Managing Work-Life Balance Abroad

Terry Zhang, an associate at The Boston Consulting Group in Dubai, has had extensive international experience in his young career and 24 years. While studying commerce at Queen’s University in his hometown of Toronto, Zhang took advantage of every opportunity to intern and study abroad—going places like Johannesburg, Washington D.C., and Vienna to explore new cultures and hone his professional skills. He spent the summer after graduation hiking in Peru and exploring Europe before moving to Dubai to work in management consulting full-time. On the side, Zhang is passionate about adventure photography, and photos of his travels have even been featured in National Geographic.

In this week’s podcast, Zhang tells us how he and other young professionals can navigate an international environment by finding opportunities, exploring cultures, and optimizing work-life balance.

Navigating Career Paths

Zhang never planned to live in another country, but his experiences studying abroad and taking the time to see the world gradually solidified his desire to travel and culminated in launching his career in Dubai. Reflecting on his jump start in international work, Zhang credits Canadian scholarship program that he participated in while attending university. The program required students to go abroad and look for opportunities in different sectors like public service, business, or international development. Many universities have similar programs dedicated solely to helping students find international programs and opportunities. The early exposure to diverse cultures, languages, and technical skills that students gain in these programs can be a great talking point in the application process and a networking tool to launch one’s career abroad.

How did Zhang determine which opportunity was best for him? First, he had to determine what his goals were. He wanted a high-growth opportunity, a multicultural experience, and the ability to travel. Working in management consulting has given him the opportunity to develop his technical skills and gain a lot more exposure to a wide range of issues than an industry job might have. Working in Dubai has placed Zhang within 5-7 hours of countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Dubai has also proved an incredibly diverse workforce, with individuals from India, France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Russia, and China—just to name a few. But this cultural melting pot has not been without its challenges.

Navigating Cultures

Working with individuals from all over the world means working with communication styles from all over the world. Some cultures have very direct communication, while others require you to read between the lines for meaning. Leadership styles also vary. For example, in authoritative East Asian countries, individuals are expected to be subordinate to their leaders and only speak when spoken to. In a collaborative setting, you might have to put those individuals on the spot by specifically inviting them to challenge an idea.

Zhang describes his most poignant experience of culture shock as when he first arrived in the Middle East. The first week was strange, but he took the time to read about the culture and speak with other professionals who had worked in that part of the world. Once work started, things began to normalize, and he has found rotating through diverse teams to be quite rewarding. “Culture shock is more of a factor if you are more close-minded, if you expect everyone to live the way you are used to living.” By approaching the unknown with curiosity, rather than fear, individuals will be more successful and satisfied with those experiences.

Navigating Work-Life Balance

The millennial paragon is seeking careers that promise work-life balance, but Zhang has found balance in unbalance. As an accomplished photographer, traveler, and consultant, it can be difficult to do it all. When he first started, Zhang describes trying to balance personal commitments and finding it impossible to do so many things at once. Instead, by dedicating his time and energy to one task at a time—whether that be work or leisure—Zhang feels he has been more effective in reaching his goals. “In seeking [that] balance, I was getting the worst out of each bucket...if you selectively refocus that effort and intensity on one or two buckets, you can achieve more.”

Balance is simply a case of priorities and stages. In a program that offers accelerated learning, work may take priority for Zhang right now, but he also anticipates that there will be another stage where he will take some time off to focus on travel. In the meantime, he has found it helpful that countries like Dubai celebrate longer, consecutive holidays—allowing him the time to explore everything that part of the world has to offer.


In a final note of advice, Zhang encourages those who desire to go international to seize unique opportunities, take the time to explore, and make new friends. Whether it’s a short- term service opportunity or a long-term career move, multicultural experiences have the power to give individuals a new perspective and the confidence to navigate the unknown.

To hear more about Terry Zhang’s experiences abroad and advice for globally-minded individuals, check out our Cultural Conversations podcast here.

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