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Are You Being Set Up for Expat Success?

By Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

It seems like survival shows are all the rage these days. First, CBS showed what happens when you put a dozen wannabe celebrities on a deserted island and pit them against each other. Then came the variants that taught us how to survive in the wild with just a pocket knife and a pair of shoelaces. (Hint: it helps if you’re an SAS-trained soldier like Bear Grylls.) It didn’t take long until this was reduced to the obscure and titillating variant, “Naked and Afraid.” In this show, the stars are placed into an unfamiliar environment and asked to survive for 21 days with, as the name implies, literally nothing!

Are You Being Set Up for Expat Success?So, what does all of this have to do with an expat assignment? Perhaps more than you think.

My first expat assignment 20 years ago brought these threads together in a very powerful way. I was asked to relocate to a country in the Middle East with only four weeks’ notice. I had a passport, work visa, specific goals to accomplish (create an entire staffing function for a client start-up organization), and little else. My company had limited experience at the time with expats and offered virtually no departure orientation or support upon arrival to my new assignment. It wasn’t “Naked and Afraid”—more like “dazed and determined”—but there was precious little organizational support once I left the USA.

That assignment taught me and my organization a lot about what it takes to engineer successful expat assignments. We’ve put this knowledge to good use in the intervening years. My company has supported multiple expat assignments (most of them successful) and I’ve enjoyed an international career that recently included a three-year leadership role in China.

Organizations may not send their expats overseas as ill-equipped as the shows mentioned above, or my company 20 years ago, but research published in 2014 in the Harvard Business Review suggests that they may not be doing as much as they could—or should—to prepare them for the great unknown of an overseas assignment. That same research suggests that the odds of expat success are only about 50/50.

You can’t manage what you don’t measure

Given the billions of dollars in expat expenditures incurred each year, it’s surprising that the vast majority of companies don’t measure and track the return on their investment (ROI) for overseas assignments. For those that bother with measurement, only about one in three consider “fulfillment of the assignment’s purpose” as an outcome worthy of consideration (Global Assignment Policies and Practices, KPMG, 2015).

With all the buzz about big data, that’s an amazing statistic. If organizations want to ensure their expats survive (and thrive), they need to start by gathering baseline information about whether their expats actually accomplish the goals and objectives that were the basis for assignment in the first place. According to the same KPMG study, this should be relatively easy given that about 75 percent of organizations said the key reason for sending people on expat assignments is to achieve specific business objectives.

What you leave behind is key

Measures of business success shouldn’t be limited to the period of the expat assignment, however. Truly successful assignees will leave behind a legacy that supports success for several years after they return home! They build strong teams. They install systems and processes, but also create ownership among the “locals” so processes are sustained once they return home.

Another key metric to consider is the career progression of expats after their overseas assignments. This is often one of the selling points to persuade an employee to take on an expat assignment. If organizations want to tout the career benefits of expat assignments, they should have some data to back up the claim! But data from KPMG reveals that this metric is collected by less than 50 percent of HR professionals. “Reactive” HR partners (as oppposed to those who identified themselves as “strategic”) were even less inclined to actually gather data to demonstrate this relationship (28 percent).

While they’re at it, organizations might also consider measuring the growth and development of talent in the location that hosted the expat. This might help focus expats on the legacy-building aspects of their assignment and support rewards for those who do this particularly well.

On the up-side, those responsible for expat mobility generally do a good job of monitoring and reporting costs, but unfortunately, focusing on these metrics as a primary measure reflects a myopic view of global mobility. These are investments to grow the business! Over-emphasis on costs may be one reason for the sorry state of expatriate assignment measurement that exists today.

Leverage data to drive expat success

Simply keeping score of who thrives, survives, or fails in their overseas adventure may be good enough for TV, but organizations have a vested interest in every expat’s success. Once companies establish solid outcome measures for expat success, they should begin to identify the factors that lead to success and proactively take steps to lower the odds of failure.

A recent DDI survey of more than 13,000 leaders suggests that there is much that organizations can do to bolster the prospects of their expat employees (Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015). Companies that provide potential expats with the right kind of development experiences prior to deployment dramatically increase the chances of success on an overseas assignment. These key development experiences include:

  • Having the leaders take an active role in their own development. This includes taking ownership of their individual development plan and initiating action to grow as a leader.
  • Taking on projects or initiatives that require building consensus among peers (or more senior leaders).
  • Practice in motivating and inspiring others to achieve challenging goals.
  • Experience in evaluating talent and identifying employees with future potential to grow into management roles.
  • Working and building relationships with diverse co-workers, particularly when these co-workers are from different cultures.

Preparation builds confidence!

It’s not hard to imagine why the experiences noted above might help a wannabe expat. All of these experiences require the individual to do things that will likely be required on a future expat assignment—align people to achieve challenging goals, coach and develop talent, and build relationships.

Corporate Talent Management practices make a difference

In addition to considering how to prepare individuals for expat success, DDI’s research also points to more systemic talent practices that equip expats for success. These include:

  • Having a globally consistent set of leadership development programs to promote a common culture and leadership “language.”
  • Identifying and communicating the importance of cross-cultural leadership throughout the organization.
  • Including “managing across cultures” or similar topics within leadership development efforts at multiple levels.
  • Measuring and continuously improving learning and development programs.

Unfortunately, the odds are that organizations are three times more likely to do none of these things than they are to do all four. This sounds like another recipe for a survival show!

Every expedition needs a guide

Perhaps the one thing that organizations can do to have the greatest impact on expat success is to provide access to a qualified coach. (This might be an internal colleague with successful expat experience and a track record of developing people. Or, it might be an external coach with a track record of success working with expats.) Just like on TV, an experienced “expert” can help you adapt to your new surroundings, acquaint you with the local environs, and encourage you when the going gets tough. And it will get tough. And yes, research conducted by DDI indicates that access to a coach definitely increases the odds of success.

An experienced coach can help an expat become more purposeful about building relationships and engaging people, encourage them to question flawed assumptions, challenge perceptions by having expats view situations from a variety of new perspectives (a key expat success behavior), and illuminate blind spots before they lead to derailment. Coaches can also be a valuable source of support to help an expat manage the pressure and uncertainty that typically accompany separation from familiar work colleagues, friends, and (sometimes) family.

If you’re lucky enough to find a coach who is familiar with the local culture and customs, that’s an added bonus. A “cultural navigator” can guide you to make proactive adjustments to better fit in with your colleagues and avoid cultural pitfalls.

So, if you’re interested in an expat assignment, or if you’re responsible for sending someone far from home, recognize that you’re supporting a career move that entails considerable risk and expense. The good news is that there are things that the aspiring expat, corporate HR professionals, and expat managers can do to dramatically increase the odds of experiencing positive outcomes.

And, just like those “survivors” you’ve seen on TV, corporate expats often (myself included) rate the experience as one of the most rewarding of their lives. That is, if they weren’t voted off the island before completing their assignment.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D., is DDI Vice President, Global Consulting & Partnerships.

This is Part 3 of a series on Expat Leadership. Read others in the series:
Part 1: The Dirty Little Secret about Expat Failure

Part 2: The Expat’s Packing List: The 4 Behaviors You Need to Succeed


Posted: 10 Feb, 2017,
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