Challenges to companies who send valued employees on international assignments (sponsored contribution)

11th November 2008, Comments 0 comments

Developing talent is one thing, keeping it is another, Michael Dickmann, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, considers the challenges facing companies as they send valued employees off on international assignments.

Pedalling the expatriate cycle

Developing leaders who can manage the increasing complexity of running global organisations is the number one human resource priority for many chief executives and other leaders. While organisations will recruit in talent at higher levels, ensuring a pipeline of internal talent is a key priority to further consistency and in-depth understanding of the business.

There are many paths to acquire the global mindset, cross-cultural experiences and business insights that are needed to belong to the leadership team of a multinational organisation and to contribute to its success. International mobility, however, is seen by most global firms and individuals as a key element in this journey. An expatriate cycle made up of strategic planning, selection, preparation, adjustment, performance management and repatriation are all stages that human resource department in international firms think about when managing their global talent.

Selection of talent concentrates mostly on the existing, domestic track record of candidates, their potential and their language capabilities. The process and criteria are often informal and characterised by a ‘coffee machine’ approach. Yet, personal traits, such as inter-cultural adaptability, desire to learn or the ability to challenge own cultural norms and values, as well as job-related factors, such as the degree of similarity of the new position, are rarely taken into account. This is puzzling as these factors have a strong influence on performance within the host environment.

While most international firms have sophisticated assignment policies in place, they know much less about the actual expectations and wishes of their assignees. For instance, while the policies and communication in a food organisation concentrated on showing what competencies assignees could gain, the expatriation candidates were predominantly worried about what would happen to their social networks. Being away from their power base at head office was perceived to be the biggest threat – consequently, many expatriates would spend much effort in the last year abroad on securing a new job in their home base.

Adjustment to the host environment is a key factor that allows individuals to be productive abroad. Personality, job and wider factors determine the speed and extent of adjustment. Factors that facilitate adjustment are the desire to adjust, technical / managerial competence, interpersonal skills orientation, tolerance for ambiguity, self-confidence and expectations that prove to be realistic. Previous foreign work experience, good pre-departure preparation and discretion in one’s role are also important.

Effective performance measurement is plagued by issues such as goal clarity of the assignment and the possible divergence between objectives that were agreed in the head office and local needs the assignee encounters when in the host environment. Most assignees go through a performance review with their immediate – predominantly local – superiors, often supplemented by some central input. Since the local and global needs and perspectives are likely to diverge, many companies register tensions.

Repatriation is the area of highest dissatisfaction of expatriates with respect to organisational policies. International assignees hope for a holistic process which gives them an early indication of their next position and an adequate prospect of further career advancement. Because these expectations are very frequently not fulfilled, surveys show that more than two thirds of expatriates are not content with the repatriation approach of their firms.

We know much about what competencies are seen as successful for performance on international assignments. Based on these insights, sophisticated selection, preparation and review processes could be designed to manage this group of executive talent. However, the available data indicates that about a third of expatriates either leave during or shortly after their international assignments.
This is unacceptable for many organisations – especially if the key aim is to create the global leaders of the future.

What is needed is a shift from regarding international mobility predominantly as a one-off process to seeing it as one of the stages in which individuals acquire the necessary set of capabilities for a global leadership position. To do this, it is paramount for companies to understand what their group of talented people want from their careers. A useful starting point would be to look at the career capital high potentials strive to acquire – the set of skills and abilities, social contacts and inner values that drive them to excel in their working lives. Only then can organisations design flexible approaches that meet the expectations of their most valuable individuals.

Michael Dickmann is the Programme Director for the Executive MSc in Human Resource Management at Cranfield School of Management.  

This article was originally published in Capgemini Consulting’s Magazine, Consulting Review

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