Expat Executives: the Secrets to Being Happy and Successful Abroad

As more and more companies are expanding operations across borders, there is a growing need for executives to become global managers with a global perspective. It often means a global mindset with a deep understanding of international perspective, cultural portability and cultural intelligence.

The biggest challenges faced by global managers working in a 24/7 interconnected economy

Cultural shock, adjustment to a new overseas office, longer working hours, late night phone calls from headquarters many time zones off, extensive regional business trips – those are some of the few well-known challenges that are enough to wreak havoc in anybody’s work-life balance.

On top of those often comes an unhappy spouse at home who has abandoned her/his career to support the manager.  International assignments are proven to be hardest on dual-career families, especially when it concerns a country with limited career opportunities for westerners.

Overall, the importance of family adjustment has recently emerged as a key factor behind the success of an expat assignment. When abroad, family members rely on each other a lot more for support.  An unhappy trailing spouse or child may have a bigger negative impact on the life of the expatriate manager, than the ‘work’ itself.

On the other hand, failed international assignments are known to cost a company immensely – not only in terms of financial loss. A ripple effect created by lost customer good will, ineffective product support, poor company morale, frictions between the home and foreign offices is huge too.

Ensuring a global manager’s success: the criteria

Selecting managers for expatriate assignments means screening them for traits that predict success in adapting to what may be dramatically new environments.

Beyond the obvious job‐specific qualifications, we advise that an organisation looks into the following traits when selecting expatriates for positions in foreign countries:

  • A willingness to communicate, form relationships with others, and try new things
  • Good cross‐cultural communication and language skills
  • Flexibility, adaptability and open‐mindedness about other cultures
  • Ability to cope with stress of new, unfamiliar situations
  • The spouse’s career situation and willingness to move
  • A good track record in previous foreign and domestic moves
  • Maturity, sense of humor, ability to self-evaluate
  • High level of tolerance and honesty
  • Curiosity and openness to learning

Selected candidates need to be informed of the potential for cultural shock (the confusion and discomfort one may experience when in an unfamiliar culture). Ethnocentrism, or the tendency to view own culture as superior to others, is another common pitfall that needs to be understood and avoided.

Be prepared, informed and trained

Following the pre-screening, the probability of expatriate failure can be greatly reduced though training programs in which managers are taught fluency in foreign languages, cultural sensitivity and the ability to adapt to different cultures.

Some multinationals now provide pre-assignment preparation to build support and communicationwithin the family. It makes sense since the family is the primary resource a manager will turn to when dealing with the assignment’s challenges. A self-assessment process when the family can measure its capacity to face assignment challenges can also boost success of an assignment.

Multinational organisations increasingly realize that they can no longer rely on just a few managers with multicultural experience or a couple of experts on a particular country to succeed. To gain a competitive advantage in the global markets, all employees must have a minimal level of cultural awareness and ability to recognize cultural differences that may affect their daily business communications and working relationships.

Global companies with multiple foreign offices often choose a lingua franca – a language that is used at meetings – whether virtual meetings or in person.  As inevitably, some of the employees are more fluent than others in the language chosen, training senior managers in skills such as effective cross-cultural communication skills and inclusive meeting facilitation becomes critical.

In addition, multinational organisations increasingly realise the importance of local talent development in order to sustain the growth and gain a competitive edge. They understand that best practices do not necessarily travel and homogenization is not an answer. In the view of these  patterns, expatriate managers are expected to develop effective strategies for working with peers from other cultures who may process information differently and view their roles and responsibilities in unfamiliar ways.

There is also a need to develop an understanding of leadership processes across cultures, and deepen the knowledge of how cultural differences can influence the nature and scope of employee motivation, as well as what can be done to enhance on-the-job participation and performance. It’s equally important for a global manager to develop effective negotiating skills and an ability to use these skills to build and sustain global partnerships.

Get ready to learn and adapt

If we can single out one factor that pre-determines success of a global manager, it would be their opennes and willingness to learn.  If you are an expat manager and reading this, ask yourself: am I open to listen and understand how things are or do I have pre-conceptions and am quick to impose my personal views?

And in general: what skills do you believe you need to acquire or further develop in order to succeed in today’s increasingly global and competitive business environment?  How will increasing globalization affect future management careers like yours?

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