The Global Test

There are certain traits every expatriate candidate needs, and enterprises are increasingly looking for those traits before they make overseas assignments.

Friday, June 16, 2006
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James Eyring understands the importance of personality when it comes to being successful in an overseas assignment.

During different stints as a human resource executive for high-tech companies in Singapore, the Texas native has seen perfectly competent managers fail miserably because they weren't able to grasp the subtleties of dealing with new cultures. Some managers couldn't adapt easily to new ways of working, while others simply weren't good listeners.

"I've seen people fail the openness test -- they worked exactly as they would in the U.S. They just weren't open to understanding how things work in a different culture," says Eyring, who is Dell Computer's director of learning and development for Asia and previously was senior human resources director in Singapore for Ingram Micro.

"And I've seen a cowboy ride in on a white horse and think he has all the solutions," he says. "But such situations are almost always more complicated than people think. You really need not only a set of skills that your company values, but the right approach toward dealing with people in a completely different culture. And often, personality is the key to success."

Indeed, a new study by Minneapolis-based consulting firm Personnel Decisions Inc. surveyed 3,500 executives who have worked in other countries and identified two crucial personality traits: agreeableness and emotional balance. The research also noted other important "dimensions," such as openness, conscientiousness or extroversion. The research suggests that the employer that wants its executive to be successful must carefully study personality and be prepared to provide the right amount of training.

"We're talking about much more than surface characteristics," says Bob Lewis, vice president of research at Personnel Decisions. "There's really a new formula and personality is becoming more important."

Complicating matters is the time crunch: Expat assignments are for shorter stints than ever before, perhaps a few months instead of a few years. This requires the expat to get up to speed more quickly than ever, and offers precious little time to prepare.

As Lewis sees it, the old model hinged on finding a high-flier and then preparing him or her for a move to another culture. But he believes that overlooks two other building blocks -- making sure that person has good project management and communication skills and matching personality to both local team and culture.

Although many multinational corporations are adopting this model, still others rely on what Lewis calls "personality myths." These include the notion that learning a few culturally appropriate customs will suffice; maintaining an openness to other cultures, generally speaking, is enough to get along; and merely being conscious is sufficient to learn all that's needed.

"For instance, you can learn how to shake hands or the proper greeting in another culture, but still not have a good fit in terms of personality or seeing things as others do," says Lewis. "And organizations emphasize conscientiousness, but this doesn't necessarily tell us who will work better in a global role."

The Right Fit

Getting the right fit is more important than ever. A 2004 study by the National Foreign Trade Council, a Washington-based business think tank, found that poor candidate selection was the biggest reason cited for expat assignments that failed. Another key reason was the executive's inability to adapt to the new environment.

Of course, an executive's family is often cited as an important reason for failure. But often, that can be an indirect cause. If an executive isn't suited for the assignment, he or she may bring home the frustrations, causing unhappiness to spread like a virus. And that, in turn, can prompt the entire family to decide the situation isn't working out.

With failure rates sometimes running as high as 20 percent, depending upon the country and the assignment, it's obviously extremely expensive for an expat to have to return home prematurely. In other words, human resource professionals ignore at their own risk the benefits of investigating personality traits before endorsing the next overseas assignment.

"There are a lot of practices surrounding expat decisions, but a lot also goes by the wayside," says Kevin Rubens, senior vice president of strategic client services for Aon Consulting in Detroit. "There are often constrained situations that prevent companies from going about this in a more deliberate and helpful manner."

Such as? Well, company politics is often an issue. Despite the fact that Executive A is better suited for an expat assignment than Executive B, sometimes Executive B is at the head of the line, or has the ear of the right person inside the company. Unfortunately, there may be little that the human resource person can do about this, he notes.

Another factor is more obvious -- family constraints. The right person for the assignment is itching to go, the company wants that person to gear up for the move, but a family issue is an obstacle. This forces the corporation to settle on the next-best choice, but this raises the hurdle to success. And that's where the personality test becomes more important.

There are other considerations at work, as well. A big one: The number of suitable candidates for the expat assignment may simply be limited. "Practically speaking, by the time you get people with the right expertise, a track record and the willingness to take the assignment, you've narrowed your choices," says Dell's Eyring.

As Rubens points out, personality is even more critical in an era when perceptions of the United States are fast-changing and, often, negative. Finding an executive who has the right combination of personality traits is not only important for the job at hand, but also for promoting stability among key contacts who are in a make-or-break position.

"It's pretty easy to assess whether your person understands the overseas business and how it works," says Rubens. "But when you're looking at cross-cultural management skills, it's a much higher hurdle. There's a whole different set of skills, including foreign experience, knowledge and, of course, behavior."

Twin Tests

Of course, as PDI's Lewis also explains, management styles vary from country to country. In Germany and The Netherlands, managers are prone to being direct, usually have unemotional reactions and don't express much concern for group dynamics. By contrast, managers in Saudi Arabia and Japan tend to be concerned with maintaining harmony and may feel things deeply, but don't express themselves to others.

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"If I come in and I'm very direct and give some orders, I may not be effective," says Dell's Eyring. "In some cultures, people may nod and implement the directive, but will still disagree. And maybe they won't be as cooperative next time. So if I'm not engaging them, my effort may not work. You can get resistance in subtle ways."

As Paula Caligiuri explains, the global assignment really isn't a job description, but a job context. It's important to consider the type of expat assignment -- such as whether a posting is high-level managerial and long-term versus something more technical or that's to last only a short while. This means that there's no one-size-fits-all personality test.

"Let's face it: Personality is a very good predictor of success. The research has shown us that," says Caligiuri, a professor at the Center for Human Resources and Strategy at Rutgers University's School of Management and Labor Relations, in Piscataway, N.J. "But just because somebody tests lower on extroversion doesn't mean they'll be horrible either. In that case, the company has to be willing to help and be more proactive."

Another common mistake is assuming that certain locations are more likely to produce a successful expat assignment than others. In other words, HR may assume an executive will have a much harder time in, say, Indonesia or Nigeria than London. But the reality is the location often has little to with success or failure.

"People can go down the tubes in Paris just as fast as anywhere else," says Rensia Melles, director of clinical products and global services at FGI World, a consulting firm based in Toronto. "There are really so many variables to consider and it's never as straightforward as it may seem. You know, you can pick the best person in his or her field, but it's going to be a problem if they have the emotional intelligence of a snail."

However, obtaining sure-fire data that allows a company to accurately measure its people is difficult. Although research into other cultures can provide a wonderful window into behaviors and how executives should conduct themselves, many of the best insights continue to be gleaned from anecdotal experiences, says Melles.

Psychological tools to measure personality are easy to come by. What's can be more difficult is meshing the results of such tests with the sometimes-uncertain requirements for success in a particular country.

"I wouldn't go with my gut when it comes to choosing the right person," says Dell's Eyring. "And I wouldn't devise my own test for this, either. There already are a lot of tests out there. But I would definitely use any source of legitimate data I can find, such as the executive's prior job performance or a competency assessment."

For decision makers to succeed in the effort of assessing expats candidates in order to better match them to their assignment, Melles suggests they hire human resource professionals who have experience dealing with expats. Sometimes, she notes, the executives making expatriate assignments at a multinational works apart from the rest of human resources, creating a gulf between the assignment and the candidate.

In addition, Rutgers' Caligiuri encourages employers to look beyond personality profiles as a black-and-white exercise. She encourages expat candidates to undertake a frank self-assessment, which can result in a review of relevant issues, and better prepare then to talk with their managers about concerns, as well as strengths and weaknesses.

"Many companies are used to doing personality tests and other measurements for any number of executive jobs," says PDI's Lewis. "But often, it's not done globally. And that's the problem."

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