The Risks and Rewards of Executive Repatriation

Despite the investment and opportunity corporations provide to international assignments, they too often devote far less attention and planning to the executive-repatriation process itself. That can be a costly mistake.

Friday, April 1, 2011
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Global corporations invest considerable time and money in executives when they send them abroad on international assignments. At the time of the assignment, executives and their companies share a vision of the benefits they will gain from these international postings.

It's a sound investment.

In most cases, by the time these assignments are completed, executives do find themselves more highly skilled and experienced, seasoned by greater responsibilities in the global marketplace and well-prepared to deliver enhanced value to their employers as they hopefully continue to rise within the organization.

There's an irony, however. Despite all that investment and opportunity, corporations often devote far less attention and planning to the executive-repatriation process itself. Indeed, many companies treat repatriation almost as an afterthought, thanks to a tacit assumption that "coming home" is the easy part of a posting abroad.


This can be a costly mistake.

Repatriation poses a complex and emotionally taxing set of challenges for executives and their families. The company's failure to appreciate the challenges -- and to take steps to address them -- can place a heavy emotional toll on all involved, while damaging the executive's ties with the corporation.


Meanwhile, repatriation presents serious risks for the corporation. In today's global marketplace, few career experiences prepare an executive to deliver as much value to the employer as an international assignment. Yet when corporations fail to understand, recognize and respond to the risks associated with repatriation, they leave themselves vulnerable to losing these very executives during -- or soon after -- the relocation, despite the major investments that the company has made.


This is such a common problem that executive-search professionals anticipate receiving inquiries from soon-to-be-repatriated executives or from those who have recently relocated.

These professionals want to explore their value in the marketplace, in part because they don't feel fully appreciated by their existing employers. Depending upon the nature of the skills and experiences they amass during their international assignments, many find themselves with an appealing range of options, in contrast to those from an employer who seems to be taking them for granted.


In the wake of the recent economic recession, with many nations now mired in a sluggish recovery, corporate risks associated with repatriation have only worsened. That's because some companies have found themselves forced to either bring executives home early from international assignments or to relocate them to less-costly locations because of corporate cost cutting, restructuring or business-model shifts.

The result? Corporations are more vulnerable than ever from repatriation risks, especially when foreign postings are unexpectedly cut short or business constraints significantly compress the repatriation process.

Aligning Corporate and Executive Expectations

"Companies and executives usually start out fairly closely aligned when someone begins an international assignment," says Mark W. Doll, CEO of San Jose, Calif.-based Driver6, a management-technology firm that aims to transform corporate finance operations.

"The company is global and they've got, say, 30 percent of their operations in one region. Everyone is in agreement that in order for the executive to keep rising, maybe even one day become CEO, he or she needs to know how to run this region," he says.


Doll spent 30 months on a corporate assignment in China before leaving to start Driver6.

"The [original] company has good intentions; after all, it would otherwise never pay the millions of dollars that it costs for an expat executive. The executive is motivated. If that weren't the case, no one would ever put up with all that wear and tear on the family," Doll says.

"But things change during the course of three or four years. The economy changes, the company changes. Maybe there's new leadership, maybe the politics have changed, with different people in different jobs.

"And suddenly, you've got to prove your value to people who may not even know you or fully appreciate the job you've done. And that's why there's often a big misalignment by the time repatriation happens," he says.


A major source of this misalignment comes from two important corporate failures: first, the failure to quantify the company's total investment in the executive's tenure abroad and then, the failure to assess and, if possible, quantify the value of the executive's experience, especially in light of the corporation's talent-development and succession-planning priorities.

Accomplishing these tasks successfully requires rigorous attention, ideally with some involvement from the C-suite, human resource professionals and the board of directors. But this is worth the collective effort, since a company that understands the investment and value that the executive represents will be more likely to focus on whatever is necessary to retain a key talent asset.

To calculate the real cost of sending an executive overseas, a number of factors must be considered. Some are obvious: the cost of the move itself, any housing and schooling subsidies, expenses tied to tax equalization and so forth.

Other costs may be easier to overlook, but they are just as significant in evaluating the total cost of an international assignment. These may include lost productivity tied to "ramp-up time;" it may take an executive six months or a year in a new location before he or she is fully up to speed.

To assess the reward on this investment takes a lot of communication on the part of both the executive and the corporate leadership. Human resource leaders need to play an important role in encouraging and facilitating this dialogue.

"You may be 4,000 miles away from headquarters," says Juan Saca, an Atlanta-based executive whose international postings have included Mexico, Israel, Chile and Peru.

"You're dealing with a marketplace that may well be completely different in its dynamics from anything most of the company's executives really understand," he says. "You're also dealing with a different political system.

"Maybe you're in charge of day-to-day operations. From a P&L perspective, you may be effectively running a company. You're living and dying by the business. And you're highly visible within your new community, which also brings with it many responsibilities for you and your spouse," he says. "It's really important for the company to understand all of this, rather than just what might come across in some monthly conference calls and reports."

And when a company fails to appreciate the value end of this equation, problems follow.

Bret Leece, a marketing analytics executive, has been repatriated from U.K.-based assignments twice, with significantly different experiences at two different companies.

"The first time, I was working for a company that had never sent an executive on an overseas assignment, even though it was a global corporation. There were no formal HR procedures and I was blazing the trail," he says.

Without clear systems in place -- which would have helped the company understand its cost and reward from posting the executive overseas -- the result was a disconnect, that is, a misalignment between corporate and executive interests, he says.

"When I was repatriated," Leece recalls, "I came back to a new boss and HR didn't have procedures in place to re-integrate me. Had a bit more process been in place, the company could have extracted more value from my intense and productive international experience.

"As a result, I decided to move on to another company," he says. "My new employer was the one that really benefited from my earlier posting abroad."

Minimizing Problems, Maximizing Opportunities

Many executives who have been through repatriation say companies should focus on strategies that support the family through what is, inevitably, a difficult time.  

"One might think of this as 'spouse management' and it is absolutely essential because the spouse is the single most critical success factor in both the executive's assignment abroad and the return to headquarters," says Patrick Litré, a management-consulting executive whose international postings have included Germany, Australia, Japan, Thailand and the United States.

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"I cannot stress this enough," he says. "Anything that the company can do to make sure that the spouse and the family are happy, that the logistics proceed smoothly from this perspective, and that they receive all the attention that they need, is well worth doing."

When companies mistakenly assume that the return "home" will be relatively simple for all concerned, they fail to appreciate the impact that a significant cultural change will have on all family members, sometimes in very different but significant ways.

"When we moved back to Atlanta," Saca says, "my wife and I were called to a meeting by our daughter's teacher, who was concerned because, even though our daughter was very bright, she didn't understand concepts such as ZIP codes.

"We needed to explain to that teacher that where we had been living, there weren't any ZIP codes and, by the way, we didn't even have a mailbox," he says.


One of the key messages that companies need to appreciate is that expat executives and their families will need to make countless adjustments along the way. Some will be small and even funny, especially in retrospect.

"In China," Doll says, "when you're listening to people, you make a kind of grunting sound, which is how you convey, 'Yes, I get it.' But my wife warned me, 'You've got to stop saying "ugh" all the time,' because she was afraid people back in the States would think that I was being rude."


Other personal adjustments may prove more difficult.

An executive whose family has been living with servants may now find himself shopping for groceries or carpooling the kids on weekends.

By itself, these changes may be minor irritants. But if the executive also feels conscious of having swapped a roster of intense -- and intensely gratifying -- corporate responsibilities for "life on a queue" at corporate headquarters, feelings of demoralization can mount quickly.

It can take real effort on the part of both the corporation and the expat executive to find common ground.

"When a professional is sent abroad," Litre says, "it's often a highly entrepreneurial experience, whether he or she is involved with opening a new office or carrying out a significant expansion. There's a lot of responsibility involved and you're making a lot of decisions on your own.

"It's an intense experience and it tends to change people," he says. "You're not going to come home the same person that you were when you left. If that's not recognized, accepted, and appreciated, the executive is going to go someplace else where that will be the case."

It's important during the repatriation process to keep the lines of communication open about everything from the corporation's short- and long-term intentions for the executive to the expat's professional and personal goals and frustrations.

People who have been through this process emphasize that, despite a desire to hit the ground running after the move, it's important to give the executive time to re-acclimate, while spending at least a couple of weeks with the family.

Global corporations committed to making repatriation work would do well to involve their expats in improving the overall process.

This might involve collaborating with HR in setting up new systems or enhancing existing procedures, meeting with the board of directors to discuss ways to improve the company's strategic approach to international postings, or even mentoring other expats prior to or after repatriation.

This involvement could be especially valuable in cases when changing corporate or economic conditions necessitate moving more quickly than might have been expected.

It isn't easy to repatriate an executive. But like many of the most significant challenges a corporation faces, the rewards of doing it right are well worth the effort.


Michael Thompson is a partner in the New York office of CTPartners, a premier executive-search firm committed to performance, quality and results. A veteran consultant with diverse global and industry expertise, Michael is a member of the Professional Services Practice and the Technology, Media & Telecommunications Practice, who specializes in global assignments in the professional services and technology industries. He previously was with Heidrick & Struggles as managing partner of the Pan-Asian Technology & Services Practice, based in the Shanghai office, and entered the consulting profession with Gemini Consulting, the international management consulting arm of France's Cap Gemini Sogeti.

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