Globalization is requiring companies to make important choices about how to deploy international managers. The costs of making the wrong choice are heavy both economically and in the emotional and physical toll it can take on employees and the impact it can have on the overseas branch.
Traditionally companies have required managers to accept foreign postings of, perhaps, several years’ duration. Such postings mean upheaval for the manager’s entire family—schools, dual career issues, isolation—and these problems of adapting to different cultures are a common cause of the failure of such postings. The burden on the manager is heavy with the double challenge of dealing with unfamiliar work patterns and anxiety about the family’s ability to settle away from home.
A compromise is for assignments to be shorter, no more than one year. Such postings permit greater choice for the employee. The family may wish to come along but no long-term adaptation is required. Or the family may stay behind and be content to visit, knowing that the absence is not too long. This is clearly less disruptive for the employee but means the company has an additional burden of making new postings every year.
More recently, we have seen the emergence of the international commuter, who ostensibly lives at home, but commutes every week or so to the job abroad. This is less disruptive for families but is likely to lead to travel fatigue, even burnout for the employee.
A further option is for a key employee to make frequent trips to a foreign branch without actually relocating and doing so only when physical presence is a necessity—this choice is made easier by technologies that allow video meetings, telephone conferences, use of intranets and other means of real-time remote contact.
A recent study by Cranfield Centre for Research into the Management of Expatriation (CREME) found that organizations are increasing their use of all four types of handling international assignments. However, many questions remain about how companies can find the best solutions for staffing overseas branches.
Although more flexible working patterns have been sought because employees clearly have difficulty in dealing with long-term overseas postings, the newer patterns are not themselves necessarily any easier to handle or more successful. The short-term assignment affects continuity of staffing and, in many cultures, frequent changes of manager are themselves a source of difficulty. The international commuter may cause local resentment by being seen as somebody imposed from outside who does not really wish to integrate with the local operation. Similarly, the frequent flyer will have less influence locally and is likely to find performance impaired both at home and abroad simply from the strain of travel.
Globalization has opened up exciting prospects for companies but the Cranfield study suggests that, while the economic opportunities are well understood, the best means of staffing overseas operations are not. Companies need a much more holistic view of the costs of an international assignment: the costs of relocating somebody (financial, emotional, physical) and the local costs of bad placements, cultural misunderstandings and inefficiency, all of which can be reflected in poor year-end results.
How can companies achieve this overview? Will they want to? To answer the second question first, it seems obvious that those companies that take the issue seriously are the ones likely to have the greater success in the global economy. As to the ‘how’, it will need a strategic approach that matches the company’s goals. However, a strategy can only be implemented after a proper study of all the factors involved:
• How long will it take a manager to become proficient in the overseas branch?
• What preparation does the manager need before taking up the posting?
• What support does the manager need in post?
• What are the impacts on family life and how can they be mitigated?
• What are the behavioural adjustments needed by the manager and the family in order to function in the new environment?
• What will the process of repatriation entail?
• How can the knowledge gained form each posting be garnered and used for the next assignments?
• How can the local branches be supported while they adjust to a new manager?
Undoubtedly there are many more questions that need to be raised. But one thing is clear: globalization is here for the long term, and if companies are to succeed they need to take the issue of overseas appointments very seriously indeed.
About the Author
Brenda Townsend Hall is a business communications and cross-cultural trainer. She is an associate member of the Itap International Alliance (www.itapintl.com).