Project Management Institute

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Once a task that primarily fell to an elite few multinationals, developing project leaders who can operate across cultures and continents is fast becoming mandatory for companies of all shapes and sizes.

Today, global business isn't just about outsourcing, it's about collaborating with skilled professionals on an ongoing basis. It's not just about tapping into new lucrative markets, it's about understanding the requirements of different cultures and people and delivering a project, program or portfolio that answers the specific demands of that region.

And that takes a new breed of project professional.

“The transcultural leader must know how to get up to speed on the customs and values that pertain to each deal or transaction,” says J. Frank Brown, author of The Global Business Leader: Practical Advice for Success in a Transcultural Marketplace [Palgrave Macmillan, 2007] and dean of INSEAD, an international business school based in Fontainebleau, France. “In the 21st century, the successful transcultural leader will use all the tools of contemporary business and combine them with a sensitivity to cultural differences.”

Project managers do not take global assignments for the sake of working outside their own domain. They need to see that the opportunity adds to their skills and to their career.

—Nancie Whitehouse, Whitehouse Advisors, Stamford, Connecticut, USA


To create the kind of project leader that can transcend cultural differences, companies need to encourage employees to get out of their office, out of their country and out of their comfort zone.

International work has to be seen as a way to get ahead.

“Project managers do not take global assignments for the sake of working outside their own domain,” says Nancie Whitehouse, CEO of recruitment and retention consultants Whitehouse Advisors, Stamford, Connecticut, USA. “They need to see that the opportunity adds to their skills and to their career.”

One way companies can ensure global postings have career cachet is to equip project leaders with the tools they need to compete in the international arena.

That means providing project leaders with a solid understanding of not just the nuts and bolts of whatever project they're working, but how it will affect the local population as well as the political and economic situation.

“You need training to work outside your own culture,” Ms. Whitehouse says. “You need to know the protocol of a certain country, what is appropriate professional behavior and you need to understand that people think differently.”

But project leaders can't be left to work it out their own. Companies must take an active role in promoting the skills required for working across borders.

“I was lucky in my early career with Unilever to be put into mixed-culture groups to have to work out solutions to problems,” says Peter Milsted, vice president commercial worldwide at natural sweetener supplier PureCircle in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “You see from those around you that there are ways of communicating which work and ways which don't. Shouting louder just isn't effective.”


FOR ALL THE TALK of going global, multinational companies are still struggling with making the most of sending employees off on international assignments.

“Managing talent in a global organization is more complex and demanding than it is in a national business—and few major worldwide corporations have risen to the challenge,” according to the authors of Why Multinationals Struggle to Manage Talent, a May 2008 McKinsey & Co. report. “Our findings suggest that the movement of employees between countries is still surprisingly limited and that many people tempted to relocate fear that doing so will damage their career prospects.”

The more than 450 respondents—ranging from CEOs to human resources professionals—at 22 global companies cited several personal disincentives to global mobility. But one of the most significant was the expectation that employees would be demoted after repatriation to their home location, and that overseas experiences weren't valued or taken advantage of.

The research also revealed those companies that actively encourage their people to gain international experience—and provide managers with incentives to share their talent with other units—were roughly twice as likely to have effective global mobility practices than those that don't.

The key implication of the research, according to the report, is that companies should focus on shifting talent globally across divisions and geographies. “Not only will this rotation support the development of company talent, it will also promote greater cultural awareness and diversity.”

On the Hot Seat

Companies can sometimes avoid the complications that often go along with long-term international postings by putting team members into shorter “hothouse” assignments, says Aine Brassill, a manager at Deloitte Consulting's London, England, office.

So-called hothouse postings drop individuals into international projects for eight to 12 weeks. While there, the employees are given intensive coaching by local leadership, with the goal of developing core talents in a short period of time.

“This creates opportunities for a lot more individual mobility and there is less challenge in returning to the home office,” she says.

Ms. Brassill also urges companies to plan for the individual's return after an overseas assignment well in advance of project completion. “There is so much emphasis on getting talent to these locations but little thought goes into their return,” she says. Yet it often takes months to find the right role for returning employees.

Companies need to rethink the way international assignments are managed and how job performance is assessed on these jobs.

“Senior leadership needs to support a culture of mobility, and alliances need to be formed between location managers to ensure employees are acknowledged for their accomplishments,” Ms. Brassill says.

Talent Poaching

Companies that don't make an effort to retain expatriate employees risk losing all that experience to rivals.

“Employees who successfully complete overseas assignments are accumulating highly prized experiences making them much more marketable,” says Scott Sullivan, senior vice president for GMAC Global Relocation Services in Woodridge, Illinois, USA. “Companies need to have a plan in place for their next project or assignment if they want to retain them.”

Yet those in the international jet set often find their global savvy doesn't translate to better positions within their companies.

And that often leads to increased turnover.

A May 2008 GMAC survey of 154 multinational companies put the turnover rate among expatriate employees at 25 percent during assignments and 27 percent within one year of completing assignments, compared to 13 percent for all employees.


Does everyone have what it takes to be a global leader?

“As with all such nature or nurture questions, the answer is not straightforward. When lessons can be expressed as simple facts, they can be taught. But many vital aspects of cross-border management can only be learned through hard experience. Not everyone will have the right mindset for such learning.”

—David Partington, Ph.D., senior lecturer in project management, Cranfield University, Cranfield, England

“There are a select group of people who have matured to a level where they can focus on key business results, have global vision and can perform in other cultures. They have the advantage of a natural talent in this area and the chance to develop that talent further.”

—Monika Chauhan-Stok, Crossroads Global

And these days, Mr. Milsted is clearly making use of that global experience, coordinating work between primary producers in China, scientists based in Armenia, and administration and delivery staff in Malaysia.

For Mr. Milsted, the key to grooming global leaders lies in creating an overarching international business vision.

“If people are working toward a clearly communicated objective, then the business has taken an important step to achieving success on a global platform,” he says.


The demand for the new borderless leader is only growing stronger as supply chains—and competition—go global.

Take AppLabs. The software testing giant is headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, has offices in 13 different locations worldwide and provides services to companies in even more countries.

Every project has some kind of international dimension, and the company must have leaders who can deal with all the nuances.

The idea is to primarily equip each significant member of the team to be aware of the cultural differences between countries and to help them learn to manage these differences proactively.

–Makarand Teje, AppLabs, Hyderabad, India


“The first and foremost part of global management is understanding the culture in which you are executing the project,” says Makarand Teje, Hyderabad, India-based president and CEO of AppLabs. “You need to understand the process of work delivery being used. How does the client measure your work? That way, the project manager knows what they need to do to ensure satisfactory delivery.”

AppLabs' global presence means the company also must teach its project leaders to be flexible. For employees at the company's engineering center in Hyderabad, that may require making conference calls in the evening—when it's convenient for clients in the West.

And before project leaders head outside their home country, AppLabs works to prepare them for the client's culture, whatever it may be. “We consciously create training programs which give our managers the skills they need if they're going on site,” says Mr. Teje.

Those programs involve classroom learning supplemented by on-the-job mentoring. All training is led by the company's middle and senior leaders who draw from their own first-hand multicultural experience.

“Quite a bit of learning actually cascades down to the team member level through project-specific learnings,” Mr. Teje says. “The idea is to primarily equip each significant member of the team to be aware of the cultural differences between countries and to help them learn to manage these differences proactively.”

Companies need to have both “general programs to promote a multicultural awareness as well as programs designed around specific projects,” says Monika Chauhan-Stok, director of Crossroads Global, a crosscultural consulting, training and coaching organization in London, England.

On the Move

Percentage of companies that say they plan to send more employees on overseas assignments

No. 1: to fill a skills gap when no resources are available in the region
No. 2: to build management expertise among employees

But companies don't seem to be capitalizing on the expertise their employees are acquiring abroad. “It's an age-old problem,” says Scott Sullivan, GMAC Global Relocation Services, Woodridge, Illinois, USA. “Companies should be doing a better job utilizing the skills acquired on international projects, but there is a disconnect.”

SOURCE: GMAC Global Relocation Services. Results based on a survey conducted between mid-November 2007 and mid-January 2008 of 154 respondents representing small, medium and large multinational organizations.

Key players taking on multicultural roles should receive one-on-one coaching based on their way of doing business—and then learn how to adapt that style to the cultural circumstances at hand.

“A quintessential part of measuring a good international leader is to see how good they are at style switching,” says Ms. Chauhan-Stok. “This means understanding what actions or behaviors best fit the current situation and using those to leverage results. Cultures cannot be judged as right or wrong. The key is to be aware of the difference and understand how to bridge the gap.”

And it's up to companies to arm leaders with the tools to do just that. PM

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