Organizations have been sending expatriates on international assignments for decades, often providing cultural training, assessments, family briefings and other transition preparation and support. However, many companies don’t capitalize on these investments.
All too often, once people are on assignment, talent and learning functions lose touch with them. Maximizing these assets requires a well-integrated program that recognizes the expatriate’s value and the developmental investment in that expatriate. It should also bring the learning and HR components into a process to support the expat on assignment and bring maximum value to the company.
Forward-thinking organizations integrate talent and learning with mobility. While short-term objectives need to be met — skills gaps need to be filled and the next generation of talent needs to be trained — the ultimate challenge to learning leaders is to understand the organization’s strategy and goals well enough to help define necessary learning, create developmental opportunities to ensure the company meets its talent goals and find ways to capture knowledge from sending and receiving teams.
What Do Organizations Expect From Expatriates?
Companies likely have a combination of immediate reasons, long-term strategic goals and project-specific demands, such as filling specific skills in a location. Expats also create corporate growth opportunities and can be critical in efforts to transfer corporate culture.
“Most companies today are trying to focus more on the strategic alignment with business results and growth opportunities for emerging leaders,” said Moira Dickson, head of international talent deployment and talent acquisition at Standard Chartered Bank. “Our focus is on emerging business and developing our talent and career opportunities. While there will always be a need to send people for a particular project or a need that can be quite tactical, [long-term] assignments are such a high expense that you have to try to leverage the return on investment.”
The best companies create structures to capitalize on that investment. Having operated for more than 150 years, with significant operations in India and China, as well as emerging locations throughout Africa and the Middle East, Standard Chartered Bank derives 90 percent of its income from these regions, according to its website. The bank deploys expats to open markets to develop new business, respond to project needs, and create developmental and career opportunities.
The organization has a strong alignment between talent acquisition, international mobility, and leadership and development. Dickson refers to this as a crucial triangle. For example, there could be a need in Singapore for someone to head a business. The talent acquisition team looks internally and externally for candidates. If they find one in London who meets the criteria and is looking for an opportunity to move, the international mobility team then creates cost estimates and provides advice. Then, learning steps in.
“When someone is identified for an assignment, no matter what level or grade, there will be a leadership and development component subject to their skill set,” Dickson said. “It’s not just about senior people or high potentials. The bank’s international talent deployment strategy is across all levels.”
Since the bank focuses heavily on emerging markets, it is looking to develop talent to serve those markets. Dickson’s team in Chennai, India, will manage the expat for the life cycle of the assignment, so there’s only one point of contact within the bank focused on maintaining the relationship. “Throughout the course of the person’s assignment, L&D has a role to play around that person’s development with regard to the current expat role and future roles,” she said.
This becomes especially apparent as the expat moves toward repatriation and to another role. This is when the organization’s vision regarding expats as corporate assets begins to yield benefits. In other words, to maximize the return on the talent, learning leaders need to build processes to achieve both shorter-term objectives and longer-term ones.
“For the employer, you need to start thinking upfront when you start the assignment, ‘What is the intention with this individual?’” Dickson said. “We’re trying to do that conversation upfront. Why this assignment? Why this person? What’s this going to lead to? What impact will it have on their career?” While this conversation doesn’t always happen at the inception of the assignment, it does occur six months before its end.
Focusing on the next role offers a better chance of retaining that expat, whose skills and span of control likely have expanded. This conveys to the individual that the company values his or her new knowledge and wants to make use of it.
The Learning Leader’s Role
Learning leaders have a big role to play, beginning with properly preparing people to work across cultures and helping them recognize that cultural values have a profound effect on workplace behaviors. Not only will international assignees need to understand how to manage effectively in the new culture, but also how to retain their authenticity while adapting their style.
“One of the most important things the learning and development function should do is prepare people to make the journey so they can be successful,” said Joyce Thorne, co-founder and vice president of human resources, learning and development for Elevate Services Inc., a global consulting, managed services and technology company in the legal industry. “Expats really need to get cultural awareness training ahead of time so they have a framework and expectations of what will happen. That way they don’t spend too much time being disoriented and can more smoothly move on to getting value from where they are.”
Expats also need to help their colleagues in the local culture better understand the corporate culture and build the skills they need to interact effectively with foreign colleagues. This is another area where learning can play a significant role. Elevate sends expats for subject matter expertise, to bring a specific perception or bridge a cultural gap, or for better work integration so that individuals working across borders will work better together. In most cases, the expat and the receiving organization are gaining a lot of knowledge from the exchange.
Thorne said learning should incorporate lessons in an organized way. Therefore, if the goal is to transfer knowledge and leave something behind when the expat leaves, there must be mechanisms in place to capture the knowledge they bring. She suggests creating simple guides so people can use what works for them: cloud-based applications or templates on Excel or PowerPoint. “L&D needs to provide a place — a knowledge center — that says, ‘This is how we gain knowledge,’” she said.
A platform captures what expats are doing. Then, the receiving team should have a learning champion who takes the framework and enriches it. It might be frequently asked questions or something more formal, but the platform documents the experience. The learning function takes that information and edits it, drawing out new observations from people on the receiving end of the knowledge transfer. Learning can augment this later by asking recipients what they’ve actually learned.
Learning also can involve the person who delivered the information and may assess if what was transferred is what was intended. Learning transfer is a continuous experience done when there’s a major transfer and refreshed every six months to see what has changed. Finally, at the end of the assignment, expats should have an exit interview and create a strategy so they take as much learning as possible away from the international experience.
“In this way, you get the day-to-day advantage of the interactions between people — and even some training and coaching — but you can also gain a long-term advantage if you have the ability to capture and institutionalize that knowledge so the individual can move on, and you don’t lose that knowledge,” Thorne said.
On a more tactical basis, Thorne suggests creating a set of ready-made resources, such as templates or online packets, so learning leaders can respond immediately when someone is going on an assignment or an international business trip and needs to know what to do.
“We all know we’re going to send people on international assignments, so let’s be prepared,” Thorne said. “Have a guide that’s prepackaged. There’s no replacement for keeping the communication on a steady rhythm. So, even if the sending manager doesn’t know what is going to happen at the location, the expat knows they can reach to L&D if there’s a breakdown and they need information.”
Realizing the Value of Expats
The investment can be measured several ways. First, is the expat achieving the business objective for the assignment? Second, is the company leveraging that value? It’s a significant investment, so financials must be considered. Organizations need to look at the assignment and its costs, identify the objectives, decide how to ensure the assignments are meeting developmental objectives and determine how to measure the effectiveness for different assignments.
For example, Elevate Services sends people from the U.K. and India to China because these expats provide services typically not provided before in Shanghai. Chinese colleagues will learn how to conduct specific services from their Indian colleagues. While the expats from India may continue running the business for several years, the value of their presence can be felt after as little as three months because the operation is up and running, creating revenue. Even after the expats transfer the knowledge, they might remain for a while to run the operation. Further, expats can continue to teach local staff more nuances as they become more adept.
“Yes, you can look at pure financials, but you have to factor in the human aspect as well,” Dickson said. “Is this person a cultural fit? Are they building local talent so that local talent can come up the curve and get opportunities? What is the individual’s legacy? We’re well aware of what it costs,” she said, “but we’re trying to align the human dynamics as well. What is the value of an individual going on assignment?”