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How to Avoid an Overseas Fail

Global mobility is becoming increasingly important to businesses, but without adequate preparation, companies are setting the stage for failure abroad.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013
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In today's expanding market, HR leaders must know how to think and operate globally, however, a recent survey on global leadership trends released by Right Management found that 42 percent of managers fail when they're sent abroad.

Located in Right Management's Toronto office, Bram Lowsky, group executive vice president of the Americas, says the survey found disparities in the preparation managers were given before an assignment. Indeed, only 25 percent of the organizations surveyed provide language training, and that average drops to 18 percent for North American employers, while it's closer to 33 percent among European, African and the Middle Eastern companies. But the most telling reason people fail in their efforts to manage a foreign office was revealed in the fact that 16 percent of the companies surveyed didn't do anything to prepare their managers to live abroad. And that number rises to 22 percent when looking only at North American employers.

"No wonder so many managers don't perform well outside their home country," he says.

New York-based consulting firm Mercer recently published a report on the latest trends in international assignment program management, finding that, over the last two years, there has been an increase in the overall number of international assignments.

"International competencies are required by everyone in today's workforce, whether or not you travel internationally," observes Michael Schell, CEO of RW3 CultureWizard, an international, intercultural training consultancy in New York that provides online solutions and e-learning facilities for its multinational organizations.

"Cultural training is a complex process," he says. "People think that certain business practices and behaviors are universal and they're not." He says business etiquette varies from country to country, and a successful outcome depends on an understanding of life and work in each specific country. 

Ed Hannibal, North American mobility business leader in Mercer's Chicago office, acknowledges that international assignments often affect whole families, and they need to be supported, too.

"It's a very fast-paced world we're living in, and organizations have tremendous mobile needs," he says. "It's important to help the family unit make the move, so make sure they are prepared and supported for the international assignment."

Lowsky says that preparation for an international assignment should begin long before the plane takes off.

"The selection process is crucial," he says. "It's not just about identifying strong leaders; they have to be good candidates for international assignments. We suggest you screen individuals for key competencies: an ability to adapt socially, a cultural fluency, respect for other beliefs and customs, and people who can navigate ambiguity. These are key factors for success."

Faced with a variety of issues to take into consideration when sending a manager into a foreign environment, Lowsky suggests that employers begin building a global talent pool that can be ready for mobilization when needed. "A global organization that believes in talent mobility should build it proactively and make the investment in training and support, so when it's time to move someone, they're ready… and not just for a global assignment, but for a particular country."

In today's world, mobile executives and their families expect to get information and resources online, notes Schell. With that knowledge in mind, Mercer and RW3 have teamed together to create a unique online international assignment tool designed to prepare employees and their families for their time abroad as well as provide information and support for them while they're there.

Lowsky says that networking can also be an important lever to pull before a move. "A global firm should already have people in those countries," he says, "and they can tap into their local managers to prepare the new manager and help them learn about the customs, culture, the business and their customers."

He says that even customers can help pave the way for someone stepping into an international leader assignment.

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"There's an opportunity to create some buy-in with the customer. Maybe you're a corporate head office, and your client -- who may be in the United States -- has an overseas division," he says. "Since they are already a client, you can work with them to help pave the way for your new manager by making introductions. This is a great way to start networking, because they know other people, too."

As an executive search consultant for London-based consultancy Communicate, Emerson Vigoureux recruits senior-level executives across the continent, particularly in Italy, France and the United Kingdom.

"Cultural differences influence the way people work, which in turn influence the way people work together," he says. "Success abroad thus rests on attitude, flexibility and cultural empathy – not dissimilar to any effective recruitment process at home.

"What differs overseas is the need to understand the subtleties of how people conduct their day-to-day lives, which can vary vastly from what you are used to," he says. "Even something as trivial as the differences in taking lunch between England and France, for example -- a sandwich at your desk in London being substituted for a full sit-down meal, with wine, in Paris -- is an everyday custom a Brit working abroad would do well to empathize with."

Vigoureux says linguistic considerations remain important, especially when working in a second language for the speaker, but adaptable, open-minded managers often perform best. "Again," he says, "success comes down to cultural understanding."

And don't forget about re-entry. "In the absence of a repatriation plan, you run some risks around talent retention," says Lowsky. "Someone who goes abroad for a few years is now more marketable, and if there is no set plan to repatriate or extend their stay, they're at risk to leave for another opportunity. You have to put some context around that."

Companies must avoid being in a reactive mode when this happens, says Lowsky.

"There's an opening, let's fill it quickly! With this kind of mindset, you don't think about all the aspects of preparation and re-entry, and it sets your manager up for failure," he says. "As the world becomes more mobile, this is all the more reason to make an up-front investment."

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