Learn From My Experience: 3 Ways To Ensure Expat Assignment Success
It was the latter half of December in Tokyo. My fellow expatriates had left or were getting ready to leave for family reunions in their home country or vacations elsewhere. A senior Japanese colleague asked me when I was leaving to spend the year-end holidays with my family in the U.S. I shared my plans: work through the last business day of the year in Tokyo, then return to the office on the first business day of January.
My colleague smiled and confided in me: “I’ve worked at this company for more than 10 years. You’re the first expat I’ve met who is staying with us to work through year-end. That means a lot to me.” His comment cut to the perception that the expat community often flies out at key times, leaving the local team to take care of business and meet operating objectives.
Not a Corporate Tourist
That one exchange sealed my credibility with at least this colleague at the company (and probably more as I worked alongside my other local colleagues during the days before Christmas and New Years). They knew I was not a corporate tourist. I was fighting in the trenches alongside the “home team” to achieve our business goals. This decision was made with my family, who enjoyed a home leave visit a bit later in the year.
I’d learned the importance of that lesson through earlier expat assignments in France, China and Japan. As a U.S. citizen, I spent my entire career working overseas for four different companies, in multiple roles. I achieved success by learning from my mistakes, other expats and engaging my family.
Not everyone is so fortunate – numerous studies note nearly half of expatriate assignments fail. That’s costly to the expats, their families and companies. The Forum for Expatriate Management estimates the annual cost of failures to all U.S. companies is $2 billion. They also note expat failures can result in damaged client relations, problems with local business and government and the employees’ loss of self-esteem and professional standing.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Three Steps to Ensure Success
Despite differences in industry, country, leadership expectations and local team, there are three steps companies can take to help their expats be successful and achieve a strong return on their investment.
- Choose Wisely:
More often than not, senior leaders seek candidates for overseas assignments based on functional skills needed by the local team, as part of the individual’s development plan or other business requirements. While these criteria make sense, they don’t necessarily ensure success. More and more, companies are using tools or including interview questions to help assess the candidate’s cultural adaptability and emotional intelligence.
Both provide valuable insights in determining whether the individual is well-suited to an expatriate assignment. In some cases as the candidate pool is narrowed, companies also engage spouses to determine their receptivity to the inevitable change that comes from living overseas.
- Support the Family:
Research shows expat family adjustment issues are the leading cause of assignment failures and compromises. We’ve all heard the maxim, “happy wife, happy life.” A better adage for male and female expats is “happy kids & spouse, happy house.” When children have difficulty adjusting to school, a spouse misses family and friends back home or the family is unable to connect and fully engage in their new life in the host country – the challenges impact everyone.
Unfortunately, expatriate programs are generally deficient in structured support for the family. Needs range from practical/logistical issues such as finding housing, schools and grocery stores to understanding local cultures and managing language barriers to forging relationships with local and other expat spouses and families. If your Human Resources team is unable to provide these services, it’s important to partner with organizations or individuals who can.
- Provide Coaching – In many cases, the home country’s corporate staff is ill-equipped to provide practical and emotional expat coaching. While many have counseling expertise, they lack experience: recent Harvard research reveals only 11 percent of HR managers have worked abroad. A cross-cultural coach who has lived and worked overseas can help navigate complex personal and professional waters abroad.
Having lived the life, they can empathize with the expat and his or her family. Manfred Kets De Vries, INSEAD professor of leadership and organizational change, has written about the need for more coaching in this area.
“Global companies need to ensure that cross-cultural coaching is available in every international posting,” De Vries explains. “Enlisting such people can powerfully and effectively assist expatriates and their families in dealing with the many challenges that emerge during the course of an expatriate assignment. Making this part of an expat package will be a win-win proposition for all the parties involved.”
While my family and I were able to acclimate and earn success in all our overseas assignments, it was through trial and error. That’s how I learned to stay in Tokyo to help the local team through year-end. I did the right thing for the business while still making time for family holidays and vacations. Over time, we found a balance that worked for my wife, children and me.
Had we had holistic support and a coach who had been through the ropes, I could have made a bigger difference in my early expat assignments. My companies and family would be better for it. I hope others can learn from my experience.
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