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Managing expectations: the challenge of global mobility

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What happens when the international assignment isn’t quite what your employee expected? How do you manage these expectations from the start? Tim Savage pulls from his personal experience, and how he tackled this.

Be realistic when considering assignments

‘Tim, I would like my next move to be an international one and quite fancy Dubai, as the guy in charge of international HR, can you talk me through what to expect?”

“Julian. Let me talk you through how we structure our international career assignments. What we are looking for from international assignees and what you can expect. I want to be totally transparent and honest with you, we will be talking about Pune as a first assignment not Dubai.”

“Where is Pune, Tim ? “

Having been in the game of managing international assignments for some years now – I smile when I think back to my conversation with Julian, a first time international assignee who went on to have a very successful career initially in Pune and then onto Mumbai for more than a decade. Whilst it may have sounded simplistic,a deliberate process of evaluation had taken place across the global leadership team talent. This through a highly participative and experiential development programme anchored by the use of a PDI 360 Profilor during which myself and my team of internal coaches spent quality time working with the leadership cadre to identify potential and help shape career path. This exposure made the typical one dimensional succession plan chart a much more meaningful and useful document. This approach propelled a total of 145 international assignments in the next 4 years as the chain expanded by over 25% in its global distribution.

Embrace the new world

To say that things have changed somewhat since then, the late 90s into early 2000, would be an understatement of some proportion. As the world has shrunk through the advent of financially accessible travel options, national populations have swelled, economic cycles have ebbed and flowed and the centres of global growth have changed dramatically.

My experience as global head of HR for Le Meridien in the late 90s took increasing note of the considerations of spouse employment potential as well as the availability of appropriate schooling for children. The vast majority of the population I was dealing with were of western european origin.

The impact of September 11th 2001 had major ramifications for international hospitality companies to consider as the definition of hardship locations started to encompass the serious topic of security in certain locations in the network and who would be positively inclined to consider such risky assignments. A review of the give and get employment proposition was necessary.

Matching talent with the assignment

We were conscious of the cost of expatriation and the importance of matching assignment with available and developed talent. As a management company  we were selling capability to owners in the shape of the rounded experience of the individual we were assigning to lead their business. Generally we would offer a couple of options and in the main due to the depth of trust in the relationship the owner would accept our suggested candidate. 

We recognised that the opportunity to grow our talent pool and populate our succession planning in a meaningful and informed way was through the provision of international assignments whilst also developing local management capability. Interestingly, there was generally a lack of interest from many local management to consider an international assignment as part of their development programme.

With particular reference to the hospitality industry, there is a growing trend now for companies to look to hire local management, ideally educated in the US or Europe to replace the tradition of recruiting expatriates from western europe to fill key leadership and specialist roles. This reduction of such opportunity now provides a significant challenge for companies who would normally send a number of their leadership team to a foreign country for an overseas assignment to grow their talent pool as well as succession plan. Developing multi-cultural leaders with varied inter-continental experience and a global mindset for multi-nationals is a must have development tool linked to the overall talent management strategy.

The other growing trend seems to highlight where there are still requirements for expatriate expertise to be imported, these international travellers are now also coming from countries in southern and eastern europe and further afield due to the reduction of local career opportunities resulting from the global financial recession.

My employee base as CHRO of the Jumeirah Group in Dubai some 10 plus years later down the international road was made of 110 nationalities, a remarkable increase in multi-culturalism with some interesting new challenges previously not encountered. Such as how to get such diversity wholly engaged into a company culture and common language.

An area of growth

China, as the current growth market for hospitality, continues to reshape the expatriate assignment process with a very cost conscious ownership looking to replace the more expensive executive teams traditionally made up of Europeans with a single expatriate at the head of the business with the responsibility of growing local talent to replace him or herself over time.

The locations for expatriates in China are no longer just primary cities or even secondary cities but often tertiary with lifestyle challenges that require careful selection of self sufficient, multi-cultural and highly adaptable leaders and coaches. What will we expect to see in the next 10 years? 

Tim Savage

By Tim Savage

Tim Savage is the chief anthropologist TSolutions Ltd

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