Global Mobility in Succession Planning Part 2: Structuring Expatriate Assignments for Maximum Impact

By: Daniel Russell

Developing global leaders is vitally important to global companies today. Leaders with a truly global mindset will be better equipped to capitalize on global opportunities faster and react quickly to (and perhaps even avoid) challenges that emerge. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to develop a global mindset that truly permeates leaders’ daily decision making and practices. Although many different models have been tried (e.g., multiple short-term global assignments, extensive travel), long-term expatriate assignments are still the best way to drive deep cross-cultural learning for leaders. As one veteran expat put it, you don’t really understand a culture until you have lived there long enough to get a lease, turn on utilities, buy a car, register your car, insure your car—or even have to deal with a car accident! While extensive travel does increase awareness, most leaders will experience the culture as a tourist, staying in global hotel chains with access to familiar foods rather than as a local having to interact intimately in the local marketplace. Thus, in order to be better positioned for expansion in high-growth global markets, companies continue to make international expat assignments.

Companies understand that expatriate assignments can bring a great deal of value but are also keenly aware that they can be extremely expensive. One Harvard Business Review article suggests that an expat assignment can cost up to three times the person’s annual salary by including travel, housing, schooling, tax equalization, and other allowances.

In part 1 of this series, we covered some of the basic organizational challenges to getting the right leaders into the right assignments so that companies can avoid missing out on key developmental opportunities for high-potential successors. This piece focuses on maximizing the benefits to the leader as well as to the organization. There are three key activities for organizations to keep in mind when structuring any international assignment:

  1. Create a specific developmental plan. Assuming organizations took our advice in part 1, they will have put thought into who will go on the assignment and why. Ideally, that person will be a high-potential successor candidate with a track record and an individual development plan (IDP). This is the perfect time to redraft that plan in the context of the assignment. It’s important to specify which activities are targeted development goals for the leader, what the leader should learn from each, and how the learning will be demonstrated and codified. Furthermore, specific learning activities, such as reflection and mentoring, should be defined for each developmental goal. Additionally, the plan should emphasize the importance of resilience and learning from failure. MIT Senior Lecturer Hal Gregersen shares multiple examples of executives learning important cross-cultural leadership lessons through failure. He points out the importance of providing ongoing support and accountability for working the plan during the assignment. Expats need ongoing support as they learn through failure (and are likely not used to failure as a successful high-potential leader). Likewise, accountability helps ensure focus on key developmental goals while at the same time allowing for flexibility in how to reach those goals in light of a quickly changing and emerging market.
  2. Manage host-country team expectations. Most expatriate assignments have multiple overt purposes. In addition to leader development, there will be other business reasons for relocating talent. Executives may be sent for a specific project, to enter a new market, to turn around a business, or to transfer knowledge, among other reasons. Host-country teams will have high expectations of a high-profile leader for quick and independent business results. If the leader’s assignment was announced months in advance, anticipation will build! Thus, it’s important to communicate patience and pragmatism early and often to the host team during the placement process. There is an assumption that the expat will be able to deliver ROI orders of magnitude beyond their (real or assumed) expensive relocation package. Of course, delivering results is important, but realistic expectations must be set around timing, winning as a team, and likely, frequent failures. In fact, including three months just for cultural immersion—before making any business progress—is advisable in most cases. Early on, the expatriate and his/her sponsor should present a clear plan emphasizing reasonable timelines and winning as a team. By focusing on capability building for the team and the expat, the new leader will be better positioned for success through collaboration.
  3. Maintain contact with “home base.” Once on assignment, expats quickly become “out of sight, out of mind.” Months and years pass quickly if frequent, purposeful contact isn’t maintained. From a leadership-development perspective, it’s important to communicate monthly to ensure focused accountability of the IDP. Expats will need both support and accountability to continue to make progress against their plan and make changes as needed in response to their context. In addition, it’s important to communicate monthly with an executive sponsor from home base to maintain visibility, provide encouragement, and continue career planning. A recent Economist article noted that as many as 60% of expats leave after repatriation. The authors cite lack of contact with an executive sponsor and associated planning for post-expat roles.

These three activities represent a great deal of work before, during, and after the international assignment. That’s in addition to all the tactical planning involved in relocation, tax, and allowance negotiations. However, if organizations want to increase the likelihood of success of global assignments, it’s advisable to put in the extra effort to plan, set expectations, and overcommunicate throughout the process.

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