A study finds North America-based executives going on fewer international assignments than those in Europe and Asia. While assignments abroad are certainly valuable, many U.S. companies are finding other ways to help leaders gain the skills needed to succeed in the global marketplace, experts say.
By Mark McGraw
International assignments, the conventional wisdom goes, impart new skills and experiences that are becoming essential for executives to have in an increasingly global marketplace.
A recent study from Philadelphia-based Right Management, however, suggests many North American companies aren't making international opportunities a priority for executives.
The survey, which polled senior HR executives at more than 600 organizations, found executives from North American-based companies getting fewer international assignments over the course of their careers than those in Europe or Asia. In addition, North American respondents seemed to indicate that international assignments play a small part in global leadership development programs, at least in comparison to companies in other parts of the world.
The survey asked HR executives from around the globe which approaches have had the greatest effect on accelerating leadership development within their organizations. Among North American respondents, only 15 percent cited "international assignments" as having the most impact, compared to 48 percent and 44 percent saying the same in Europe and Asia, respectively.
North American companies reported executive coaching and mentoring (53 percent), action learning and mentoring (48 percent), focused skill development (44 percent), executive assessments (33 percent), rotational programs (27 percent), and executive education and academic programs (26 percent) as having more bearing on leadership development than international assignments.
While the impact of an international stint can be very beneficial for the assignee, there may be a few factors contributing to North American executives taking fewer assignments abroad in comparison to their European and Asian counterparts, says Rebecca Ray, senior vice president of human capital with The Conference Board.
North American companies may rank a global mindset less highly as a characteristic of current leaders, says Ray, "but articulate its importance in the coming years. So that may, in part, explain a lower drive to leverage international assignments currently."
In addition, some companies -- while multinational in scope -- are largely U.S.-based, "and thus heavily dependent on customers from the world's largest economy, and have not yet felt the shift to revenues coming largely from outside North America."
Or, in some cases, potential leaders simply may not be all that eager for an opportunity to work overseas, says Ray.
"Americans are less mobile than they have been for decades," she says, "due to inverse housing equity, working partners or family concerns," she says.
"And, Americans are in some cases reluctant to trade a comfortable lifestyle for a 'hardship placement' at the request of a company to which they may feel less than loyal. After all, the days of the 'company man' are long gone, and the employment 'contract' as many knew it is gone."
While international assignments can certainly play an important role in rounding out and accelerating leadership development, they "aren't the only way that North American companies have found to address the need to understand the local marketplace, cultural perspectives and approaches to doing business in other countries," says Margaret-Ann Cole, a Parsippany, N.J.-based senior vice president of Northeast consulting and practice leader with Right Management.
"Many multinational companies based in North America have leaders who have responsibility for large parts of the world," says Cole. "These executives may not be on international assignments, but find themselves spending as much time in situ as they do in North America. International travel, technology and 24/7 connectivity makes this a fact of life.
"There are alternatives to international assignments," she says, "such as sponsoring executives in global EMBA programs, where the cohorts represent multiple nationalities and executives are required to physically go to other regions to study."
For example, Cole cites Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide's decision to relocate its entire senior leadership team to Shanghai for five weeks in 2011, "with the express purpose of immersing the leadership team into the culture of a country where they were seeing incredible growth."
Indeed, "we are seeing a much more integrated approach to international assignments and talent management," says Bill Leisy, global talent-management-markets leader with New York-based Ernst & Young.
In addition, a growing number of North American companies are "considering and using international assignments more strategically" as part of leadership-development efforts, says Leisy.
Employers and HR are looking more closely at who would benefit most from international assignments, he says, and are asking questions such as "What positions need what international experience – what markets and what type of experience? Which individuals and/or future leaders need this experience and when? Are we leveraging this experience in the business, and how do we measure the success [of an international assignment]?"
Companies that are already performing well in this area are "more ahead of the curve," he says, "having greater integration of global mobility and international assignments, and talent management and leadership development."
Staying ahead of the curve requires a good deal of planning and forethought on HR's part, adds Cole.
"For HR leaders, the time to think about international assignments is not when the leader is being promoted into the big role and [will be] responsible for half the world," she says. "International assignments should be considered earlier on in the careers of emerging leaders."