Has Expatriate Coaching Had It’s Day?

| By Patti McCarthy

The misconceptions of expatriate coaching

In the light of all the international travel we do and the huge range of people from different cultural backgrounds that many of us encounter on a daily basis, is expatriate coaching really necessary anymore? The answer is Yes, Yes & Yes again! In this article, we will look at why expatriate coaching doesn’t have the following that it deserves and why it is still essential preparation for any expatriate assignment.

Unfortunately, as the appreciation for cultural awareness and global leadership skills grows, expatriate coaching has come to be seen as a bit of a poor cousin – a ‘touchy feely’ kind of support that can be replaced by more ‘intellectual’ skills such as cultural intelligence, intercultural management and intercultural competence. However, while becoming more informed in these areas is clearly necessary, on its own it isn’t enough. Expats don’t just need to learn about how manage their team in China or sell their widgets in Argentina, they also need to learn how to become expatriates.

Why expat training is still a ‘must-have’

Having an expat assignment is not like having a new and challenging job which you leave behind when you go home at night. Being an expat lasts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, month in and month out. The challenges – and the emotional exhaustion that can accompany them – often continue at home. ‘Singletons’ can rapidly find themselves becoming lonely and accompanying partners become isolated, frustrated – and resentful. Dual-career partnerships can be put under particular strain as one person’s career takes off and the other person’s shuts down and at a time when couples really need to be there for each other, one of them is putting in long hours at the office on their own very steep learning curve. (There’s a good reason why the divorce rate among expats is 50% higher than the UK norm).

The failure rate of expat assignments varies according to different reports, but INSEAD puts the figure at between 10 and 50%, depending on the country. The unhappiness of the partner and the inability to adapt to cultural differences are cited as the most common reasons for this failure – and have been for years – yet the demand for expatriate coaching has not kept up with the increase in expat assignments. Typically, only 1 in 4 expatriates avail themselves of coaching offered at no cost to themselves.

Why isn’t expat training more popular?

There are several reasons for this, including;

  • Global Mobility and HR managers are under constant and increasing pressure to manage a relocation as cheaply as possible. The priority is given to providing services which the employee cannot do for themselves – such as moving furniture across the globe – or to ensuring all compliance issues are met. Expatriate training is seen as a ‘soft skill’ and therefore usually offered on an optional basis, whereas it should be mandatory. (A Global Mobility Director once said to me, without a trace of irony, “I wish it could be mandatory, as most people don’t know how much it can help. The ones who take it up really benefit from it”…)
  • Many Global Mobility managers have never been expats themselves and have limited understanding of how difficult it can be
  • When it is offered, it is often at the last minute, when expats have a great deal else to think about and to do
  • Because it’s been around for a while, expatriate coaching isn’t seen as ‘cutting edge’ and isn’t ‘sexy’
  • Employees will often prefer not to say that they need it, as they worry that it makes them appear lacking in confidence
  • The focus of an expatriate assignment – from an organisations point of view – is the successful deployment of a skill-set rather than of the whole person. Expatriates are chosen for their technical expertise first and qualities such as emotional intelligence, flexibility and resilience are not assessed. Partners are rarely considered during the selection process and are only occasionally offered spousal support, despite the huge demands on them.
  • Not all expatriate coaching is of the same calibre. If you are offered ‘old style’ training – largely a geography and a history lesson, with a bit of business etiquette thrown in – then you have had little reason to buy it or to recommend it

If anything, things are set to worsen. Assignees sent on FIFO or short-term assignments are viewed as not needing any support, but these employees can do a lot of damage to relationships in their six-month stint. An increasing trend is to give the expatriate an amount of money to spend on the support they think they need. Inevitably, people think they can manage their own relocations and keep the cash, but first-time expats especially have no idea what lies ahead.

So why will expatriates benefit from expat coaching?

Any former expat will tell you that singles, couples and families will all benefit from a ‘warts and all’ approach that effectively provides people with realistic expectations – being an expat really isn’t all about pink gins by the pool anymore! Being an expat means losing all of your support systems at once and organisations have a responsibility to prepare their employees for the emotional roller coaster that this often leads to. Understanding the phases of culture shock, knowing how long it really takes to even begin to feel at home, recognising the potential for relationship problems and being ready to cope with unhappy children, loneliness, homesickness, frustration and boredom are all vital skills and just as essential as developing cultural intelligence.

It’s perhaps extreme to say that ‘expat coaching can change lives’ but it can certainly improve them. A recent email from a client sums it up;

“I realise this is a very out of the blue email… but I wanted to reach out and say that the training you gave us nearly 2 years ago was the most wonderful preparation for moving to USA. The tips you gave me as the ‘expat wife’ have actually been the best advice anyone gave me, and I know they have helped our relationship, our family life and of course Luke’s working life. I do think of you and the words you spoke…and I thought I need to let you know you made such a difference to us.”

What should expatriate coaching consist of?

No expatriate assignment is the same and while there are certain basics that will always need covering, there should also be a plenty of room for flexibility and time for the unexpected issue to be dealt with. I believe in offering a combination of training – to impart the knowledge and then coaching, to consider how to respond to and manage the differences. Content needs to include, at a minimum:

  • What cultural intelligence means and how to develop it
  • Information about the values and foundations of the new country and how these inform the business culture
  • Settlement strategies; how to make ‘new country’ your home and what to expect along the way

A blended learning solution should be worked out with the employee (and partner/ family) but should consist of at least a day – and ideally with some follow up coaching and spousal support provided too.

Finally, the expatriate must continue to be supported even after she or he has come ‘home’. The PWC report Measuring the Value provides a lot of data on the costs of both expatriation and repatriation costs and is well worth reading. It cites the cost of an average expat assignment as being US$311,000 – making the cost of a full day’s coaching typically only 1% of the overall cost of the assignment. It also warns that between 30-40% of employees consider leaving their employer after repatriating and of course, taking all their expensively gained knowledge to the competitor.

Short-term thinking is damaging to the employee & family and of course to the company too. As INSEAD Professor Manfred Kets de Vries writes;

“Global companies need to ensure that cross-cultural coaching is available in every international posting. Enlisting such people can powerfully and effectively assist expatriates and their families in dealing with the many challenges that emerge during the course of an expatriate assignment. Making this part of an expat package will be a win-win proposition for all the parties involved”.

 

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