Ever since I started working in the international assignment arena over 30 years ago, we’ve talked about our search for the Holy Grail—an instrument that will help identify international assignees that are guaranteed to succeed.
We all know the complexity and challenges faced by someone going on an expat assignment. Are they better off single or with a family? Is it better to know multiple languages? How important is it for the candidate to have international living experience? Are there specific candidates better suited for specific countries?
Of course, the list of information we wish we had about the people we send on international assignments doesn’t end there. You can add to it forever.
But here we are, 30 years later, still dealing with the fact that business opportunities and business needs, more than anything else, dictate who goes on the assignment. And, while today’s Millennials may be better suited to work in a foreign arena, and technology helps mitigate some of the cultural pitfalls international assignees face, we still all wish for an easy way to choose the best people.
As I write this, I wish we had that perfect solution. We don’t. But we sure can avoid choosing inappropriate candidates. There are instruments, such as SAGE (Self-Assessment for Global Assignments) and our own CultureWizard Culture Calculator, that can help prospective international assignees identify where their personal styles will most likely encounter specific cultural disconnects with local behaviors.
We provide expat assignees today with focused training—online and in person—that helps them develop specific skills to become aware of, and compensate for, those disconnects. Today, for example, an engineer with a unique talent in satellite technology who has never before traveled internationally can use these tools to identify where their personality traits might create challenges. He or she can then learn how to develop the skills to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings, up to and including career-killing faux pas that lead to assignment failure (and all that that entails) and, more importantly, business losses that might otherwise have been significant “wins.”
You’ve probably never heard someone say, “I’m not very flexible” or “I’m not very open to change.” People don’t say those things because either they’re not aware of the traits in themselves or they fear it would impact a career opportunity.
This is exactly where an effective self-assessment comes into play, because it helps you learn who you are in ways you might not have expected. It also suggests ways to recognize when lack of flexibility or openness might take a global opportunity to a dead-end. There are countless other ways that an instrument like SAGE can help you discover how your personal attributes affect international assignment success.
Going further, we’ve also found that understanding personal attributes isn’t enough. You must understand how culture and cultural values set local standards and expectations for behaviors which, if misunderstood, inevitably lead to unnecessary conflict and perhaps cripple an assignee’s success.
I often think about how, on my first global assignment working in London in the 1970s, I couldn’t understand why all my good ideas and suggestions were invariably resisted before being adopted. While I was convinced that these ideas could work, my British colleagues kept asking me questions about why I held such strong convictions. I felt that they were asking too many questions before giving the idea a “try.”
Of course, I was experiencing my first cultural disconnect. I eventually discovered that my tolerance for risk was not “universally shared,” and that the consequences for failure in British culture were much more severe than I knew.
The Holy Grail of a perfect tool to identify the best candidate for an international assignment has not been discovered. Gratefully, though, there are many wonderful cultural assessment tools that focus on cultural disconnects. Thoughtfully deployed, these tools can enhance the process and help international assignees to become far more successful—personally and professionally.