Taking an international assignment is key to employees successfully progressing through the ranks of an organization. They expand their horizons, learn a great deal about the inner workings of the company and develop that all important "global outlook."
Maybe not. A new study suggests that taking too many international assignments can actually delay the path toward becoming a CEO.
Chief executives are appointed to the top job nearly 25 years (on average) after the start of their career, but those who took international assignments reached CEO status about two years later than those who didn't work abroad, according to Career Advancement in Large Organizations: Do International Assignments Add Value? by Monika Hamori and Burak Koyuncu of Spain's IE Business School.
"The results show that executives with international-assignment experience take longer to reach the top echelon," the report states. "The more assignments they have and the longer time they spend outside their home organization, the slower they reach the CEO position."
Studying 1,001 CEOs in the United States and Europe, the findings were presented at the Academy of Management's annual meeting in Chicago in mid-August.
One problem with international assignments, says Hamori, is that they remove the worker from all the action.
"With only a few exceptions, like Nokia, the foreign divisions of companies still often represent the periphery, places far from resources and information available at corporate headquarters," she says.
Other factors that delayed the elevation to CEO were relocations taken too late in their careers and switching companies.
"Do it for a year or two. Do it when you're young, and don't switch companies when you get back," says Hamori.
Geoffrey Latta, executive vice president in the New York office of Worldwide ORC, a consultancy specializing in relocation issues, says that this data goes against goes against what companies have been saying about relocation for more than a decade.
"If the study is correct and taking international assignments can actually damage your career, the implication is that, what companies have been saying isn't in accordance with reality," he says.
"A lot of companies are very good at the rhetoric of the value of international assignments, yet there are many companies that when you look at the top management team, they are not really very international. Not as much as you might expect," he says.
Latta says he agrees with the study's assessment that -- in many instances -- expatriates can feel like they're working in the periphery of the organization.
"At most companies, the real action's at headquarters ..." he says. "A lot of expatriates complain that when they're out on assignment, they are not in the loop of what's going on in corporate headquarters, so maybe they get passed over or forgotten about when an opportunity comes up."
Companies need to think much more about how their relocation plans dovetail with talent management, he says.
"One of the biggest points of advice for HR is to have a written, understood and agreed-upon career plan for the assignee on the day they go out on their assignment," says Latta. "That should include a plan for the next deployment of that individual when the assignment is over and get, not only HR committed to that, but make sure the business unit that's sending the person is committed to it too."
Lofty goals for sure, but is all that planning really possible in an atmosphere where companies are often transferring workers to fill pressing -- and often frantic -- business needs?
"Companies are saying, 'Yes, we all recognize that it's a good idea to do this career planning, but we've got [pressing needs] and we've got to deal with [them],' but unless you force that process, despite that problem, you're going to wind up in situations" where an employee returns from assignment without much direction and may wonder what benefit they really got from the assignment, Latta says..