But expatriate assignments can be extremely expensive: up to three times the cost of a person’s typical annual salary, according to some statistics. And despite the investment, many organizations lack the know-how for optimizing the potential benefits, leaving them disappointed with the results. The unfortunate reality is that even companies providing well-crafted relocation packages (including the all-important cultural training) may not have the talent management mechanisms in place to truly leverage the valuable skills expatriate employees gain during their assignments.
We spoke with seven different executives and consultants with deep experience managing the expat process, asking what they’ve learned over the years about how to maximize the value of these critical assignments. We discovered five tips for increasing the return on investment of your overseas assignments.
Have a compelling purpose — and the right person.
Before you send anyone abroad, it’s critical to make a business case for the assignment, just like you would for any other important investment or decision. There should be a clear organizational need and a compelling reason that this need can’t be met through a local hire. Everyone we spoke with also emphasized the importance of selecting the right people, for the right reasons. This involves three things: choosing a person who is open-minded and committed enough to adapt to the local culture, thinking about the specific skills that this person will develop as a result of the assignment, and identifying how these new skills will ultimately benefit the organization.
In some companies, for example, international experience is a “If you can’t think of meaningful ways that the assignment will help both the person and the business move forward, you should probably rethink the assignment.”
requirement for moving into leadership positions. In others, there may be a particular need at an overseas office that only a person with a specific skill set can meet. If you can’t think of meaningful ways that the assignment will help both the person and the business move forward, you should probably rethink the assignment.
Assign top-notch home and host sponsors.
As assignees delve into their new roles overseas and companies plug the holes left behind by absent employees, it’s easy for companies to lose touch with people they send abroad. Just as with remote or virtual employees, expats find that keeping up with their email isn’t necessarily the same as having their finger on the pulse of the office, which can be a constant reminder of how different and faraway their former life really is. To prevent your worker from feeling adrift, provide sponsors to oversee the assignee’s experience on both ends — one at the home base and another at the destination. These individuals are the point people and mentors for ensuring the fit from the company perspective, the fit from the assignee’s perspective, and for comanaging the process throughout. In short, they are the people that the assignee can turn to whenever problems emerge.
The most successful sponsors are typically people who have been abroad themselves and are empathetic and understanding about the experience — not only with regard to what an assignment entails and what can be gained but also with how challenging it can be to go overseas and return. They should also have enough experience in the organization that they can help mentor the assignee on how to maneuver around potential obstacles and make the most of the assignment.
Stay in frequent contact throughout the assignment.
If there was one tip that everyone we spoke with agreed on, it was the critical importance of open, frequent communication throughout the assignment. While the assignee needs to be proactive in reaching out to his or her home sponsor, the home sponsor should keep soon-to-be-returning employees top of mind, identifying how the company can leverage what they are learning and how the employee can take the next steps in their own development at the company as a result of their overseas experience. This communication should follow a highly structured process. For example, one company we spoke with builds in monthly check-ins. The assignee can update the host, home sponsors, and other relevant stakeholders not only on how the assignment is proceeding but also on any important knowledge they have acquired that may be of immediate use to the organization, such as information about how a marketing campaign could be more effective in the assignment country.
Make a plan for reintegration.
Communication should also include a conversation six months before the end of the assignment to discuss the reintegration process. This is a time for the employee to outline the top skills, qualifications, and insights achieved during the assignment and express how he or she would like to incorporate them at the home office (or in some cases on the next assignment). In exchange, the sponsors should elaborate on how they envision the employee leveraging the experience, being frank about what kinds of opportunities might be in the pipeline. There may not be an ideal position for them back in the firm that leverages their talent and fits the needs of the company. But, according to our experts, that’s precisely the reason for the constant communication throughout and toward the end of the assignment. Anticipate these contingencies so that both the organization and the employee have realistic expectations and a plan moving forward.
Once next steps have been established, build in time when the employee comes home to reintegrate. They will still likely need transition time to relearn the old corporate culture and process their experience. This may be as little as a few days or even a week or more. While the timeline may vary, it’s critical to build in a structured transition process with a mixture of check-ins and downtime so reacclimation is a seamless reentry rather than a crash landing.
Develop ways to share knowledge from the assignee’s experience.
Finally, for companies to get the most out of expat assignments, the organization must be proactive in helping employees catalog and disseminate what they have learned. There are a number of ways to go about this. One organization we spoke to asks assignees to blog about their experiences — both during and after the assignment. These posts are shared via internal social media and commented on by others throughout the company. Others make use of metadata on employee profiles to highlight the skills acquired during the assignment; this not only enhances returning expats’ credibility but also enables anyone else in the organization to find them when searching for their specific expertise. Companies can also host special sessions or brown bag lunches on managing global work and intercultural communication, including returning expats alongside outside guest speakers and panel discussions.
However it’s done, the key is to find ways for people to share what they’ve experienced and learned so they can process the experience, reinforce the importance of these global assignments within the organization, and, most importantly, transfer the valuable knowledge they’ve acquired back into the company.
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 the forthcoming book Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, 2017). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.
Melissa Hahn helps people navigate cultural differences in relocation, education, and family life. She is the author of the intercultural children’s book Luminarias Light the Way (2014). Follow her on Twitter @SonoranHanbok.
For additional information on cross-cultural management:
How to Manage the Cost of Expatriate Assignments: http://ww2.cfo.com/global-business/2015/06/manage-cost-expatriate-assignments/
Survey: Companies Fail to Train Managers for Overseas Assignments: https://www.shrm.org/hrdisciplines/global/articles/pages/fail-train-managers-overseas-assignments.aspx
Article published in the Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2016/03/5-tips-for-managing-successful-overseas-assignments
Bristol Global Mobility: www.bristolglobal.com or firstname.lastname@example.org