of global careerists that are important to
them. Moreover, it contributes to the understanding of global careers by differentiating between those
with intra- and inter-organizational global careers.
Keywords Narrative, Global careers, International itinerants, Repeat expatriates
Paper type Research paper

It has been shown that there are differences between assigned expatriates and those
with self-initiated international work experiences, for example in their motivations
and characteristics (Doherty et al., 2011; Biemann and Andresen, 2010). The relevance
of expatriation literature for those who are self-initiated has even been questioned
( Jokinen et al., 2008). It has been argued that it is important to conceptually and
empirically differentiate between expatriates and those with self-initiated
international work experiences (Peltokorpi and Froese, 2009). Similarly, global
careers, where the entire career is characterized by international mobility, may be
The author would like to thank the participants at the Workshop on New Analyses of Expatriation,
2012, for their comments on an earlier version of the paper. The author is grateful to the two
anonymous reviewers and the guest editors of JGM for their helpful comments and suggestions.

Journal of Global Mobility
Vol. 2 No. 2, 2014
pp. 183-202
r Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JGM-06-2013-0034


enacted either inter-organizationally or within an organization (Suutari et al., 2012;
¨ ¨
Suutari and Makela, 2007).
While a differentiation rarely has been made between intra- and inter-organizational
global careerists (see Nasholm, 2011, 2012 for an exception), these can be seen as
two different types of global careerists. These are referred to in this paper as repeat
expatriates and international itinerants. Repeat expatriates are defined as professionals
employed by a company that have, on at least two occasions, been on expatriate
assignments and been repatriated by that company. International itinerants are
defined as professionals who have been employed by at least two independent
companies in at least two countries other than their home country (adapted from Banai
and Harry, 2004, p. 97). As subjective experiences have been shown to differ between
expatriate assignments and self-initiated experiences (Doherty et al., 2011; Biemann
and Andresen, 2010; Jokinen et al., 2008; Peltokorpi and Froese, 2009) the stance taken
in this paper is that correspondingly there could be meaningful differences between
expatriates and those self-initiated when considering global careers. More understanding
of global careerists and what influences their career moves is needed from the perspective
of the global careerists themselves (Suutari et al., 2012). While research has begun to
address global careers, global careerists’ career decisions, and the developmental aspects
¨ ¨
¨ ¨
thereof (Suutari and Makela, 2007; Makela and Suutari, 2009; Suutari et al., 2012), more
research is needed with a long-term career perspective on international work experiences.
It has been shown that there are differences in the identity construction processes and
identifications of repeat expatriates and international itinerants (Nasholm, 2011, 2012).
This paper addresses the question of which aspects of their context the repeat expatriates
and international itinerants find important to their careers.
The purpose of this paper is to identify similarities and differences between repeat
expatriates and international itinerants in their career paths, subjective experiences,
and narratives of how they relate to their context.
This paper contributes to our understanding of the subjective experiences of global
careers by focussing on how global careerists narrate their careers, how they relate to their
contexts, and what is important to them. Moreover, it contributes to the understanding of
the nature of global careers by including different international work experiences and
considering differences between those with intra- and inter-organizational global careers.
A better understanding of the differences between different types of individuals with
global careers is important from an organizational perspective, since different factors can
influence their career decision making.
After an introduction to the types of global careers, three domains of the context
and important others for global careerists are outlined theoretically in the following
section. This leads to the identification of gaps in the existing understanding of what is
significant for the two types of global careerists and formulation of additional
questions that are addressed in the empirical results. Following Suutari (2003) the
career paths of ten repeat expatriates (those with intra-organizational global careers
sent out several times by the same company) and ten international itinerants
(those having more self-directed inter-organizational global careers) are illustrated and
compared. Then the interviews were analyzed using a narrative thematic analysis
(Riessman, 2008). The three broad domains identified integrate a range of aspects
important to global careerists. The first domain is the relationship the global careerists
have with the organization and career. The second is the countries and cultures they
encounter and their relation to the home country. The third domain is the family,
communities, and networks they relate to in their careers.

Global careers
A global career can be defined as “involving multiple international relocations including
¨ ¨
various positions and assignments in several countries” (Makela and Suutari, 2009, p. 992).
Global careers have been seen as boundaryless in their nature, driven by the international
business environment and developed networks. Moreover they have been described as
cyclical, with individuals frequently making a choice of what to do next, as assignments
are time-limited (Suutari et al., 2012). Suutari (2003) found two types of career tracks in his
study of global managers, committed to careers internationally. A majority of them had
alternated between periods at home and periods abroad, while some of them had moved
directly from one assignment to the next or stayed more permanently abroad (Suutari, 2003).
It has been found that in samples of expatriates, for example in Finland, Germany, and
France, there were portions who had already been on one assignment or more (Suutari
and Brewster, 2003; Stahl and Cerdin, 2004). Organizations may develop “a pool of mobile
expatriate managers” (Selmer, 1998, p. 1) who go on multiple assignments for the same
organization. Although it has been argued that it can be difficult to retain expatriates,
global careerists can be committed to an organization that manages their assignments well
and offers developmental international opportunities (Suutari et al., 2012). Research that has
focussed on the sequence of experiences has shown that each consecutive assignment has
different developmental influences ( Jokinen, 2010). It is therefore important to differentiate
between those with a single international assignment, as sent out organizational
expatriates, and those with several, referred to in this paper as repeat expatriates.
Individuals with self-initiated international work experiences may also go on
multiple assignments or various positions abroad (Suutari and Brewster, 2000; Cerdin
and Le Pargneux, 2010). Those with self-initiated international work experiences have
been shown to have different characteristics from expatriates (Cerdin and Le Pargneux,
2010; Biemann and Andresen, 2010; Suutari and Brewster, 2000). Those with self-initiated
international work experiences, often referred to as self-initiated expatriates, have been
described as more often working for local companies than organizational expatriates.
Moreover, self-initiated expatriates were shown to more frequently be women, single,
or to have a partner from another country (Peltokorpi and Froese, 2009). Also in samples
of self-initiated expatriates ( Jokinen et al., 2008; Cerdin and Le Pargneux, 2010) a large
portion has been found to have previous international experience. Among self-initiated
expatriates it has been found that those who have longer previous international work
experience differ from those that are more inexperienced in terms of their motivations to
relocate (Selmer and Lauring, 2011). It therefore seems relevant to make the differentiation
between self-initiated expatriation and more long-term self-initiated global careers, those
referred to as international itinerants.
Any international assignment entails a transition to a new work and organizational
context, a new culture, as well as a new social context (Kohonen, 2004). Nasholm (2011,
2012) showed that there were differences between repeat expatriates and international
itinerants in their identity construction processes, as well as in what they identified
with. These findings also point to the significance of others in the context of global
careerists. The importance of the context for individuals who undergo international
work transitions has long been established. In research on expatriate adjustment it has
been argued that factors of the work and the organization, as well as factors such as the
host culture, social support, and the family’s adjustment are important (Black, 1990;
Black et al., 1991). Black et al. (1991) suggested that international adjustment is
multifaceted and involves adjustment to work, to the general environment in the host
culture, and to interaction with host nationals. That adjustment is seen as multifaceted

Comparison of
intra- and interorganizational
global careers


corresponds to seeing an international work experience as a shift in work and
organizational context, culture, and social context (Kohonen, 2004). To address what
the global careerists see as important in their context, these three aspects are discussed
as three broad domains in this paper. These are the organization and career domain, the
country and culture domain, and the family, communities, and networks domain.


The organization and career domain
Moving abroad involves an adjustment to a new work context and can imply meeting
a new organizational culture (Black et al., 1991). Research on expatriation has found
that the relationship with the home organization may be problematic as the sent-out
expatriate has to deal with the distance to the home company headquarter and the
dual allegiance to the home and host offices (Black and Gregersen, 1992). Black and
Gregersen (1992) found that longer time abroad lessened the commitment to the home
organization and that some expatriates were more committed to their own careers.
It has been suggested that a high rate of expatriates may end up leaving the organization
and that even those who stay may consider leaving, or get other job offers, due to their
international experience (Stahl et al., 2002; Suutari and Brewster, 2003). Research has
pointed to the importance of organizational support for expatriates. Such support
includes preparation and training of expatriates, repatriation practices, and considering
the future career planning of the repatriate (Bonache et al., 2001). It has been suggested
that bigger organizations would be able to offer better opportunities for returning
expatriates and therefore would be able to keep them within the organization (Biemann
and Andresen, 2010; Suutari et al., 2012). However, less is known about the importance
of organizational support for global careerists. Moreover, little is known about the
importance of the employing organizations for those self-directed.
Career researchers have coined terms such as boundaryless and protean careers to
address the increased self-direction and mobility argued to have shifted the relationship
with employers (Briscoe and Hall, 2006). Correspondingly, research on international work
experiences has noted that not staying with the organization may be seen as positive
for the individual (Bonache et al., 2001). Furthermore, there are many who undertake
international work experiences on their own initiative, with different motivations (Suutari
and Brewster, 2000). Stahl et al. (2002) support the notion of the boundaryless career
concept being applicable for expatriate careers, but both expatriates and those with
self-initiated work experiences have been argued to fit the criteria (Cerdin and Le Pargneux,
2010). Even though those self-initiated move without organizational support and also
encounter a new organizational context they perceive the experience as developing
their competencies, as do expatriates ( Jokinen et al., 2008). Global careers are also
described as developmental, both professionally and personally, increasing self-reflection
¨ ¨
and self-awareness (Suutari and Makela, 2007). In a study of global careerists, Suutari
¨ ¨
and Makela (2007) found that their respondents developed a “global career identity”
including aspects such as a confidence, self-reliance, internal career motivations, trust in
employability on a broader global job market, seeking new challenges, and being in charge
of the own career. Moreover, they all wanted to keep the international aspects in their
¨ ¨
careers. Suutari and Makela’s (2007) results also showed notable levels of commitment to the
organization among global careerists. However, their respondents included both intra- and
inter-organizational global careers. The first research question therefore becomes:
RQ1. What is the importance of the organization and the own career when
differentiating between the two types of global careerists?

The country and culture domain
For a long time, research has addressed the transition of moving to a new country and
culture and the associated culture shock and adjustment (Black et al., 1991).
Expatriates can develop coping responses to the stress of adapting and it has been
argued that successful adjustment means identifying with both the home and host
culture, not drifting too far in either direction (Sanchez et al., 2000). Adjustment increases
expatriates’ well-being and positively influences their performance (Wang, 2002).
Richardson and McKenna (2006) studied the relationship that self-directed expatriates
had with the home and host countries and found that the relationships with both
countries were dynamic and on five domains. These domains were; family and friends in
the home country, actual and intended visits home, official status in the host country,
outsiderness, and intention to repatriate. Their findings suggest that the intention to
return and keeping in touch is important for the relationship with the home country and
that the longer one stays away, the harder it may be to return. Cerdin and Le Pargneux
(2010) saw the main thing differentiating self-initiated expatriates from those sent out as
the missing link to the home country that the employing company provides. For those
with self-initiated international work experiences attraction to a particular country can
be an important motivation (Doherty et al., 2011). Sussman (2000) argues that as the
individual moves abroad the awareness of culture begins to grow and that initially
the identification with the home culture is strengthened. As the individual adjusts the
cultural identity changes and when repatriating this shift becomes apparent and
influences how repatriation is experienced.
The expatriation literature has acknowledged that repatriation may be difficult,
just as the move abroad (Bonache et al., 2001). Sussman (2000) suggests that the
repatriation experience is influenced by how the individual adjusts and how he or she
identifies with the home and host country and that with multiple international
experiences the repatriation may be a positive experience. Selmer (2002) found that
previous expatriate experience did not help much in the adjustment to a new culture,
suggesting that it may be difficult to transfer developed sociocultural skills and that it
will be almost like starting over for each new assignment. The second research
question consequently is:
RQ2. What are the relationships like with the home country and the different
countries, and cultures, they encounter for global careerists who experience
multiple transitions, and is there a difference between the two types of global
The family, communities, and networks domain
Parker et al. (2004) suggest that career relevant communities, based, for example on
industry, occupation, or region, can provide career support and influence career
decision making. For expatriates the closest people, and perhaps most significant, are
their own family. How the family, and in particular how the spouse, adjusts has been
argued to be an important factor for the success of international assignments and the
expatriate’s own adjustment (Black et al., 1991). Richardson (2004) argues that the role
of social contexts and personal relationships needs to be recognized in research on
careers. She found that the family was important in self-directed expatriates’ career
decisions to move abroad. Dual career couples, where both spouses work, can mean
that one spouse’s career is disrupted by moving abroad. It has been argued that this
increases dissatisfaction and can lead to stress and conflicts (Harvey, 1998). However,

Comparison of
intra- and interorganizational
global careers



the interaction between work and family can be positive and be seen as a resource
(Schutter and Boerner, 2013). Lauring and Selmer (2010) found that the expatriate
spouse played an important part in supporting the expatriate’s career and establishing
social networks. For both self-initiated and sent-out expatriates a lifestyle career
anchor and work-life balance is important (Cerdin and Le Pargneux, 2010). Family
concerns have been found to be an important factor in global careerists’ decisions on
what offers to accept (Suutari et al., 2012).
Social relationships in both the home and host country are important, and those
working abroad might experience feelings of outsiderness abroad as well as in their home
countries (Richardson and McKenna, 2006). Expatriates’ social networks, in a mix with
locals and other expatriates, have been argued to influence their adjustment, well-being,
and in turn their performance (Wang, 2002). Expatriate assignments could be argued
to be more developmental than self-initiated international work experiences when it
comes to social capital and networks, both within and beyond the organization,
as expatriates often have higher positions and already have networks within the
¨ ¨
organization ( Jokinen et al., 2008). Makela and Suutari (2009) found that their respondents
with global careers had large and diverse networks, both within the organization and
beyond, socially and professionally, stretching to their multiple host countries. However,
global careers also involved trade-offs and risks. Relationships tended to weaken over
¨ ¨
time and as people moved around (Makela and Suutari, 2009). Since Suutari’s (2003)
respondents also showed that personal relationships, and family relationships, were more
difficult with global careers, it is important to explore these further in order to help
individuals and organizations deal with these challenges. Therefore the third research
question is:
RQ3. What, if any, are the differences in the significance of these relationships when
considering different types of global careerists?
Research design
The subjective individual experiences, which are the focus of my research, imply that
qualitative interpretative approaches are needed to capture this process. The choice of
a qualitative approach was also due to the exploratory nature of the aim. A narrative
approach was selected for this study as it is the subjective experiences of the
individuals that are in focus. Kohonen (2004) found that interviews with expatriates
encouraged them to reflect on and analyze their experiences. Moreover, she argues that
a narrative approach can be used to understand the way individuals working abroad
interpret and make sense of their experiences. Qualitative unstructured interviews
were made during 2007-2009 with ten repeat expatriates and ten international
itinerants. All of the participants are Swedish. They are referred to in this paper by
a fictitious name (Adam-John). The interviews lasted between 50 minutes and two
hours and 40 minutes. The participants will be further introduced later in the paper.
The interviews
After explaining the purpose of the study, the interviews started with the open
question “Could you tell me about yourself and your career?” This was done so as to
incite the participants to tell me stories, in a way similar to the approach of life story
interviewing, suggested by Chaitin (2004). However, the focus in these interviews was
the participants’ careers. Life story interviewing also starts with an open-ended

question for the participants to tell their life stories, and what they think is relevant
(Chaitin, 2004) and similarly includes both the experiences and the significance that
these have had for the individual. The initial narratives, which varied in detail, were
followed by questions to get the participants to elaborate on what the experiences
meant to them. An unstructured interview guide focussing on who, and what, was
important to them in their careers was used. Follow-up questions were to a large extent
aimed at getting additional details on their initial narratives.
Analysis of the interviews
Faced with the problem that participants often do not tell their life stories as a temporal
ordering of events, Mishler (1995) explains that a method that researchers can use is to
reconstruct the “telling” into a temporal ordering of the “told.” This then becomes
the narrative for further analysis. After transcribing the interviews the first step taken in
the analysis was to write out each interview into a story, using the recordings, transcripts,
and notes taken during the interviews, in order to reach a better understanding.
This narrative configuration of the interview material displays the contextual meaning
of events (Polkinghorne, 1995). The stories were carefully constructed, staying close
to the original Swedish transcripts and recordings while continually returning to these.
The stories were written in English and the translation from Swedish was done at this
stage so as to convey the meaning of passages with the entire stories in mind, without
losing the context.
As a second step in the analysis, following Suutari (2003), the career paths of the
interviewed repeat expatriates and international itinerants were illustrated and
compared. The continued analysis followed an approach in narrative inquiry described
by Polkinghorne (1995) as analysis of narratives. In this approach, data consists of stories