[*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity]
Fernando González was sitting on his terrace, reflecting on his past 17 years at Biopharma that had carried him and his family across the globe and then back to Spain. After almost eight years of working as an R&D expatriate in Argentina, the USA and Poland, he had returned to Barcelona with his family two and a half years ago. He was certain that his professional experience thus far had equipped him well for his future career. However, he began to wonder where his logical next career step would carry him. As a senior manager in Global Clinical Development at Biopharma, he was working in a global function and was part of the company’s global talent pool, which meant that his future was more likely to be outside his home country, Spain. But he was unsure whether he could expect his family to agree to whatever move would present itself. He realized that his next career decisions were looming large on the horizon.
Embarking on a Career at Biopharma
Fernando and his wife Helen met at a university, when studying for a PhD in Biology. Fernando quickly realized that as a scientist couple it would be difficult to develop two academic careers in the same location. Helen continued to complete her PhD in Biology and strived to pursue an academic career that ultimately would lead her to become a professor at the University of Barcelona. However, towards the end of his studies, Fernando actively looked for career opportunities in industry. In December 1999, he decided to apply for a position at the Barcelona operations of Biopharma, a biopharmaceutical company, and immediately received an offer. Although his thesis defence was only scheduled for May 2000, he decided to discontinue his dissertation and embark on a corporate career in R&D.
Biopharma was a global company that employed over 60,000 people, generated worldwide sales of $45 billion and was active in more than 100 countries. Its R&D organization had an annual budget of over $5 billion and more than 10,000 employees.
A Global Career Path
After almost five years in his position, Fernando received a spontaneous offer to relocate to Argentina to initiate the R&D operations of Biopharma in Latin America. Fernando accepted the ten-month transfer because he thought that international relocations were an essential part of being employed by a multinational company and he was excited about getting to know a new culture and work environment. His assignment started in October 2004.
Since Helen was in her late stages of pregnancy with their first child, Fernando relocated alone. In the following months, he moved back and forth between Argentina and Spain as much as possible to see Helen and their newly born son Jaume. Soon after, Fernando experienced far-reaching changes also in his professional life. In July 2005, Fernando returned to Spain just to find out that due to reorganizations his previous department ceased to exist and his former boss had left the company. Given these changes, Fernando was not able to find an adequate position back in Barcelona.
He therefore spent his time on temporary project work while continuing to look for possible alternative positions within Biopharma. His direct boss’ superior in the UK supported Fernando’s cause and, in September 2006, offered him a position in Miami from where to develop the Latin American market. However, his direct boss himself did not back this move at all. Excited by the opportunities in Miami but frustrated by the inflexibility of his direct boss, Fernando decided to resign from the Spanish organization and sign a new employment contract with the UK organization of Biopharma. This meant that his Miami assignment would be managed from the UK. However, to maintain the possibility of returning to Spain in the future, Fernando also applied for a leave of absence without pay for a period of five years that would guarantee him some kind of job at the Spanish unit. Meanwhile, Helen was pregnant with their second son, and they considered relocating to Miami as a family.
Completing the employment contract in the UK organization was a rushed affair. As Fernando remembered:
I literally received the new contract to sign when the whole family was in the hospital to welcome Xavier to the world. It was a bit of a joke to only have 48 hours to consider the contract. This was not a Spanish employment contract after all—I had to sign the contract neither knowing the labor conditions nor the tax system in the UK nor being able to read the fine print!
With the formalities clarified, Fernando moved to Miami to start his new position in January 2007. However, Helen continued to stay in Spain with their two children for the first year to follow through with her application for professorship at the University of Barcelona. Once she had succeeded with this process, she was granted maternity leave and the whole family joined Fernando in Miami. As part of his assignment in Miami, Fernando had to travel extensively throughout Latin America. He reflected on the demands his job entailed:
In a sense, I was constantly straining the family by travelling so much and living apart. Even during our time in Miami where we were living together I had to travel a lot and often wouldn’t see the family for several days. This was frustrating at times because I didn’t always see enough support from the company for the personal sacrifices and stress that I took. Of course it is exciting to be able to travel around but there are also many personal challenges that people tend to forget about.
Still, he was happy that the whole family could be united. Partly to prolong Helen’s maternity leave and hence the possibility to stay together in Miami, Fernando and Helen decided to have a third child, Pablo, who was born in May 2008. However, once again Fernando was concerned about his professional chances within the company upon return. He felt that Biopharma did not know what to do with him. More importantly, no hiring manager in Spain knew him anymore. With only a couple of months to go, he was eventually offered an opportunity to further expand the Eastern European market by moving to Warsaw, which he accepted.
The position in Poland started in January 2011 and so Fernando moved directly from Miami. Helen stayed on for another six months so their children could complete the school year at a US private school in Miami before following Fernando. Warsaw had an American School, which made the schooling transition for their children reasonably easy. However, a year later Helen had to return to Barcelona with the children to resume her job at the university or risk losing her professorship. While the transfer to the American School in Warsaw had been fairly smooth for the children, transitioning into a bilingual public school in Barcelona required a huge adjustment for them.
During his time in Warsaw, Fernando’s boss in the UK organization changed. However, his new boss, Mike Gallagher, was supportive of Fernando’s career and in 2012 pushed for Fernando to be included in the global talent pool at Biopharma. Fernando evaluated this as a positive sign yet also realized the professional implications:
Becoming part of the global talent pool indicated to me that Biopharma had finally recognized my full potential for the company and started to take real ownership of my career development. But I also knew that by accepting I would indirectly commit myself to a global career at Biopharma.
Back on Spanish Soil
While he felt more taken care of by the company, his next career move was more up in the air than ever. Just as the last few months in Miami he experienced a very stressful time not knowing whether he would have to resign from Biopharma or whether an interesting alternative would open up.
In October 2013, with only three months to go in Warsaw, Fernando received two job offers for a subsequent position at Biopharma. The first opportunity involved running the regional R&D operations for Asia-Pacific from Hong Kong. Fernando considered this to be a very interesting position, but he knew that he would not be able to relocate with his whole family given they had just returned to Spain. In the end, he declined the offer for this very reason. Shortly afterwards, he learnt about an internal opening for a position with regional responsibilities in a research centre based in Manchester, UK. He applied for the position because he considered that a commute between the UK and Spain would be feasible. However, he did not get the job.
Just before his job ended in Warsaw, his boss helped Fernando to be contracted again by the Spanish subsidiary. While being a legal employee in Barcelona, he would assume a senior management position in Global Clinical Development and report to a global function based in the UK. Starting in January 2014, Fernando was happy to be back in Spain and close not only to his wife and children but also his extended family.
An Uncertain Future
As the sun set on his terrace, Fernando’s mind was racing. After two and a half years back in Spain, he considered his options. Would there be sufficient opportunities for him in Spain? He knew that being in the global talent pool and working in a global function, future opportunities would be more abundant at one of Biopharma’s main sites in the UK, the US or Asia. He also reflected on his career path so far. He looked back on very rich and interesting experiences in different cultures.
Would his family agree to relocate again if an appropriate opportunity arose? Fernando reminded himself that the support for international relocations had improved in the company over the past. He wondered whether it would be possible for Helen to stop working or take a prolonged sabbatical and live off a single salary. How important was it for his family to remain in Spain? Could he envision his family’s future elsewhere? Another option for him was to commute, thereby agreeing to a life partially away from his family again. He knew there would soon be another large reorganization taking place at Biopharma, and he considered the scant possibility of having to change employers anyway. As the questions kept arising, he failed to notice how the last sun rays beautifully lit up the roofs around him.