SPOTLIGHT On the Move: Business Travel & Relocation


In today's global workplace, project managers must posses open minds—and valid passports. Project managers are on the move, and as their assignments away from home increase, so, too, will the demand for communication, leadership and teamwork skills tested on an international playing field.

Global assignments are “a key stamp” on a project manager's passport, says David Eaton, president of MeridianEaton Global, an intercultural management consulting firm in Boston, Mass., USA. “Most multinational companies value an international assignment, and project managers are no exception. It expands your skill set dramatically.”


The Modern Expatriate

The hottest regions for expatriate project managers are Eastern Europe and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), according to Mr. Eaton. This is due in part, he says, to privatization efforts, especially in infrastructure, telecom, and oil and gas. “Many of these locations need to be brought up to modern day, which requires multinationals to come in,” Mr. Eaton says. “Global decisions are being made by global strategists that provide global solutions, and project management is central to those decisions.”

He also sees a move toward virtual teams, business travelers that “zoom in and zoom out,” and global exchange projects that swap project managers between an organization's business units.

Another trend: The length of stay for employees working abroad is decreasing, according to a survey of 134 senior-level human resource professionals and managers of international relocation programs at small and large organizations around the world. Conducted by GMAC Global Relocation Services, Woodridge, Ill., USA, the survey found that in 1997 80 percent of expatriates spent one to three years abroad. By 2003, 70 percent of assignments had dropped to a year or less.

This shift is primarily due to the high cost of expatriate assignments. “Legal compliance issues, immigration and work permits, and dual tax issues all add up to high costs when moving people long term,” says Brenda Fender, director of Worldwide ERC Global Initiatives, an association for professionals who manage employee mobility. She is based in Ashville, N.C., USA. “International postings are a real growth phenomenon, and companies are utilizing more short-term or localized assignments rather than the traditional long-term expatriate assignment we used to see.”

Stay or Go?

For many employees, a position abroad can serve as a career boost. In the GMAC survey, 35 percent of respondents said their foreign assignments made finding new positions at a company easier, and 34 percent said they led to faster promotions. Forty percent of respondents were not sure about the value of global experience, however.

Mr. Eaton suggests project managers consider three major factors:

  • The relevance between the project and career aspirations. “It is beholden on the employee and the company to know how the assignment fits into a larger strategy for [that person's] career track,” he says.
  • The larger ramifications on the family dynamic. Historically, the No. 1 cause of early return from assignments abroad is family dissatisfaction.
  • The gaps between your style and priorities and, often, those of the country you'll be working in. “I would never say that project managers should not go to work [for example] in Kazakhstan from a career standpoint. However, I would be very interested to know if their styles—how they manage their time, communicate—will map well with the Kazakhstan culture,” Mr. Eaton says. “It's not a deal-breaker, but there needs to be awareness so you can develop strategies to bridge the apparent gap.”

That's where a company can help set the tone. Scholars and cross-cultural management consultants see cultural differences mostly as sources of conflict, friction or miscommunication, says Anne-Marie Soederberg, professor, Department of Intercultural Communication and Management, Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Smart companies regard cultural diversity as a “source of competitive advantage,” she says, and they “emphasize the importance of releasing cultural synergies at the interfaces where knowledge, values and experience are transferred.”

The Well-Rounded Project Manager

Cultural diversity should be seen as a way to get ahead, says Petra Goltz, PMP, a senior project manager for the City of London Telecommunications, London, U.K. She also is vice president-globalization of PMI's Information and Telecommunications Specific Interest Group. “It enhances your career, as it demonstrates to potential employers that you are flexible, adaptable and not averse to change,” she says. “All of these are traits a well-rounded project manager should address.”

Culture Shock? We're Over It.

Because many people no longer live in one geographic area for the entire length of their career, the phenomenon of culture shock is less of a factor.

“In many senses, cultural dislocation, or culture shock, is not nearly as predominant as it was 30 to 40 years ago,” says David Baxter, executive director of Urban Futures, a demographic and economic forecasting firm in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. “Nor are families as set as they were three decades ago, so there are far fewer cons attached to global assignments than there used to be.”

This is especially true for younger generations who have grown up in a more diverse world. “That next generation already has a multicultural and multidimensional frame of reference and hence will be much more inclined toward—and likely to succeed at—forms of global mobility,” Mr. Baxter says.

Reverse culture shock is becoming a bigger challenge. “Statistics show [after five or more years] it is twice as hard to come back as it is to go out in the first place,” according to David Eaton of MeridianEaton Global.

Born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, Guy Grindborg, PMP, has worked his way around the world as a project manager for such companies as Ericsson and TQM. His career has taken him to Dallas, Texas, USA; Lahore, Pakistan; Bangkok, Thailand; Dublin, Ireland; and Mexico City, Mexico. Although culture shock was not a new occurrence for him, he says he and his family experienced the worst case of it when they moved back to his native country.

“Granted, there were things that were confusing when we first moved to Dallas back in 1987, but we quickly adjusted,” he says. “However, moving back to Sweden, I really missed the convenience of the daily Texas life. Weather was another thing—we were used to the nice warm weather in Texas, and we were clearly no longer part of the ‘polar bear club.’”

Originally from Germany, Ms. Goltz has worked as a project manager in Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands. It's important to ask yourself, “How adaptable am I?” when considering a foreign posting, she says. “We are typically creatures of habit and have preferences with regards to how we live.” She advocates self-examination:

  • Would I be able to adapt to a different way of interacting with people?
  • How would I adapt to a different kind and size of accommodation than I am used to?
  • How would I react to a climate and cuisine different from what I like?
  • How would I adapt to a culture where there may be differences in the way genders are perceived and treated, and where status may be given rather than earned—or vice versa?
  • How aware am I of the links between cultural awareness, corporate strategy and performance? Would I be willing and able to adapt accordingly to successfully manage projects in a culture different from my own?

Just how different managing those projects is depends on how mature project management is as a profession in the country or region in question, she says.

So if you're a project manager from New York, N.Y., USA, you may want to do some homework before packing a bag and heading to work on that project in the United Arab Emirates.

The same is true in the reverse situation. “Cultural differences and habits can be confusing if you haven't studied your new country,” says Guy Grindborg, PMP. An International Institute of Learning senior consultant based out of Plano, Texas, USA, he has worked everywhere from Mexico to Pakistan. “Make sure you suspend judgment and look at your experiences with an open mind,” he says. “The upside is that you will learn other ways and find other things that will be really rewarding.” PM

Adrienne Rewi is a freelance writer based in Christchurch, New Zealand.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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