Project Management Institute

At home abroad

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PHOTO BY SETH AFFOUMADO

WHEN SENDING EMPLOYEES ON long-term expatriate assignments, COMPANIES MUST SUPPLY CULTURAL TRAINING AND SUPPORT OPPORTUNITIES THROUGHOUT THE PROJECT LIFE CYCLE.

BY SARAH FISTER GALE

Christopher Barnett, Global Relocation and Expatriate Tax Services Program Manager, Applied Materials Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., USA

e xpatriate assignments, in which project managers take long-term positions in foreign offices, are expensive and risky propositions. The hard cost of sending a project manager on an overseas assignment is roughly three to four times that person's salary per year, and failure rates— due to low productivity or the employee abandoning the assignment—are as high as 45 percent, says Revel Miller, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and principal of Revel Miller Consulting in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA. Even worse, of those employees who successfully complete their assignments, many leave the company within the first year of returning, taking with them the knowledge and experience accumulated during their time abroad.

executive summary

To ensure successful expatriate assignments, employees must be chosen with care and given the training and the support they need before and during the assignment.

Access to home-based managers will ease isolation, and an onsite support person can give employees the confidence to perform to expectations and help them deal with cultural issues.

Cultural advisors and preparation can ease the transition period.

The problem: Few companies put the time and effort into preparing and supporting the employees chosen for these assignments, Dr. Miller says. Employees get neither the up-front training nor the long-term support they need to succeed. “Companies make major assumptions about the abilities of these candidates that just aren't true,” he says, noting that success at home has little to do with a person's fitness for working overseas.

For employees put in project management positions in which they lead local employees and work under a local superior, the problems multiply, notes Nigel Corby, director of Global Executives Ltd., an interim management and recruitment services firm in Frimley Surrey, U.K. “Interim project managers are a special breed and theirs is a courageous career choice,” he says. “Even in the modern e-world, lines of communication are fraught with cultural and language differences.”

For those foreign projects that require an expatriate manager, Mr. Corby says that the most translatable skills are information technology, finance, human resources management, logistics and supply methodologies. For these areas, industry knowledge boundaries are not as significant. “If the position requires technical and production related skills, sales and marketing, or operational methodologies where industry knowledge boundaries are critical, it will be more difficult to fill successfully.”

Because the project manager's team is most likely to be a mixture of expatriate colleagues, team members supported by host country support staff and those from the host country being exposed to international methods, training in the language and culture is critical, Mr. Corby says. “Failure to appreciate the host country's indigenous culture can seriously affect success.”

Dr. Miller agrees that cross-cultural skills can make or break a global project. “If you are going to manage employees in a foreign country and be in charge of a process that involves motivating people to get things done, you had better understand the culture. Ideally, you should be an intercultural specialist for that country.”

Instead, many companies select management candidates based on previous successes in their home country, or they pick people based on job experience but give no thought to their cultural fitness. That's a mistake, warns Joyce Osland, professor at San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif., USA, and author of The Adventure of Working Abroad. “Companies have a lot of reasons for selecting people for overseas assignments, and often none of those reasons are that they'd do well working in a foreign culture.”

In most cases, the characteristics that make an ideal expatriate candidate are contrary to those that define a successful project manager at home. For example, aggressive leadership strategies, self confidence and quick decision-making skills may be assets in the United States, but may serve to anger or frustrate employees in Latin America or Asia.

Every country's cultural make-up is different; however, there are qualities that indicate a person will be successful as an expatriate, such as flexibility, self-awareness and tolerance for new ideas. Personality-profiling tools and employee assessment tests from companies such as Wonderlic Inc., a testing services provider in Libertyville, Ill., USA, can evaluate whether candidates have the personality traits to perform well in foreign cultures. An industrial psychologist can assess candidates in interviews before they are selected. “The important thing is that candidates are open to learning and willing to accept the fact that they might not be right all the time,” Ms. Osland says.

“IF YOU ARE GOING TO MANAGE EMPLOYEES IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY
AND BE IN CHARGE OF A PROCESS THAT INVOLVES MOTIVATING PEOPLE
TO GET THINGS DONE, YOU HAD BETTER UNDERSTAND THE CULTURE.
IDEALLY, YOU SHOULD BE AN INTERCULTURAL SPECIALIST FOR THAT COUNTRY.”

- REVEL MILLER, PRINCIPAL,
REVEL MILLER CONSULTING, SANTA BARBARA, CALIF., USA

spouses impact project success

No matter how much support a company offers its expatriate employees, project failure still can happen, largely because of family problems.

Revel Miller, principal of Revel Miller Consulting in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA, estimates that up to 80 percent of projects fail because of family complications. “These assignments are expensive and employees are expected to ramp up quickly and over-perform, which often translates into long work days. Meanwhile, the dislocated spouse has no network, no job, no friends and long hours every day to fill. The employee has the structure and support of the work environment but the spouse has nothing,” Mr. Miller says.

To alleviate the potential for family problems, companies should be sure spouses are willing to make the move before the decision is finalized, and they should offer tools to help them prepare, says Joyce Osland, professor at San Jose State University and author of The Adventure of Working Abroad. Companies should consider sending the spouses to the destination location at least once before the assignment begins to see what life will be like, or to create a “realistic life preview” video that includes interviews with other expatriate spouses and children. “If you can counsel them and clarify their expectations, they may be more likely to recover and make the best of things,” Ms. Osland says.

Once they are in the city, the destination service providers (DSP) should include the needs of spouses and children in their communications, helping them make friends and get settled, says Christopher Barnett, global relocation and expatriate tax services program manager for Applied Materials. He has DSPs who set up play dates and coffee klatches to bring expatriate families together. “If the spouse is not happy the project will fail,” he says. “To avoid that, our DSPs do everything they can to help them engage in the community.”

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“THESE ASSIGNMENTS ARE EXPENSIVE AND EMPLOYEES ARE EXPECTED TO RAMP UP QUICKLY AND OVER-PERFORM, WHICH OFTEN TRANSLATES INTO LONG WORK DAYS. MEANWHILE, THE DISLOCATED SPOUSE HAS NO NETWORK, NO JOB, NO FRIENDS AND LONG HOURS EVERY DAY TO FILL.”

In her work abroad, she's required delicacy and flexibility above and beyond the skills needed in domestic projects. For example, while working in West Africa, she discovered that she wasn't allowed to hire employees directly; the city's Labor Inspector selected and sent prospective employees for her to approve. “Since I had no control over who I got to interview, I had to develop tests to ensure I made good selections from the people sent to me,” she says.

In Guatemala she worked for an organization that didn't advertise for new employees—executives prayed that the right person would come to them. “It was unusual but you have to keep an open mind,” she says, noting that despite their unorthodox technique they always found great candidates. “The lesson,” she says, “is that you can never train a person for every situation, but you can encourage them to be open-minded, respectful and responsive.” By preparing candidates to expect the unexpected, training them to be cautious in their reactions and encouraging them to approach each situation with respect and consideration, companies can ensure that employees are less likely to unintentionally offend and are more likely to build trust and productive relationships.

Home Access

Once candidates are chosen for assignments, proper preparation can minimize the shock and disillusionment that often comes in the early months of the assignment. Dr. Miller encourages clients to give employees and their families several months to adjust to the idea of the move. Opportunities for cultural counseling are helpful, including discussions of the value systems common in the country and acceptable behavior in business situations; and visits to the country to get some perspective on what life will be like. During this time, employees and their families should be connected with people in the community where they will reside and be encouraged to build relationships with their new co-workers, as well as locals and other expatriates, so they will feel at home.

img COMPANIES HAVE A LOT OF REASONS FOR SELECTING PEOPLE FOR OVERSEAS ASSIGNMENTS, AND OFTEN NONE OF THOSE REASONS ARE THAT THEY'D DO WELL WORKING IN A FOREIGN CULTURE.
Joyce Osland, Professor, San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif., USA

Companies also should realize that pre-project training is only the beginning of the support the home-based company should deliver. “The training prepares project managers to begin working in the foreign country, but employees need regular support both from their home base and from people in the host country to ramp up and be successful,” Dr. Miller says. That includes frequent phone conversations or e-mails with home-based managers, giving the employee a way to maintain a feeling of connectivity to the home office and stay in touch with peers. The new supervisor also should make efforts to regularly meet one-on-one with the employee to answer questions and offer guidance and advice on fitting into the new culture. “The transition-time is critical.”

For the smoothest transition, the employee's current manager and new supervisor should work together, sharing information about the employee's work history, strengths and weaknesses and letting the employee know that they are all working together as a team. “If the transition is handled by both sides from the beginning, the hand-off has more continuity and is less of a shock for the employee,” he says. “The employee needs to have access to the home-base manager while building tenuous relationships in the foreign operation.”

Life Line

Having access to a cultural advisor or coach once the project begins can help project managers decode and embrace foreign business situations, Ms. Osland says. In many cases, the destination service provider (DSP), who helps the employees get settled in the community, can fulfill this role building a relationship with the employee for the duration of the assignment. If the assignment is critical to the company or the employee is leading a high-profile project, hiring a personal culture coach can make financial sense if it means the difference between success and failure.

Understanding cultural issues, such as the need to build personal relationships with clients, or the challenges local employees face in finding transportation to work each day, can go a long way toward easing culture shock and avoiding misplaced frustration when business relationships go awry.

A coach allows an employee to share frustrations or confusion without offending anyone, getting embarrassed or feeling like a failure, says Christopher Barnett, global relocation and expatriate tax services program manager for Applied Materials Inc., a supplier of equipment and services to the global semiconductor industry in Santa Clara, Calif., USA. On any given day, Mr. Barnett oversees up to 70 expatriate employees. “The DSP is the most critical person in the entire assignment,” he says.

The DSP acts as a resource for employees on everything from deciphering business relationships to locating social opportunities or finding a grocery store. Any company managing expatriates uses DSPs to help employees get situated. The DSP employs cultural consultants who work directly with employees from the time they arrive, to help them navigate government documentation issues; to find housing, medical care and other amenities; and to navigate the local customs. “The local human resources group is not going to be there to answer the expatriates’ daily questions and hand-hold them,” he says. “That's the DSP’s job.”

Mr. Barnett expects his DSPs to deliver continuous support and works very closely with them, communicating regularly and making sure project managers feel supported.

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THE DSP ACTS AS A RESOURCE FOR EMPLOYEES ON EVERYTHING FROM DECIPHERING BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS TO LOCATING SOCIAL OPPORTUNITIES OR FINDING A GROCERY STORE.

He notes that some DSP companies see their service as short-term, assuming that once the employee is settled the job is done, but Mr. Barnett feels differently. “I look for DSPs who have long-term expectations,” he says, such as helping the employee understand the business customs of the company and culture, and helping families find friends and social networks.

Fred Dunnett, director of Bridge Worldwide Relocation (BWR), a DSP provider in Shanghai, China, emphasizes open communication in Applied Materials’ global assignments. Because he is a foreigner to China himself, he shares the same background, age group and management level as many expatriate project managers. “He knows their habits, requirements and culture better than anyone else,” says Penny Pu, local Chinese relocation manager for BWR. “Because of his experiences, he understands the advantages and disadvantages of the city from the foreign transferee and the Chinese perspective.”

Along with providing personal support, Mr. Dunnett goes over common cultural practices with new employees to prepare them for the work environment. “We provide a general overview including the acceptable and the non-acceptable in the business day and business social activities,” he says. “We stress, no matter your title, do not act as a ‘boss’ but rather you are a manager who is a ‘teacher.’”

And, to head off potentially embarrassing situations, Mr. Dunnett and his colleagues always are on the lookout for danger signs in employees that indicate they do not understand the cultural differences, such as behaving aggressively, or setting unrealistic expectations for client or subordinate relationships. “If this is the case, I arrange culture-training sessions regarding the areas where we have failed,” Ms. Pu says.

It is this level of commitment and responsibility that Mr. Barnett believes makes his expatriates so successful and contributes to Applied Material's low failure rate. Since Mr. Barnett came to the company in 2000, Applied Materials has not had a failed expatriate project in which an employee ended an assignment early. “We cannot have our business people not understanding the Chinese business culture,” Ms. Pu says, “as we are responsible for their success in our city.” PM

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., USA. She's written for several magazines, including Training, CRM, Inc. and Workforce Management.

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.

PM NETWORK | JULY 2005 | WWW.PMI.ORG

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