On Foreign Assignment: What leaders and organizations need to know

February 22, 2016 Tammy Heermann

On Foreign Assignment

Ann Herten’s assignment was simple but still daunting. Go to China on a three-year assignment, start a whole new operating organization, open up a new office and “build a world-class human resource organization.”

“I had to start from the ground up,” Herten said. “Creating all of the operating systems, establishing legal systems and payroll, and hiring the leadership and business teams. I was really the first employee asked to come and establish some of the basic operating systems and leadership practices. Most of the very simple things needed to open a business.”

This would be a difficult task in any country. However, in China, Herten found a business environment unlike any she had experienced before. Fortunately, four years working as an expat in Europe had helped prepare her for some of the stress of living and working away from friends and family, supportive colleagues and organizational supports. It also helped pique a curiosity about foreign cultures that she said was a key to thriving in a strange, new environment.

“What makes you successful as an expat in China is the right amount of cultural curiosity,” said Herten. “It’s an openness to what is new and different.”

In China, Herten found a country where the appetite for business investment and enterprise is keen, but the business culture was much different than it was in the west. In North America, “we look for tangible, linear lines of success.” In China, success is not gauged “on a straight line.”

Reaching consensus on the path forward between corporate head office and the local office in China, required Herten to act as an important bridge between corporate’s expectations and Chinese realities, “It turned into a brokering role. I spent a lot of time explaining nuance and subtle differences. There were many times I thought we had agreement, but it still took many, many calls to iron things out.”

Stress for expats can certainly come from brokering agreement between a head office and the realities of operating in a foreign company. For some expats, that task is further complicated when a deliberate decision has been made to export core elements of business culture or standards. That was the challenge facing Christine Petch, geologist, and executive with a large mining company. In the mid-2000s, Petch took an offer to oversee an advanced-stage mining project in Tanzania. It was an all-encompassing assignment to grow the site services from a small exploration project in a demanding, remote location with limited to no infrastructure.

Also, a struggle was the fact that Tanzanian culture – business and social –was unlike anything Petch had ever experienced before. “I’ve done a lot of work in remote environments so I’m familiar with remote settings, but the Tanzanian culture was new for me.”

Like Herten, Petch had many responsibilities related to the brokering of consensus between corporate headquarters and site. Most of the technical and managerial processes and philosophies were directly imported from overseas. However, it still required a lot of work on Petch’s part to learn and adapt to the reality that business in Africa is much different than it is in North America.

Petch said the gap between Western and African business cultures was never greater than it was in the area of workplace safety and health. It was a challenge, at first, to explain the importance of safety protocols in a country where locals live with so many direct threats – war, disease, poverty, natural disasters – to their health and well-being. Local hires would arrive to work bare-foot and did not own any kind of safety equipment. But ultimately they were successful in adapting business practices to the local business culture while also embedding core North American technical, health and safety philosophies.

“I learned that if you want to make change, you have to engage your people involved as part of that change,” Petch said. “That was a lesson learned by me that was executed with the entire team. It wasn’t a cultural thing; it’s a management thing. And it’s something I’ve taken back with me to North America.”

What Organizations Need to Consider When Identifying a Leader for a Foreign Assignment

Sending the right leader abroad for an expat assignment is one of the most daunting challenges that any organization can face.

Tap the right person, with the right skill sets, and that leader can open up new markets and cultivate new customers in ways that exponentially improve an organization’s bottom line.

However, send the wrong person abroad and both the individual and the organization can suffer exponentially. The stakes are very high in these decisions.

How can you find the right person? Success in an expat assignment isn’t just about strong leadership capacity or a past record of performance. The successful expat leader has skills and competencies that are as unique as the challenges they face abroad.

Here are a few things to consider about selecting a leader for an expat assignment:

Agility. Expat leaders absolutely must be able to demonstrate agility in a number of ways. All the past successes at headquarters might equate to nothing if they can’t solve unique and complex challenges that they've never seen before.  They must have the ability to extrapolate learning, and apply it to decision-making under challenging conditions.  However, there is a need to be socially agile too.  Expats must possess curiosity, openness, and flexibility.  This will give them the ability to collaborate, build relationships and stay cool under pressure.  

Patience. Explaining the complexities of and vagaries of doing business in another country can be an expat leader’s biggest challenge and source of frustration. Expats frequently tell stories of feeling like failures because they could not adequately explain why things do not always go according to plan in a foreign market. Organizations should anticipate the reality that business culture and practices abroad do not always make sense back at headquarters. It is essential to demonstrate some patience when communicating with expat leaders. Listen to what they are telling you, and seek understanding of what they are learning on the front lines of a foreign market.

Support. The expat assignment doesn't just have to fit with the leader, it also has to fit with the family (if there is one that is moving with the leader). The family members too have to adjust to a whole new life, new culture, new food, new friends, etc. As the leader goes through highs and lows and the pressures of the job, their family is struggling with the same thing. The pressures of the job combined with potential pressure of an unhappy family at home is a tough situation to sustain. Companies should support as much as possible the family structure for an easier transition and a leader who won't defect back home prematurely.

Coming Home. Once the assignment is over, organizations need to ensure that repatriation is handled delicately. Many times, successful expats come home from their assignment only to find that their organizations have little or no idea about what to do with them. The end result is that many of these leaders – people who have accumulated a wealth of unique experience and skills – get easily bored, undervalued, or feel they no longer fit in after their assignment abroad. Rather than serving in the role of square peg to the organization’s round hole, they simply move on. It’s important to plan ahead for repatriation so that the organization does not lose out on the investment it has made in these important leaders.

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About the Author

Tammy Heermann

Tammy Heermann is Senior Vice President, Leadership Transformation with Lee Hecht Harrison. Helping organizations get serious about leadership, she is specifically sought out for her expertise in gender diversity and accelerating female talent.

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