10 Tips for Managing Successful International Assignments
| By Sue Bryant
International assignments can be one of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences in an individual’s career. Yet international assignments are expensive for the employer – and a surprisingly high number of them fail. There are various reasons for this, but culture shock, failure of the employee to perform in their new post and dissatisfaction with the assignment itself are cited as common causes. How can you best prepare employees for international assignments – and help them make the assignment a success? Here are some tips.
1. Make a business case for international assignments
Sending an employee to live and work overseas is expensive. Is there a case for doing this? Would a local hire be better, or is there absolutely nobody else for the job? If there is nobody locally, does the individual have the right skills and mindset? Are they open to living and working in different cultures? What benefit will their overseas experience bring to the company when they return?
2. Consider the individual’s position
Employers need to be sensitive to personal situations when considering sending someone overseas. Posting an LGBTQ individual to, say, a conservative Muslim country is not impossible, but requires serious consideration and extra support. The same applies to an employee’s partner and family; is there anything that might put them at risk in the new destination?
3. Manage expectations
Employees need to be prepared for the fact that life during international assignments will be different, and not necessarily glamorous and exotic. There will be cultural barriers to overcome, as well as homesickness and culture shock to deal with. Families and spouses need to be prepared for the changes. New relationships will need to be built in the workplace and a new structure fitted into. Going with realistic expectations is better than plunging into international assignments unprepared, and having it turn out to be a disappointment.
4. Prepare for cultural immersion
Embarking on a programme of cross-cultural training is invaluable before taking up international assignments; individuals learn to understand their own mindset and prejudices as well as what to expect in the new culture. There are less formal ways to prepare, too. Would-be assignees for international posts could should be encouraged to build up a picture of the new culture by reading literature, newspapers and blogs. They should listen to podcasts and even watch movies to put together the jigsaw of everyday life in the new place.
5. Arrange mentoring schemes
A cross-cultural mentor might be a colleague in the new office, or a co-worker who is in the destination, or has experience of it. Ideally, new expat workers should have a mentor in the new destination and one at home; it is very easy for expatriates to feel cut adrift from the familiarity of their old office and colleagues. Typical discussion points with a mentor might include management style, hierarchy, gender issues, meeting etiquette, negotiating and decision making. Essentially, though, a mentor should be a sounding board on whom the expat can rely when problems crop up.
6. Encourage a positive attitude
Even having a few simple memos and pointers can help newly landed expats through difficult times. Learning not to compare their old culture with the new one; remembering that the new culture is different but not necessarily wrong; understanding different approaches to time management; and starting out with the basic assumption that people in the new culture are friendly and welcoming, even if there are hiccups in communicating with them. This is all part of cross-cultural communication training.
7. Offer language training
Even if English is the international language of business, and even if English is the language of the workplace in the new country, a basic conversational command of the destination language will go a long way towards integrating into society and overcoming culture shock. This is important for trailing spouses, too; culture shock can be even worse for a spouse who has less structure to their day and lacks the confidence to build a life of their own.
8. Keep communication focused
Mentoring aside, a company should have a formal reporting scheme while the employee is abroad on assignment. Checking in regularly is the best way to stay appraised of how the assignment is progressing, what new ideas and useful information have been picked up, and dealing with any problems before they escalate. Companies should make the most of the assignee’s time abroad by encouraging them to share their experiences – by blogging, for example, or participating in video conferences.
9. Provide support for sufferers of culture shock
Culture shock is a serious condition; it can lead to depression, a sense of isolation and even illness. Almost everybody suffers from culture shock in some way. Most people get through it but some fail to adapt, feeling lonely, resenting the new culture, maintaining an illusion that everything back home is superior. Acknowledging culture shock and finding small ways to deal with it should all be part of preparation for life abroad, for example, working to establish a network of friends, both expats and people from the new culture; keeping busy; and making an effort as a family to explore the new culture; visiting markets, trying out restaurants and arranging enjoyable activities for weekends, like a trip to the beach. Craving the comforts of home is not wrong; it’s normal.
10. Remember that reintegrating is just as important
Many of these issues apply to the end of international assignments. A posting abroad can be a life-changing experience and it’s not uncommon for individuals to return home with new skills and ambitions to find that they are different – and that their old friends, colleagues and workplace have changed, too. Some of the positives of an overseas posting are increased confidence, a broader world view, better empathy and more creativity when it comes to problem solving. Employers need to harness these new qualities, not just expect the individual to slot back in. Preparation should be made several months before an assignee returns. What new skills do they have? How do they see themselves fitting in? What opportunities might be available for them? Fail to prepare and the chances are, they’ll take their new skills elsewhere.