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The Dirty Little Secret about Expat Failure

By Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

Congratulations! Your company would like you to take on an exciting, high-profile assignment in Shanghai, China (or some other exotic-sounding locale). The job will allow your company to tap into the huge growth potential in that maturing market and you’ll have greater responsibility than you’ve ever had before. You’ll also get a nice bump in pay for your troubles.

The Dirty Little Secret about Expat FailureYou can still hear your boss’s words ringing in your ears, “This is a great opportunity for you that could make your career here.” So, of course, you readily accepted the assignment.

But now, as you ready the family for this great adventure, you have mixed feelings. Yes, this will be your chance to shine. And yes, this could give your career prospects within your company a huge boost. But there is a little voice inside your head that causes you to doubt the wisdom of your hasty “yes.”

If you’ve experienced this mixture of excitement and foreboding, you’re not alone. Expat assignments have been a popular path to development and career advancement for decades and that trend seems to be increasing. A 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review noted that 75 percent of organizations plan to increase the number of globally mobile employees over the next two to three years.

But, is all this mobility a good thing for your employer, or for you?

Here’s the shocker:

Most organizations don’t know! According to that same HBR article, less than one in five organizations actually measure the return on investment for the billions of dollars spent on employee mobility. And that’s for the organizations, like yours, that take a “strategic” view of mobility. The number drops to 1 in 12 for organizations that take a more “reactive” approach to expat assignments where they quickly find a corporate resource to staff a project or problem (i.e., Who’s the first person to say, “I’ll go”?).

So, while most global organizations are spending enormous sums of money, there’s no real way to tell if these funds are actually driving long-term organizational outcomes. With “big data” being all the rage these days, it seems ironic that many organizations are missing opportunities for a “little data!”

But what about you?

Is it true that accepting an expat assignment is a sure-fire way to accelerate your development and gain a boost up the corporate ladder? Maybe, not so much.

While its uncommon for a person to be recalled, or dismissed, because of poor performance on an expat assignment (Global Assignment Policies and Practices, KPMG, 2015), expat “failure” is more common than you might think. Research conducted by DDI (Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015) indicated that expats were viewed as “successful” by their employers only 58 percent of the time. That makes your odds only a little better than 50/50.

And the consequences of failure can be devastating.

While you might not be fired for a lackluster overseas stint, it can certainly move your career from the fast lane to the sidewalk. The stigma associated with an ineffective high-profile assignment can follow you for years. That may help explain why so many expats find themselves underutilized when they return to their host country. It may also account for the abnormally high turnover rate for expats within the year following their return.

My experience on two separate expat assignments, and as an executive coach working with expats in the Middle East and Asia, aligns fairly well with these sobering statistics. Expat assignments are often much more challenging, both personally and professionally, than most people anticipate.  And, many very accomplished leaders struggle to find their way once away from home.

What makes expat assignments so difficult to pull off?

Legions of authors have opined about the many causes of expat failure. From my experience, I’d sum up the primary cause in a single word—arrogance. I’m not talking about the “I’m the smartest person in the room and I don’t mind telling you that” kind of arrogance. This person is pretty easy to spot and is unlikely to land an expat assignment in the first place. What I’m talking about is the “I’m going to educate these ignorant locals on how to do things right” sort of arrogance.

A more polite term for this might be “missionary zeal.”

It’s easy to understand why those chosen for expat assignments might fall prey to this trap. People who are passionate about their business are often the most committed to their host organizations, are very skilled at what they do, and demonstrate tremendous charisma. They possess an inherent optimism and resiliency that makes them very attractive as overseas emissaries and technical mentors. But over-reliance on these very qualities often leads to mission failure.

The world is multi-colored—not black and white.

At its root, arrogance carries with it a sense of the rightness or infallibility, of one’s perspective. Arrogant people tend to be judgmental and process their experience in light of these judgments. Things are “good” or “bad” and/or “right” or “wrong.” While intent on teaching the locals the “right” way to go about doing things (think “business processes”), they generally fail to consider alternative approaches. Instead of listening, understanding, and finding a path that integrates input from their local colleagues, they remain intent on replicating the approaches that proved successful in their home country.

And, as you can imagine, the response of the locals is predictable. They smile politely, listen respectfully, and then wait for the expat to go home. They are then free to seek their own path using what they’ve learned from the expat and integrating it with their host country’s values, norms, and modes of operating. If the expat is extremely difficult to work with they may undermine the expat and seek his/her recall.

I’ve seen this drama play out in my own experience as an expat coach. Little complaints filter back to headquarters that create concern. Someone from HR is brought in to gather more information about why things don’t seem to be working out. (Local leaders then unload all of their frustrations and criticisms.) HR intervenes, or brings in an external coach, to help the expat develop better self-awareness and adapt his/her approach. But by this time, it’s often too late—the expat’s relationships with local colleagues are so fractured that they are irreparable. The expat completes the remainder of their assignment, declares the time spent overseas a “success,” and returns home. The company plays along with the fiction and simply hopes for a better result with the next expat.

The telltale signs of expat failure.

Closely observing expat leaders gives a pretty good indication of whether they are falling into the arrogance trap. Here are some of the signals:

  • Use of “we” and “they” vs. “us”
  • Constant complaining to colleagues about the shortcomings of their local colleagues
  • Viewing host country processes and procedures as “right” (and local processes or procedures as “wrong,” or “backward”)
  • Socializing primarily with other expats (i.e., non-local) colleagues
  • Limited or no interest in learning about the local country customs, culture, and/or history

Avoiding these behaviors won’t guarantee success, but they are great predictors of future failure.

So before you apply for that work visa...

You may see an expat assignment as a great learning opportunity and a way to get a leg up in your career. But, recognize that expat assignments entail considerable career risk.

Before packing your bags and mobilizing the family, think about how you would approach the assignment. Will you land in your new assignment and set about getting the locals on the right path? Or, will you appreciate the differences and seek a path forward that integrates local perspectives with your home country experience? The later path is longer and more complex, but my experience suggests that it’s the better bet.

I’ll share more ways to beat the odds in a future post. Stay tuned!

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

This is Part 1 of a series on Expat Leadership. Read others in the series:
Part 2: The Expat’s Packing List: The 4 Behaviors You Need to Succeed
Part 3: Are You Being Set Up for Expat Success?

Posted: 13 Jan, 2017,
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