Securing an International Assignment During Covid-19

Rajit Kamal, Vice President, Asia Pacific for DePuy Synthes, a Johnson & Johnson company, offers recommendations for those wishing to secure an expatriate assignment with their company.

In this installment of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association (HBSHAA) Q&A series, Michael Wong speaks to Rajit Kamal, Vice President, Asia Pacific for DePuy Synthes, a Johnson & Johnson company about Kamal’s ongoing international career trajectory in the face of COVID and his recommendations for those wishing to secure an expatriate assignment with their company.

Michael Wong:While J&J placed in the top twenty of Fortune’s list of the World’s Most Admired Companies for 2021 as well as earned the #1 ranking in the pharmaceutical category for the eighth consecutive year,1 international assignments are significant investments in employees,2 especially during a global pandemic. What was the career journey for you during this past year of turbulence?

Rajit Kamal: While COVID-19 has been very challenging for many people on multiple fronts, a key reason why I joined Johnson & Johnson is that as our CEO has repeatedly communicated, “J&J was built for times like this”.3 After reading as many J&J cases as I did during my years at HBS, I knew what type of organization this is, and it is the reason why I joined over 12 years ago. And it is why I am still excited about my personal growth opportunities, especially with this international opportunity.

As you were an expat in Hong Kong, you already know that many biopharmaceutical firms’ growth has been and is expected to continue to be in Asia-Pac markets. And it is not just about potential for market growth, it is the fact that innovation and new practices are taking place here…unlike the past where playbooks were often created in the US and/or Europe and then shared to Asia-Pac colleagues. Rather, Asia Pac-based firms are investing in not just pilot but production level initiatives like digital transformation.

So while I grew up in India, I never worked in Asia-Pac and I was eager to join one of J&J’s business units, in this case in a regional role based out of Singapore. As serendipity occurred last summer and this position opened up for me, I’ve recently moved to Singapore and am enjoying my engagement with new colleagues. But I would add that it took many actions and conversations over my 12 years at J&J to land this role.

Per the Korn Ferry Institute’s insight that “as companies look to new markets, both developed and emerging, for future growth, they need leaders who possess the cultural agility and global competencies to connect with consumers in markets around the world,”4 one can see how premier executive search firms value expatriate experience. What are your top three career recommendations for readers who are interested in securing an expatriate assignment with their respective employers?

First, the table stakes are taking actions to excel in your current role. As the costs for employers can be significant as well as the potential risk that a competitor might poach an expat just before his or her returning “home,” it’s a calculated investment. While past performance doesn’t guarantee future success, it does provide ammunition for your manager to advocate for you to be considered. That’s a segue to my second recommendation of having purposeful career conversations with your managers and advocates. Besides explaining what benefits you can bring to the company through this new skill set, what is the value proposition for them to advocate for you since if you are already a trusted lieutenant to him or her, you could be moving away for 3+ years and they have to try to fill your shoes! For your employer, you need to have a clear understanding of the approvers and the decision-making framework.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to secure buy-in from your family. While an expat assignment might be a job that you have dreamed about since college, your spouse and kids might have a very different lens on this overseas’ family journey. With an 18.5 hour direct flight between Newark and Singapore, it’s realistic to assume that your family and you will not be going home that frequently if you have the same desired country location as me. Still, if everyone is on the same page, you will have an opportunity to truly get out of your comfort zones to not only learn new things and test yourselves, but also travel on this unchartered journey together as a family.

During his 12+ years with Johnson & Johnson, Rajit Kamal has worked across a number of areas, including serving as Global Leader for the firm’s $1.5B knee replacement franchise. His prior experience included roles at Innosight, The Boston Consulting Group and Procter & Gamble. Rajit received his BS from the Indian Institute of Technology, a MS from the Georgia Institute of Technology, a Masters in Technology Management from Columbia University, and his MBA from the Harvard Business School.

Michael Wong is an Emeritus Board Member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.

Notes

[1] https://fortune.com/worlds-most-admired-companies/2021/search/?ordering=asc

[2] Molinsky, Andy and Hahn, Melissa, 5 Tips for Managing Successful Overseas Assignments, Harvard Business Review, March 16, 2016.

[3] https://www.jnj.com/latest-news/message-from-alex-gorsky-about-johnson-johnson-investigational-covid-19-vaccine-candidate

[4] Lamarca, Giovanni and Eaton, Dave, What Color is your Passport, Korn Ferry Institute, 2016.