Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective International HR Professionals

Warren Heaps – Birches Group LLC

Working as an international HR professional is a challenge in so many ways. How can you best prepare for success in your role? Here are some tips which I refer to (with apologies to the late Dr. Steven Covey) as the “Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective International HR Professionals.”

Everyone knows HR is burdened with a lot of processes and guidelines. Companies strive for standardization across their entire enterprise. A good international HR pro understands that flexibility is a key to success. Every country is different and the standard approach that HQ designed might not work perfectly in every country. So be flexible about the application of global standards and processes.

Be Comfortable with Uncertainty
International HR staff are often faced with situations they have not encountered before and for which there is no precedent. You need to analyze the situation and create a solution, even if there are no clear cut answers. A real pro finds a solution that works for the client group, and satisfies corporate at the same time.  Uncertainty simply comes with the territory, so learn to deal with it.

Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity
Each nation of the world is different, and it doesn’t matter if they speak your language or share a border — each country is separate, distinct and unique. Learn how to embrace cultural differences and turn them into competitive business advantages. Listen to your people in-country before telling them what they should do. Learn what is happening in-country and how the history and culture influence how business is conducted. There are obvious things to avoid — such as holiday celebrations that are not part of the national culture. But it is the subtle things that are often overlooked.

For example, it is common in Kenya for managers to have company cars. However, many companies shy away from cars and extend that shyness to Kenya. Not a good idea. It’s a cultural thing – a status symbol, too. Think about it — no one sees a car allowance in your wallet but your neighbors see that company car in your driveway.

Performance management is another area to watch. Frank, direct feedback is not a part of many Asian cultures. Hierarchy and respect for seniority prevent frank exchanges, especially in front of others, which could be embarrassing to a senior manager. So take this into account when seeking, offering and interpreting feedback. Always check the cultural aspects that impact such discussions.

Try and learn a few words of the local language. It’s not that hard, and goes a long way towards establishing your credibility. It may be true that most international business people speak English but it doesn’t matter. You can practice your Spanish, French or Chinese and your hosts can practice their English.

You are working in areas which require adaptability to the situation on the ground. It’s often different from HQ. The roles of labor unions in Europe and Latin America, for example, create requirements that are very different from the US. If you start applying US-style labor relations in Europe you will embarrass yourself and your company. So learn the rules and adapt your style as needed.

In developing countries there may be limitations due to infrastructure. Go with the flow instead of comparing to other places where it may have been easier or more convenient to conduct business.  You will also encounter many aspects of compensation that are different.  Don’t assume they should be ignored just because you are not familiar with them — adapt your package to the local norms instead.

Be Agnostic – Good Answers Come From Many Sources
There are always many solutions to a problem. Depending on the country, the locally-recommended solution might be best. Don’t reject these ideas because they are unfamiliar or not from your usual global supplier. Perhaps the local solution is OK. Explore it, evaluate it, engage with your colleagues to fully understand and then decide.

It is not a coincidence that the NASA Mars Rover is called Curiosity. This trait is imperative for success in international business, and international HR is certainly part of that! Explore the differences you encounter, get to know your local colleagues and demonstrate genuine interest in learning new things. Ask questions – a lot of questions – so you can understand why things are the way they are in different countries.

Have some free time during a business trip? Explore the local sights. Shop in the local market (the one where the locals go – not the one for expats and tourists). Taste the local specialties and pick up some unique souvenirs. I traveled a lot when my daughter was young. I picked up a doll in a traditional dress in each country I visited. Now she has a great collection of dolls from all over the world, and a real appreciation of how big the world is.

Sharing and Listening
Over the years I have worked with people from many countries. One of the most striking things I’ve noticed is how easily people from around the globe are willing to share their ideas with others, and how many great ideas people have that I may not have encountered before.

So listen to your international colleagues and embrace their ideas. Share your experiences and ideas in return. Work on solutions collaboratively. You will benefit from their ideas and have a friend in every country!

Final Thoughts
Some of you are probably thinking that these characteristics apply beyond international HR to international business. You’re right! Share this post with others who work globally. I’m sure they will appreciate it!

Some of you are probably thinking that I omitted one of the most important characteristics that you’ve discovered. Share it in a comment – I’m a good listener!

More About Warren

Warren Heaps

Warren on LinkedIn

Developing Markets Compensation and Benefits Group on LinkedIn

Email Warren

7 responses to “Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective International HR Professionals