You’re an executive at a large company starting to do an increasing amount of business overseas. A top spot opens up in your Brazil office and you’re the one in charge of staffing the position. At other companies, this might be a relatively easy decision because people would be lining up to take a position like this that could be a great addition to their resume and help catapult them up the ladder at the firm. Not so at your company, unfortunately. Very few “star performers” ever willingly choose to go abroad, because there’s no clear reason to do so from a career development perspective, and they’re not even guaranteed a job upon return.
You wish your company had a vision and a strategy for how to manage transitions overseas and leverage the benefits for both the company and employees… but the reality is that you don’t. In fact, there’s a saying at your company that going abroad can be great for your career… but just not for your career at this particular firm. As you ponder your options, you wonder where your company is on the spectrum of handling these situations. Is everyone as poorly organized as you are?
This past summer in a discussion at a company just like the one I portrayed in the example at the outset: where there seemed to be no overall strategy, either for the company to leverage its expats’ experiences abroad or for the expats themselves to leverage these experiences to advance their career at the firm. And after talking with people from a range of different companies, I’ve realized that there’s actually a fairly wide range in how firms approach, structure, and plan for these situations. Some have a clear, coherent vision for how to manage global mobility; others don’t. Some have a strategy for achieving this vision; others don’t. Some put into place robust systems, policies and procedures to reinforce their vision and strategy – in other words, to integrate expatriate experiences into career planning at the firm, to help people leverage what they’ve learned and also help the company do the same. And again, others don’t.
So, what can you do as a company to manage global mobility more effectively?
The most critical piece of advice I can offer is to have an explicit vision and a strategy for managing global talent in your firm – and to put into place policies and procedures in place that enable you to execute on this vision. Developing a vision and strategy for managing global talent is essential for multiple reasons. For the firm, it helps attract and retain top talent. Younger employees in particular are often looking for dynamic workplaces where they can build and develop an international career – where global experience isn’t just valued, but is a key part of the leadership development process at the firm. To attract and retain this top-level talent, it’s critical to be thoughtful and strategic about how you manage expatriate experiences and integrate them into career planning at the firm.
It’s also critical to find a way for the firm to truly leverage what people learn when they do go abroad – just like you’d want to leverage what an employee has learned and developed in any new position. Part of this involves understanding and articulating what, exactly, an employee has learned during their experience in a foreign office, and actually valuing these new skills.
When you send people abroad, they presumably learn key new skills. And so, as a company, you also need to find a way to make sure you leverage these skills, by placing returnees in positions at the firm where they can actually use these skills in an effective manner. I spoke recently with two large companies who do this quite well. In one, there is an entire department dedicated to helping people with global mobility. Each person sent abroad is sent quite purposefully, and as part of a carefully conceived career plan. Mechanisms are put into place to have frequent communication between the home base – where the candidate ideally wants to return – and their unit overseas. Everyone – from the sponsoring executive, to the executive on the other side of the ocean – is part of the planning and execution, and HR is also deeply involved, in a positive way, with the transition as well as the “repatriation” – when the employee returns home.
Although the employee can’t be guaranteed an exact position – since it’s often hard to keep the seat warm for that long – conversations begin very early about how to use the abroad experience as a stepping stone to the next step. And most importantly, experiences abroad are deeply woven into career planning at the company. They are seen, in fact, as a key part of leadership development, and the companies I spoke with value this experience abroad and go to great lengths to find positions back home that can help people leverage this experience.
Of course, it’s not all on the company to manage experiences abroad. Employees too need to be pro-active in a number of ways as well to make the most of their experience. Employees need to think carefully about where to go and what position to take, both in terms of the skills they’ll develop and also how a particular position will fit into their overall career development at the firm. Additionally, when making the move, it’s essential to be pro-active in communicating with the home office to maintain networks, get advice and remain “on the radar” – especially when planning the transition back home. It can also be quite beneficial to work with a “coach,” which many companies provide to help employees make the most of their experiences.
In the end, though, there will always be a disconnect if the company is not deeply committed to this effort. In theory, everyone wants to be effective globally. But in practice, it takes hard work and commitment. In some cases, companies are quite aware of the challenges they face, and work hard to develop smart strategies for managing global mobility at their firm. But in other cases, they don’t: remaining oblivious or defensive about the challenges they face. To truly leverage the benefits of a global, mobile workforce, it’s really critical to go “all in” on global mobility for multiple reasons… not the least of which is that if you don’t, someone else will. And chances are, you’ll suffer the cost.
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017).
Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.