How London calling could boost your career

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Peter Gonye, the co-head of the private equity and investment banking practice at executive recruiter Spencer Stuart, says 'If you've gone to London, done a stint and come back, you are seen as much more of an able, capable, visionary manager of people and businesses.'

But be prepared to weather your share of cultural blunders and a possibly rocky re-entry. Gonye says, 'It does represent some risk because repatriation is never as smooth as in concept, and if you're overseas for a long enough period of time, you also may lose some perspective in the new developments of your home market.'

Goodbye, Wall Street

A posting in London typically involves a change in geography rather than employer. If you've been with your firm for at least six months and it's established in the UK, putting in for a transfer is straightforward.

Andrew Lowenthal, the global head of financial services at London-based executive recruiter Egon Zehnder, says, 'Most direct moves across the Atlantic are internal. Recruiting across borders is very difficult due to the combination of someone changing employers and countries at the same time.'

Though your compensation won't jump, you will probably reap the windfall otherwise known as a housing allowance, potentially enabling you to live far more cheaply abroad than at home. London pay, however, while generally equal to Wall Street pay, won't go as far when you factor in the premium of about a 20% cost-of-living increase for London over New York. For day-to-day expenses, such as food, clothing and transportation, London can eat you out of house and home.

New territory will bring new challenges as well. Even if you're working for the same company, you'll have to prove yourself all over again. Still, Lowenthal says many American expats are pleasantly surprised to find that they are exercising more autonomy than they are accustomed to back home.

Depending on the sector, U.S. skills may be more appreciated in London than the other way around. 'The U.S. market tends to lead what occurs in Europe in many trends and developments,' Gonye at Spencer Stuart says. 'For those who go from New York, there is much more of a pioneering and business development focus.' On the flip side, if client relationships are essential to your success on the job, you'll be off to a crawling start while you learn your clients' mentality and develop bonds of trust.

Barbarians at the gate

Culturally speaking, there's more understanding on both sides than there used to be as firms merge or expand cross-border. And as banks and asset managers style themselves more and more as globalized houses, each individual firm's subculture can matter just as much as the locale.

Christopher Earley, chair of London Business School's organizational behavior department and the director of a cultural intelligence program at Deustsche Bank, says, 'Investment banking itself is its own strong industry and dominant culture. It attracts risk-oriented, aggressive people; at Deustsche Bank, a person can go from Germany to London to New York and won't find a huge difference in work values and styles.'

But some expats say that while Brits in the London offices of a Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley or Merrill Lynch may work for a Yank bank, local traditions in the workplace weigh heavily.

Charu Suri has worked as a senior financial analyst for Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB), first in New York and then in London. 'It comes down to a Victorian-era style of banking, which is not a bad thing,' Suri says. 'In the U.S. financial community, meritocracy is the number one criteria, whereas in Europe, attire, attitude and etiquette are equally important. I learned a lot about decorum and proper expression.'

Often the adjustment was more pleasant than not. Suri says, 'In New York, they would say 'You really f---d up.' In London, they might say, 'Forgive me if I'm slow, but this doesn't seem right.' I would get far more ticked off in New York than in London.'

Some New Yorkers who have done a stint in Blighty would jump at the chance to return. Michael J. Earlywine, vice president of the portfolio trading group at New York specialist firm LaBranche Financial Services, spent almost three years in London and says he would go back in a heartbeat despite being treated, at times, like a barbarian at the gate.

'Londoners see us as beyond the pale, bold and direct to the point of being rude,' he says. 'They're very judgmental based on things like silverware or your accent or where you went to university.' Earlywine recalls an embarrassing, impromptu dinner-table lesson by his British boss on how to hold his silverware so that his hand covered the end of the fork.

War of the words?

Brits are famous for understating things to the point of sarcasm. Earley with London Business School says one American expat told him, 'What I love about England is that someone can insult me and I don't take offense at it. It takes me about two weeks to figure it out.'

By contrast, the British tradition of restraint can lead to culture shock when an employee is relocated to the land of the terminally outspoken. Says Earley of Brits working in New York, 'They are put off by the very strong openness and a level of superficiality that's a bit surprising at times.'

Americans abroad are therefore advised to tone down their instinct for establishing a connection through jocularity-something Brits call being 'noisy'. CSFB's Suri says, 'It's very bad form to joke around and pat someone on the back. There's a mentality of working your way into the society; be deferential, listen, don't speak out of turn, don't voice your opinions unnecessarily.'

And then, of course, there's the language barrier. While Americans may be forgiven for not equating a cookie with a biscuit or a fry with a crisp, other double-meanings are considerably more fraught. Earlywine recalls a meeting he ran that was attended by twenty people. As one of the attendees rose to leave, Earlywine says he barked, 'Sit your fanny back down and get back to work.' Eventually someone pulled him aside to explain that in England, 'fanny' did not refer to the posterior portion of a woman's anatomy.

Chasing the deal

'New York is a non-stop culture... In terms of lifestyle, London is head and shoulders above New York,' says Suri. 'Peoples' health and lives are prioritized in a way New York bankers couldn't even dream of. Pulling 48 hours in a row isn't expected, it's the exception.'

Earlywine also describes a less cutthroat business world. He says, 'London is not that big a place... It's more like a really big Boston where everybody knows everybody over there, and because of that, there's more understanding of your role in the business community and a lot less fierce kind of competitiveness than you find in New York.'

He sees a much more congenial relationship between buyers and sellers in London. "When you make a cold call in the U.S., you're one of a million people trying to sell something. In London, it's more like, 'We're all in this together, so come on in. I may send you on your way, but I'll do it very politely.'

On the other hand, Londoners can be more wedded to conventional ways of doing business. Says Suri, 'It's more straight-laced. They're not willing to give up the traditional models... New York seems to foster the daredevil mentality.'

Could Londoners just be taking a longer-view approach, less 'daredevil' and more 'due diligence'? Earlywine says Londoners look at a business idea over the next two or three years while New Yorkers look at it over the next two or three months. And, he says, 'If I could be there doing the same thing I'm doing here, I'd be there.'

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