Expat Selection: It’s Not Just Skills

Author:
Bruce Alan Johnson and R. William Ayres – Bruce Alan Johnson Associates (Pty) Ltd

Bruce Alan Johnson

Bruce Alan Johnson

Bill Ayres

[Editor’s Note:  We are happy to welcome Bruce Alan Johnson and Bill Ayres as Guest Authors.  Bruce and Bill have extensive experience working with companies to help understand how business is conducted in different cultures.  They are the co-authors of the book Carry a Chicken in Your Lap: Or Whatever It Takes to Globalize Your Business]

A large American corporation sent a senior executive to reside in an African country known for its wide religious tolerance, as the general manager of the company’s regional operations.  Managerially speaking, the man was qualified. But he brought with him a zealous sense of religious superiority that manifested itself as rigid intolerance.

In his first week on the job, he screamed at Muslims who were in a corner observing one of the five prayer times of the day, and then at Sikhs whose heads were traditionally wrapped.  By the next week, more than a hundred employees had walked off the job.  Some of them brought in government authorities to the site.  In the meeting that followed, the executive said that he would accept crosses as jewelry and pins, but no other expression of religious identity!  Even though the officials tried to explain the supreme importance of religious diversity in their country, the response was an arrogant assertion of “rights” that the executive claimed he had.

Of course he had no such rights, and a week later the government informed the American corporate headquarters that this executive would have to be removed at once, or all government contracts with that company would be canceled and official hearings would be held for the aggrieved workers.  He was recalled, another casualty of the mistakes companies make in sending the wrong people overseas.

Cultural Fit is Important in Expat Selection
Every time we talk to an audience about sending people overseas, we start with one fundamental point: not everybody can do this. Not everybody will be successful in Copenhagen just because he or she did well in Cleveland or Calgary. Furthermore, no magic, single thing guarantees success. The world is a complex place. It would be surprising if we didn’t need complex abilities to deal with it.

But what if you’re coming the other direction—sending people to the United States?  Over the years it has become quite plain that the most costly mistake made by companies sending people to the US has been the blind belief that there are dollar signs instead of “S’s” in the name United $tate$.  The second error lies in believing that a country as stunningly diverse as America is in fact an homogenous market.  America is not just 50 states—it spans 11 time zones, from the westernmost tip of Alaska to eastern tip of Maine.  And its people are so diverse in culture and outlook that domestic companies usually take great care to make sure that the right Americans are matched to the appropriate areas of the country for sales and marketing.  A person who sells successfully in Mississippi will almost certainly be rejected by the more harried residents of New York.

Recently a Middle Eastern company of considerable wealth sent a two-member team to New York City to head their American office.  Not only had neither member of the team ever been to America—both made vehement anti-Semitic remarks almost every day.  Needles to say, they were strongly resented by most New Yorkers, and failed completely.  They were recalled at considerable expense, the company’s reputation in the States tattered.

HR Should Take the Lead!
When it comes to finding the right people—and avoiding the wrong ones—human resources needs to play a critical role.  The reason is simple. Understanding the keys to choosing the people most qualified for overseas assignments is something that most line managers aren’t well equipped to do. Managers’ primary purpose is to get the job done.  Often, this does involve deciding who’s going to do what.  But in the international arena, those decisions are not based on how well you know the technical field or the business goals. They’re based on what you know about your people.

This is where HR can and should play a key role. Arnold Kanarick, who headed HR at The Limited and Bear Stearns, pointed out, “HR isn’t about being a do-gooder. It’s about how do you get the best and brightest people and raise the value of the firm.” Good HR offices are staffed with trained professionals who know how to evaluate aspects of a company’s people to assist tremendously in choosing the right people to send overseas.

To do that requires recognizing a fundamental reality: the world is a very complex place that does not lend itself to packaged solutions.  The primary challenge is finding people who can deal with differences—but what kinds of differences vary widely, depending on where your organization wants to go and what it wants to do.  There are no simple tests or easy systems for scanning personnel files.

So what should you be looking for?  Here’s a profile of what a potentially successful overseas assignee should look like.  Key characteristics include:

  • Matching demographic characteristics (gender, race, religion) to the place they’re being sent.  Different cultures react differently to different sorts of people.
  • Open-mindedness toward difference.  Can the people you’re sending work well with others who are different?
  • Language facility.  People who have no facility whatsoever for learning foreign languages—or, worse still, who actively resist even a modest attempt—should not be sent overseas.
  • Language assumptions.  Anyone who thinks the world speaks English (or their native language), or that the world ought to speak English, should stay at home.
  • Acceptance of the world as you find it.  Anyone infected with the desire to change other parts of the world to be more like their home will definitely do a poor job of representing your business.
  • Tolerance of different ways of doing business.  Just because you didn’t think of it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
  • Time-change tolerance.  The more difficult it is for people to adjust to jet lag, the effects of travel, and time-zone differences, the less they probably ought to do it.
  • Cultural-time Flexibility.  People who understand that different cultures think differently about time, and who can adapt themselves to those cultural differences, will do much better overseas than those who don’t.

So how do you find employees who fit this profile?  There are two keys here: know what you’re sending them into, and know your people.  Choosing people to send overseas can’t be done with a one-size-fits-all checklist.  But a good HR department that does know the firm’s employees, and that does its homework, can make a tremendous contribution in helping companies get the right people in the right places overseas.

More About the Authors

Bruce Alan Johnson Associates

Carry a Chicken in Your Lap: Or Whatever It Takes to Globalize Your Business

Bruce on LinkedIn

Bill on LinkedIn

4 responses to “Expat Selection: It’s Not Just Skills

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  4. Indeed, I concur with the posting’s authors that not all technically qualified employees are suitable for or qualified to succeed in international postings. In addition to a number of personal “life space” issues, the assignees and their accompanying family members must have what it takes to deal effectively with their personal intercultural adaptation. They also must possess intercultural competence for interacting successfully with local nationals.

    I also agree that it is incumbent upon HR – as stewards of managing human capital for their firms – to ensure organizations understand and properly address these issues. Many in the HR function, as one of our colleagues correctly points out, may not have that understanding nor know how to assess someone’s intercultural competence or potential for successful adaptation.

    In my humble opinion, prior international assignments do not necessarily provide the assignee with that capability in any organized way. As we read in the literature, many assignments result in failure and, frankly, none specifically train individuals to truly understand the key constructs involved. let alone know how to assess these in a predictive sense.

    Much work has been conducted in the field and there are many approaches and formal instruments for assessing intercultural adaptability and intercultural competence. Some of these are rather better researched and validated than others.

    Our recommendations would be:

    1. Understand that intercultural adaptability and intercultural competence are critically important to productivity and assignment success. Seek to understand what processes and personal characteristics are involved.

    2. Make use of validated and reliable assessment techniques – and those who truly know how to use them.

    3. Use the findings of the assessments as part of the process for determining who should, or should not, be sent abroad.

    4. Use the findings to tailor support programs – including intercultural training – to best equip the assignees and accompanying family for success.

    5. Conduct follow-up evaluations to obtain results that can be used to continuously improve upon the approach.