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Companies Fail to Train Managers for Overseas Assignments

Originally posted July 8, 2013 by Roy Maurer on https://www.shrm.org

The increasing number of international assignments requires professionals who are skilled in global operations; yet a recent survey found that as many as two in five managers fail when they’re sent abroad.

Only 58 percent of overseas assignments are judged successful, according to the 202 CEOs and senior HR professionals surveyed by workforce solutions provider Right Management.

“This has to be one of the most disappointing findings of our survey on global leadership development,” said Bram Lowsky, group executive vice president of the Americas at Right Management. “Given the investments being made in bringing along a new generation of leaders and their growing need to be able to think and operate globally, for 42 percent to fail when they’re sent abroad is hard to fathom.”

Europe, the Middle East and Africa reported the greatest level of success, with 63 percent of executives completing assignments abroad, compared with 54 percent in Asia Pacific and 57 percent in the Americas.

Why Do They Fail?

The survey found disparities in the preparation that managers were given before an assignment. Respondents revealed that the most common methods of preparing employees for foreign assignments are giving an overview of cultural differences and providing language training (particularly in Europe, the Middle East and Asia Pacific). The Americas are more likely than other regions to provide little or no training, the survey found.

Twenty-five percent of the organizations surveyed provide language training. While only 18 percent of North American employers offer language lessons, 33 percent of European, African and Middle Eastern companies does so. An average of 16 percent of companies worldwide give minimal or no preparation at all to employees going on an international assignment. And “22 percent of North American employers do virtually nothing,” said Lowsky. “No wonder so many people don’t perform well outside their home country.”

According to Lowsky, language or cultural training alone is not adequate. “The latest research suggests that the best companies utilize a comprehensive battery of assessments with the candidate to determine whether or not an expatriate assignment will actually work. Being aware of potential derailers that could stand in the way of success is critical to understanding and adjusting to an international role.”

According to Bridget Beattie, regional general manager at Right Management in India, Australia and New Zealand, many organizations make the mistake of assuming that a successful leader in one part of the world will find the same success in another. “Before considering whether a leader is ready for an overseas assignment or a role with global responsibility, organizations need to do more than simply provide cultural awareness and language training,” she said in the report. Companies should make sure individuals have developed a global mindset, she explained.

Organizations are advised to conduct a thorough assessment of the candidate and his or her family to determine if an expatriate assignment will work, the report said. International assignments affect the family members of the expatriate employee, and they need to be prepared and supported, too.

Developing a Global Mindset

Raphaele Gauducheau, general manager of the Mediterranean region at Right Management, noted that in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, putting leaders into cross-functional or cross-business-unit roles helps prepare them for future global assignments. “It forces leaders to get out of their comfort zone and think differently with fresh perspectives,” she said in the report.

Establishing a selection process that includes screening for key competencies—such as the ability to adapt socially and cultural fluency—and setting up a local, on-the-ground network to prepare and ease expatriates into their new role are additional ways to bring about successful overseas assignments.

Ron Pilenzo, president & CEO of The Global HR Consultancy, based in Hobe Sound, Fla., and former president of the Society for Human Resource Management, agreed that the lack of attention to the cultural differences in the expat selection process is critical. Most U.S. companies simply try and match skills and pay little attention to the economic, political and cultural differences in an overseas assignment, he said. “Most expat failures are attributed to a mismatch of the individual’s spouse, or family members and believe that pre-assignment training and counseling will fix the problem. But the most critical mismatches of an expat with wide differences in values, beliefs, managerial style and team orientation in a different cultural setting will blow up the assignment and leave a wake of destruction behind,” he said. “All the training and preparation in the world cannot fix the wrong person going into the wrong country or region where the differences are so huge that they cannot be overcome by preparation before or during an assignment.”