Printer Friendly

International career development: preparing for an expatriate job transition.

A current concern of many U.S. companies is how to remain profitable in the face of increasing international competition. With the unification of Germany, the democratization of Eastern Block countries, the establishment of the European Community, the current changes in Russia, and the proposed North American Free Trade Pack, U.S. firms will be operating in a even more competitive environment in the near future. As more U.S. companies expand their operation overseas in their quest to remain globally competitive, the need to send employees on international assignments should also increase.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the use of expatriate managers by U.S. firms declined because of the high costs and failure rates of such managers. However, since the late 1980s, there have been indications that U.S. firms are reversing this trend and, like their foreign competitors, are increasing their use of expatriates once again. This change in business strategy should be a great opportunity for individuals interested in an international career or assignment. However, an international career is not necessarily appropriate for everyone.

The purpose of this article is to outline career development steps individuals should take in preparing for an expatriate transition. Specific career development strategies and resources are detailed.

Preparing for the Transition

There are three major steps an individual interested in an expatriate assignment should consider.

Self-evaluation--Most individuals who seek an expatriate assignment are motivated by their perception of the glamour, excitement, and adventure associated with such an assignment. However, the frustrations of the actual job experience coupled with the culture shock of being in a foreign environment often make expatriates long for the familiarity of their home country. Generally, about three to six months after the beginning of their international assignment, expatriates have either terminated the assignment early and returned home or have begun to adjust to life in the host country.

What differentiates those who successfully complete their assignments from those who return home early? Successful expatriates should be able to work with diverse groups of people in a culture that may be very different from their own. They should be able to recognize and accept societal and business norms that may seem alien or unethical to their own standards.

Before individuals choose an international career, they must determine if they have the willingness and motivation to effectively complete such an assignment. Personal characteristics which include the ability to adapt to different norms and modes of behavior, as well a high tolerance for ambiguity, are prerequisites for a successful international career. General exercises, such as those found in Richard Bolles' What Color is Your Parachute?, as well as more specific exercises such as those found in Nancy Adler's International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, are valuable self-evaluation tools. Also, it may be useful to read recent publications, such as Gercik's (1992) On Track with the Japanese: A Case by Case Approach to Building Successful Relationships, that illustrate the psychological and emotional effort involved in dealing with a foreign culture.

Many expatriate assignments terminate early because of the spouse's inability to adapt. Spouses are vital to the success of an international assignment because they may be the most important social support to the expatriate worker. Individuals who wish to pursue international careers or assignments should include their spouses in the decision-making process. They should discuss their intentions with their spouses and seek their approval before any further commitment is made.

Once the husband and wife have made the decision to pursue such a career path, both partners should engage in training for the assignment. Employment or educational opportunities for the spouse should also be investigated at this time. Some useful sources of information about business and educational opportunities in many countries include the U.S. Government's Post Report and The Wall Street Journal's books on business travel in selected countries.

Preparing for the Job Transition--Most expatriates are chosen for an assignment because they possess knowledge and skills that foreign nationals do not have. Research indicates that most U.S. companies do not have a systematic way of selecting and training their expatriate managers. Being an outstanding performer in a specific area of expertise is generally the first criterion used to select someone for a foreign assignment. Expertise is a must because supporting systems are usually absent at foreign locations. Therefore, expatriates must have the technical skills necessary to complete the assignment by themselves.

An experienced expatriate manager is usually able to successfully handle any assignment located in any corner of the globe. But for one's first international assignment, it is often better to prepare for a specific region or country. It is important for those interested in an international assignment to find out what foreign locations their organization currently operates in and prepare for assignments in these locations. Potential expatriates should make their superiors aware of their special, country-specific skills (e.g., knowledge of local language and customs) that will enable them to more effectively complete the assignment. Therefore, a logical step in preparing oneself for one's first foreign assignment is to focus on a specific geographic region.

Once the location is determined, steps should be taken to learn the language and etiquette of that region. Most universities offer extensive weekend courses that will permit individuals to learn the basics of a given language in a short period of time. Shop around for a language course that goes beyond traditional language training to include information on nonverbal behavior and business etiquette. If this kind of course is not available locally, then supplement available courses with research from the local library. Additionally, potential expatriates should be sure to develop an awareness of the cultures and value systems of their target region by reading publications from the area. Moreover, if possible, a visit to the location of choice is a good idea.

Furthermore, many universities now offer MBA programs that focus on international business. Look for a program that has classes that include simulation training. Because these courses focus on increasing awareness and are not geared to a specific country, they will be appropriate no matter what region the expatriate visits. In these simulations, trainees are usually presented with a number of short vignettes about international situations. Trainees role play their reactions, and their responses are judged by a panel of experts, including expatriates. These exercises help individuals learn how to interact with people of other cultures and provide models of appropriate behaviors. Because simulation exercises permit trainees to see and practice correct behaviors, they also aid in the development of self-confidence.

In addition to simulation training, look for programs that include foreign language training and overseas experiences. For example, the University of Michigan's "Global Leadership Program" provides individuals with the opportunity to travel and work with foreign executives in developing a report on business opportunities in a foreign country.

As mentioned earlier, expatriate spouses are an important element in successfully completing an international assignment. Therefore, spouses should be included in every step of the training program. In the process of conducting daily chores (e.g., grocery shopping) spouses are more likely than expatriate managers to deal with host country locals who may not speak English and may be less accustomed to foreigners. Therefore, spouses should engage in extensive training in the language and customs of the country.

The next decision potential expatriates should make is whether they want a foreign assignment to be only a temporary step in their career path or if they intend to make international business a life-long career goal. The purpose of this decision is to prepare oneself for the re-entry culture shock. Most U.S. companies do not prepare their employees for the re-entry after an expatriate assignment. After all, these companies feel that expatriates are coming back to their own home. However, most expatriates experience culture shock upon their return to the U.S.

At the personal level, culture shock may take many forms. For example, many expatriates find that they have lost their credit ratings after being on an overseas assignment for several years. A solution to this dilemma is to keep at least one credit card and use it while overseas. Trying to pay the credit card bills from overseas may be a hassle, but it will certainly be worth the effort in that one's credit rating will remain in effect. To further reduce culture shock, talk with experienced expatriates. Find out what steps can be taken in advance to reduce reentry culture shock. Other changes, such as the increase in the price of housing and the need to rebuild one's network of friends, are generally a huge shock to returning expatriates. Ask experienced expatriates how they have successfully coped with these and other problems.

On the work front, expatriate managers often find more changes than they are prepared to deal with. For instance, their mentor may have been promoted and their associates may have been transferred or have left for a different job or company. In extreme cases, the whole structure of the expatriate's organization may be changed and even the primary business of their company may be different than when they left for the assignment.

The best way to deal with re-entry culture shock is to be psychologically prepared for it by realizing that time has not stood still for friends and coworkers. Keep in close contact with friends and coworkers using frequent letters and faxes. Try to make at least one trip to one's home location every year. Before the final return home, make one or two trips to finalize housing requirements and learn about new work assignments. Moreover, before accepting an international assignment, be sure to discuss with superiors how this assignment will affect one's career and job placement opportunities upon re-entry. Overall, prepare for re-entry the same way as for one's first assignment overseas.

Campaign for the Assignment--Research indicates that most U.S. firms do not have a systematic way of allocating overseas assignments and do not keep a pool of candidates for such purposes. Choice of individuals for expatriate assignments is often left to the discretion of the managers in charge of the project. Thus, individuals interested in an overseas assignment should let their immediate supervisors and other appropriate individuals know of their intentions.

Take advantage of any training programs or tuition subsidies that the company offers. Participation in such company-sponsored programs leaves a formal record of qualifications.

Because of false stereotypes Americans sometimes hold about other cultures, women may need to be especially assertive when campaigning for an international assignment. Some Americans are surprised to learn that businessmen in countries such as Japan, Saudi Arabia and Korea treat foreign female managers with the same respect they give foreign male managers. One female expatriate in Hong Kong explained, "It doesn't matter if you are blue, green, purple, or a frog, if you have the best product at the best price, the Chinese will buy." Therefore, women interested in international assignments may need to dispel stereotypes and educate decision makers about the realities of women in international business.

International Experience a Plus

Many companies use overseas assignments as a means to assess which individual should be promoted to top-level positions. For example, The Wall Street Journal suggests that "intensifying international competition will make the home-grown chief executive obsolete." Similarly, Executive Female suggests that "taking a foreign assignment may be one quick route up the ladder."

On the other hand, many expatriates feel that they are neglected and forgotten upon their return from overseas assignments. Some expatriates experience severe re-entry shock and end up leaving their organization shortly after returning from an international assignment. Therefore, anyone who is planning a career in the international area should be aware of such a possibility and be prepared to change jobs if this occurs. After all, there is always a need for good managers with global experience.

Dr. Sullivan is associate professor of management at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Dr. Tu is an assistant professor of management at Memphis State University.
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Memphis
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Career Development
Author:Sullivan, Sherry E.; Tu, Howard S.
Publication:Business Perspectives
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:Strategies for enhancing your executive, personal, and career development.
Next Article:How to recognize and resolve traditional (but ineffective) career beliefs.

Related Articles
Alternative policies for international transfers of managers.
Corporate expatriate HRM policies, internationalization, and performance in the world's largest MNCs.
Parent-country national selection for the maquiladora industry in Mexico: results of a pilot study.
Globalisation of staff movements: beyond cultural adjustment.
Role of cultural self-knowledge in successful expatriation.
Planning overseas assignments.
Planning overseas assignments.
Teaching life skills for student success: in Chicago public schools, a program that teaches life skills is helping students make a successful...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters