Hands-on international experience can be a great career booster, if you start a gig with your eyes wide open. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
By Anne Fisher, contributor
FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I am an engineer by training, currently running a big chunk of North American manufacturing for a global Fortune 500 company. Recently, the head of my division has been sounding me out about moving either to Spain, to tackle some productivity issues at a couple of plants we have there, or else to one of several Latin American countries where we are starting up new ventures. (I assume that these particular options are on the table because I’m of Hispanic extraction and already speak fluent Spanish.)
I’m having trouble deciding whether to jump at either of these offers, and if so, which one. Moving overseas for a year or two would certainly be challenging and interesting. But friends of mine, who took similar assignments and later regretted doing so, warn me that I’d be “out of sight, out of mind” back at headquarters and that this would ultimately trip up my career. What do you think? — Not Packing Yet
Dear Not Packing: No question about it, this is a complicated decision, and one that more and more managers are facing. The number of employees sent abroad rose last year for the first time since 2006, says a study from Brookfield Global Relocation Services called the Global Relocation Trends 2011 Survey Report . According to the study, a record-setting 61% of companies around the world expect to ship more managers to foreign shores in 2011.
Those globetrotting managers may have an edge over their stay-at-home peers. International experience is “more frequently becoming a prerequisite” for top-level executive jobs, notes Mansour Javidan, dean of research at international business school Thunderbird’s Global Mindset Institute.
Recent studies suggest he’s right. Executive development consultants Healthy Companies International, whose clients include Intel INTC , Northrop Grumman NOC , Johnson & Johnson JNJ , and Boeing BA , examined the career paths of C-level managers at Fortune 100 companies and found that more than 7 out of 10 have held management jobs in foreign climes. That’s up from fewer than 5 in 10 a decade ago.
“In many big companies now, you need at least one substantial international assignment if you want to climb the executive ladder,” says Bruce Raines, CEO of New York City executive search firm Raines International.
Before you start packing, however, consider a couple of important caveats. First, not everyone is cut out to thrive in an unfamiliar place. The Global Mindset Institute has identified three main traits that successful expats share (and a quiz that companies can use to determine whether overseas candidates have them).
The three predictors of effectiveness in a foreign assignment: Solid knowledge of the workings of international business and a capacity to quickly absorb information; openness to different cultures and a knack for adapting to new customs and mores; and “social capital,” defined as the ability to bring people together, create alliances, and influence others who are culturally or politically different.
Without all three of these skills, says Mansour Javidan, “people come home before their contracted time, or they don’t achieve their goals. Business is lost, and professional and personal relationships can be damaged.” So can a manager’s career.
Before you accept an overseas gig, make an honest inventory of your strengths and weaknesses in those three areas, and don’t hesitate to ask HR if training is available to help you prepare for your new role. At most big global companies these days, it is.
The fact that you already speak Spanish should give you a big leg up. “All managers who take an overseas assignment must learn the language and study the culture,” says Bruce Raines. “I can’t stress that enough, and Americans in general tend to be slower off the mark in this regard than managers from other countries.”
As for your fear that you’ll be “out of sight, out of mind” at headquarters, Raines says you needn’t worry too much: “Before the Internet, people sent overseas were isolated. Now, with Skype, videoconferencing, and all the other technology that’s available, you’re never really out of touch.”
That’s not to say that going abroad poses no risks to your career. You say that your division head has mentioned sending you abroad for “a year or two.” Raines says one hazard he has often seen arises when that year or two turns into five or six.
“This happens a lot,” he says. “By the time you do get back, after a long stint abroad, the organization has changed so that there’s no comparable job for you. So you either take a step down or leave the company.” Gulp.
To be on the safe side, Raines urges you not to take an overseas assignment “unless it is one that will help your career even if you end up leaving your current employer.”
Raines recommends that you try to gain direct responsibility for the company’s bottom line in as large a region as possible because you can transfer those skills to other companies.
Choosing whether to go to Spain or to Latin America, Raines adds, largely depends on your feelings about risk.
“If you’re very entrepreneurial, emerging markets — including Brazil, the rest of South America, Viet Nam, Moscow, China — are the frontier. You can build a huge reputation as a sharpshooter and move up quickly.”
If you’re more conservative and risk-averse, on the other hand, “you may do better in Europe or another established market, where there are already established procedures and a track record.”
One more thing: If you do decide to make the leap, check out Expat Info Desk, a site run by seasoned expatriate George Eves that offers a wealth of wisdom on everything from relocating your pets to hammering out a workable expat employment contract.
Vaya con Dios!
Talkback: If you’ve worked overseas, or have relocated employees to foreign countries, what advice would you give anyone considering an international assignment? Leave a comment below.
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