The Global Mobility function in many organizations sits within the Talent framework because talent and global competence are often synonymous for multi-national businesses. For that reason, as well as many others, international assignments are a critical component of the Talent function; careers can rise with the success of expatriate assignments and fall with expatriate failure.

Given the cost and critical nature of expatriate assignments, it behooves today’s companies to have a well-conceived, strategically consistent global mobility training program that emphasizes cross-cultural awareness. Such a program should include cultural preparation for the expat assignee and his or her family, of course. Often overlooked, however, is that for such programs to be most effective in maximizing careers, investments and outcomes, they also need to include cross-cultural preparation for colleagues on the destination side! 

In all, there are three critical components to success in expatriate assignments – and all require cross-cultural preparation. Think about how well prepared your organization is to support each of these.

A Culturally Aware, Well-Prepared Expat Assignee

We’ve long recognized that what makes a person successful in one country is no guarantee of success somewhere else in the world.  As a result, it’s critical to prepare globally mobile professionals to fully appreciate the different behaviors they will likely encounter and to understand the underlying values that drive those behaviors. This cross-cultural awareness preparation is crucial because it dramatically reduces the likelihood expats will misinterpret what people tell them.

It’s equally important for expats to appreciate how their behaviors will be viewed by colleagues in their new destination. It should be obvious that providing this cross-cultural training is not only important for the expat’s career success, but it’s also critical to achieve the desired corporate outcome. 

In today’s globally mobile environment, where so many people have had international experience (whether business or personal travel), assignees may think they know all about culture. But, as someone who has had international experience and lived in the intercultural world for over 30 years, I can assure you that this anecdotal knowledge requires formal support, which needs to be continually refreshed and new insights developed. People are so interconnected and communication can be so nuanced these days, that a growing cultural awareness and acute cultural sensitivity can have important positive ramifications for business outcomes. 

A Supportive Family Trained for their own Positive Global Mobility Experience 

International HR managers have long recognized how important and how valuable of an asset a supportive family can be to an expat assignee’s success. The flip side is even more true: No assignee can be successful if their family is having severe challenges living and adjusting to the new environment. 

Clients have often contacted us (alas, often too late) to help with a family situation jeopardizing an entire business initiative. For example, we received a call from a client whose highly placed executive had requested repatriation after being in the new destination only six months. His wife previously had an active business career and thought she could adjust to a different lifestyle in the new country, but was finding it impossible to continue. She had no idea it would be so difficult to collaborate with locals. She was terribly unhappy and insisted on going home.

Regrettably, all her challenges were predictable – and avoidable, with proper cross-cultural awareness training. 

All international assignees go through a predictable adjustment cycle that includes emotional highs and lows, ranging from a “Honeymoon” to “Culture Shock” (where you realize how different life is in the new location). Family members often experience a more difficult adjustment than the employee, who has a regular work environment and the supportive infrastructure that comes with it – something family members typically don’t have. So, in addition to cultural issues, there are lifestyle and emotional issues that family members confront. 

Cultural preparation helps to set realistic expectations for the life they’ll be facing. It should include experiential learning, so people can anticipate the emotional ups-and-downs they’ll face while also developing an understanding of how they’ll navigate everyday life in the new environment.

A Destination Manager and Team that Maximize the Expat’s Contribution

So, let’s say you and your assignees recognize how critical cultural preparation is, and they and their families go through training. That’s great, but it’s not enough for them to be prepared. In order to maximize the benefit of an international assignment for the company and the employee, the team they’ll be joining also needs to cross-cultural appreciation.  

Consider a talented design engineer from Frankfurt arriving for a two-year expat assignment in Guadalajara. Without preparation for the different ways time and personal relationships are manifested in German and Mexican culture, imagine how he’ll feel when his new colleagues arrive somewhat late for their first meeting, and then ask him about personal family details he has never even shared with colleagues during his previous five years in Frankfurt! 

Even if he had been prepared for Mexican hospitality, he’d be overwhelmed. And then, how will his Mexican co-workers feel about him if he never initiates any personal connection, limiting all his work-time dialogue to business?   

Now imagine the negative effects this could have on the collaboration of the design team, which was the reason the company invested in sending him to Mexico in the first place.

In order to maximize the skills and talents of expats, there needs to be intercultural awareness training and team-building on the destination side. A quality intercultural team-building program begins with recognition of the diverse work styles and practices of the people on the team; it helps them to understand how some people are more relationship-oriented, and how some are more group oriented. 

To improve multi-cultural team collaboration, it’s as important for the team to understand the work styles and expectations of its new members as it is for the expat to have serious cultural preparation regarding the culture in which they’ll be living.

When it goes well, an international assignment can be one of life’s great experiences. It not only helps build careers and develop skills and competencies that will be invaluable throughout an assignee’s professional life, it also opens up a world of learning and memories for every family member. All of this personal growth is a bonus that comes along with achieving a challenging business mission.

But, to make it successful for everyone – employee, family and company – they all need to have cross-cultural skill-building and preparation.  An enlightened organization must have a strategy that gets each of the critical pieces of a global mobility assignment working effectively with each other.

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