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Surviving and growing from international experience: the role great bosses play.

International assignments are inherently challenging. So what role do companies and HR executives play in helping to facilitate acclimation to new business climates and cultures, and what role does the individual in transition play? It turns out, learning from experience and the impact of other people-rather than traditional human resources tools, processes, or programs-are more effective in aiding the transition into an international assignment and ensuring future success.

Thirty years of research on leadership development, dating back to Lessons of Experience (McCall, Lombardo &C Morrison, 1988), documents that challenging job experiences are at the heart of leadership development (see also McCauley, Ruderman, Ohlott & Morrow, 1994). To prepare individuals for senior leadership roles, McCall (1998) has recommended providing developing leaders with job experiences that will prepare them to meet the challenges dictated by the organization's business strategy. For global organizations, this includes learning to lead across geographic and cultural boundaries. Indeed, McCall and Hollenbeck (2002) found that international assignments are the primary (and sometimes only) place that future global executives learn the lessons of culture.

Fortunately, "executives, whether international or domestic and regardless of nationality, learn from the same kinds of experiences: challenging assignments, significant other people, perspective changing events, and the like." (McCall & Hollenbeck, 2002) This means that learning from experience occurs through the same processes and mechanisms for both domestic and international assignments. But providing international assignments is notoriously expensive, in terms of both direct costs (e.g., relocation, school, and housing expenses) and potential indirect costs (e.g., derailed or failed executives, lost or missed business opportunities) are very high. And despite the cost, there is no guarantee that expatriates will succeed, much less learn the lessons of their experiences. Recognizing this, many organizations provide special support to their expatriates, including preferred access to training, 360 feedback, mentors, and so forth.

While this kind of support can be helpful, the evidence from Lessons of Experience and other research (McCall & Hollenbeck, 2002; McCall 8c McHenry, 2014) indicates that the boss has a much more powerful impact on learning from experience than traditional human resources tools, processes, or programs. Based on a study of 50 senior-level bosses identified by their organizations as great talent developers (referred to simply as "bosses" in this article), McCall and McHenry described six ways that bosses can help developing leaders learn from experience (summarized in Figure 1).

None of the 50 bosses interviewed for this study did all six things; almost all focused on just one or two of them and did those very well. Even so, their impact was enormous; their proteges (1) consistently reported that what these bosses did was one of the most powerful factors in their leadership development. McCall and Hollenbeck's (2002) study of 101 global executives validates the critical role that the boss can play in learning from an international assignment. In fact, the most frequent developmental event reported by their sample of global executives was the impact of "other people," the vast majority of whom were bosses. McCall and Hollenbeck went on to observe that, "Perhaps because of the uniqueness of expatriate assignments, one of the most significant potential catalysts and one mentioned quite frequently by our executives is a boss who understands international work and is willing to spend time working with the person". The question, then, is what exceptional bosses of individuals on international assignments do specifically to help them develop into global leaders. Our analysis of interviews with bosses and international proteges suggests that great bosses play at least two roles. First, they take great care to manage the degree of difficulty of the protege's job assignment and ensure that the protege has the support needed to succeed and learn. Second, they make special investments in career guidance and support.

In addition, we found that there is a unique dynamic to the relationship between bosses and their international proteges.

Supporting Success and Growth in International Assignments

International assignments, by nature, are challenging, sometimes too much so. Prior research has shown that derailment of talented executives is more common in international assignments than in domestic ones (McCall & Hollenbeck, 2002), largely because of the added complexity of cultural differences compounded by organizational mistakes in handling the international assignments and placements. Under such circumstances, the importance of a boss is magnified, with the potential for bad bosses to make things substantially worse and for good bosses to save the day. There are several things the exceptional bosses we studied did to help their proteges succeed in and learn from international assignments.

Prepared Proteges in Advance to Succeed In International Assignments

Some bosses' contributions began before their protege started the international assignment. A straightforward example was a boss providing perspective based on his or her own global experience, helping the international protege see that what worked in his or her home country or region might not work equally well in the new geography. Or it was sometimes more experiential, with bosses finding ways to give proteges exposure to the country where they would be working so they did not arrive completely uninformed about the culture, local team members, or the business. One boss we studied even sent his protege to China on "a learning trip" that he constructed specifically to prepare her for an assignment in that country.

Provided Real-Time Culture and Business Coaching

Entering a new culture can be disconcerting, and even apparently small things can cause a protege to make career-damaging mistakes. Many of our bosses provided intensive real-time coaching and guidance to their international proteges, especially during the first weeks and months of the assignment. This coaching covered a wide array of important to seemingly trivial issues and situations, ranging from the expectations and pace of work at headquarters, on one hand, to understanding that in a "nice" culture it's important to recognize birthdays.

Juan (not his real name) is a case in point. His boss hired him in South America. Juan followed his boss to Mexico and subsequently to the U.S., taking on progressively larger roles. But when he moved to the U.S., Juan struggled with the way work got done, specifically with so many more meetings than he was used to ("meetings before the meeting, the meeting, then meetings after the meeting"). His boss, sensing Juan's growing frustration, stepped in and told him that that he would have to make some accommodations to the situation he was in, but that he also should use this experience to think about how he would run his own business when he got the opportunity. That seemed to liberate Juan. He became less frustrated by the U.S. "meeting culture." Later, when he got the opportunity to run his own plant, he found his own way instead of conforming to the way that people in the company in America did their jobs.

Fine-Tuned the Degree of Challenge

Some bosses focused their attention on setting the bar at the right level such that their international protege was challenged but not overwhelmed. For example, they managed the rate at which responsibilities increased, and they saw to it that the support needed to be successful was available.

The bosses we interviewed employed a variety of strategies to keep the international assignment appropriately challenging. Some kept the bar very high, pushing their proteges to think carefully about how they were approaching the various challenges they faced. Several proteges commented that their boss asked them to "think harder about this problem before you make a decision" or "come back with another idea before you finally decide what to do." This advice helped the proteges avoid tried-and-true solutions that, in a different cultural context, were not always the best course. As one protege said of his boss, "She kept me on the razor's edge."

Keeping the degree of challenge just right was especially difficult when the boss and protege were not co-located, which was often the case. Several bosses told us that in these circumstances they checked in frequently at first with their international protege, but backed off considerably as the protege got settled, instead reviewing progress against objectives in quarterly or monthly operational reviews.

Provided a Safety Net

Some bosses created a safety net for their international protege by identifying someone (or a group of people) in-country who could serve as a right-hand or day-to-day advisor, often someone working for the protege. We have long known that "other people-as mentors, role models, or examples-play a prominent role in all development; but for global executives, their significance is even more pronounced. Because the environment of another culture is so much more complex, and the nuances so much more subtle, the guidance provided by others (either actively or simply by example) can make the difference between success and failure" (McCall & Hollenbeck, 2002).

The bosses we interviewed expected their proteges to experience mistakes and stumbles. Because of the distance separating them, most proteges were highly empowered, but their bosses also held them accountable, both for results and for learning from their experience. Success in a foreign environment was contingent on rapid personal growth. Exceptional bosses, recognizing the degree of challenge was extreme, provided lots of support for learning and made themselves readily available to help their international proteges.

Provided Career Guidance and Support

McCall and McHenry (2014) found that providing career guidance was one of the six ways that great bosses approached leadership development with their proteges. But it took on special importance and urgency for bosses of individuals on international assignments. Several bosses noted that they had learned earlier in their career, through personal experience and the school of hard knocks, that expatriates tend to lose touch with and get cut off from their network of sponsors back in their home country or at headquarters. For example, senior executives often lose sight of the expatriate when it's time to nominate high-potentials or identify successors for key roles, or they might not fully appreciate the expanded capabilities the expatriate can bring back to the home country or business at the end of the international assignment. Expatriates who do not receive good career guidance from their boss often end up frustrated and even embittered when they are forgotten, especially after they've made the personal sacrifice of uprooting their families, learned a brand-new culture and new ways of doing business, and performed superbly under very challenging conditions.

In our interviews, bosses and their international proteges cited two types of career guidance and support that were especially helpful: consideration of family issues and advice on managing their careers.

Showed Sensitivity to Family Issues and Personal Considerations

Many of our exceptional bosses were very sensitive to family issues. They spent considerable time getting to know their proteges' family situations and helped them weigh family considerations as they pondered future career moves. As one boss explained, "Each has a different personal situation, different family situation, a spouse with different needs and expectations. You can't limit yourself to job talk; you have to get to know the people, their personal situations, and their career expectations. Then I can give guidance based on my 31 years of experience in the company regarding what is and is not realistic." When this boss traveled to meet with his international proteges, he set aside one evening during his visit for a dinner where they would discuss personal and family issues. On many occasions he asked the protege's "trailing spouse" to join the dinner. This deep familiarity with the protege's personal situation allowed the boss to offer frank career advice and perspectives which were deeply appreciated by proteges when it came time to make critical career decisions. One protege told about a time he was putting personal pressure on himself to move when he wasn't sure his family was ready. "The company wanted me to transfer to Singapore. But a boss told me, 'You have only one set of kids but many opportunities to move.'"

One boss, who had been on several international assignments himself, related a story about his first career conversation with a new protege. The protege had previously expressed interest in an international assignment, so the boss was initially puzzled that the protege had never been tapped for a job outside his home country. During their discussion, the boss discovered that the protege had in fact been offered several international jobs during the preceding five years, but "the timing had never been quite right for his family. I explained to him that it's critical to prep your family because the phone could ring tomorrow and you need to decide quickly. He had been taken off succession lists for bigger jobs because he was never ready when the call came." The boss coached the protege on how to have an open, honest discussion with his wife regarding plans and preparations for a future international assignment. The boss then worked behind the scenes to get the protege back onto succession lists, which eventually led to an excellent international placement.

Took Personal Responsibility for Career Planning and Management

Second, our great bosses pressed their international proteges to take responsibility for their own career planning and career management. As one boss told us, "[My protege] was frustrated about his career progress, even though he was on a great trajectory. Yet he came to our career discussion without a completed development plan. I had to chastise him! We then spent a lot of time talking about the steps he needed to take in order to advance his career-people he needed to network with, the number of moves he had left given his age, what he needed to do to get ready to make a move." In our follow-up interview, the protege acknowledged receiving this feedback from his boss. "I am terrible at career planning. My boss told me I need to be much more disciplined and intentional about my career. So I have both a career plan and a life plan-what do I want to be doing in 10 years, what do I want to be known for?"

Great bosses also regularly reminded proteges not to let connections lapse with senior leader sponsors and fans back in their home country, home division, or home job function. A couple proteges commented that they were initially uncomfortable doing this because they didn't want to waste executives' time or seem too boastful. They told how their bosses coached them on ways they could stay connected that also were useful to their sponsors.

Finally, bosses were excellent sounding boards when it came time to decide on a job move. "He helped me analyze opportunities in Lima, Ohio, versus Tel Aviv. He always made me feel like I was in control," one protege commented. What's striking about the stories we heard in our interviews was the proteges' trust in their bosses. Even though it would have been in the boss's self-interest to keep the protege as a direct report, these bosses consistently placed a higher priority on helping their proteges achieve their career goals.

The Relationship between Bosses and Proteges

McCall and McHenry (2014) noted that the relationships between great bosses and their proteges ran the gamut from friendly, egalitarian, and informal to professional, hierarchical, and formal. Yet all of the proteges described similar qualities in their exceptional bosses: respectful, trustworthy, genuine, authentic, transparent, candid, caring, clear about expectations, available. Those same descriptors apply to great bosses of international proteges. In addition, three other interesting facets of the boss-protege relationship emerged.

First, in most instances we studied, the boss and protege were not co-located, so they had fewer conversations with one another. But when they did have conversations, those conversations tended to be deep, lengthy, and very rich. "I call my boss from time to time to brainstorm because he is a great brainstorming partner. A couple months ago, I needed time to step back and think. I offered to travel to my boss's office, but he insisted on traveling to where I work. We ended up spending half a day just talking one on one together."

As noted earlier, many bosses also had deep conversations about family and personal interests with their proteges, often over relaxed dinners when the boss visited. So although the boss and international protege may not see each other frequently, their interactions may in fact be richer and more intimate than the interactions of bosses and proteges who are co-located.

Second, while all great bosses make themselves available to their proteges, the bosses of international proteges made a special point of being accessible. They provided proteges with their home phone number and encouraged them to call any time, 24/7, when issues arose. Proteges appreciated this, noting that it made them more comfortable reaching out to their boss when they encountered unexpected situations while settling into their international roles. Showing how far an exceptional boss might go, one protege reported, "A month after I moved to Singapore my boss was tapped to take on a new role. But to his credit, he continued to be available to me when I had questions."

Third, there were many instances where the learning was bi-directional: bosses learned from their proteges at the same time they mentored and coached them. One protege who had started his career in corporate headquarters and recently moved to a subsidiary noted that he was able to teach his boss a lot about changes in the business. "He's been overseas for two decades. I had a lot to offer him, because I'd been in the business for a while." Another mentioned that partway through his international posting he was assigned to a new boss who was at a much higher organizational level than his previous boss. "This made me very uncomfortable, but my new boss was extremely supportive, gave me tips, opened doors for me, and got people to sit down and talk with me. He has a kind of command-and-control style that is effective in the part of the world he is from, but not in our region. He relies on me to moderate his style."

In short, great bosses took the opportunity to learn from the cultural and business experiences of their proteges.


Given the unique ways that international assignments contribute to an individual's leadership development, and the high costs and risks that international assignments bring, it is clearly in an organization's best interest to help ensure that those assigned to international roles are successful and learn from their international experience. Research indicates that the boss is the single best source of support during an international assignment (McCall & Hollenbeck, 2002). It therefore makes sense that organizations that want to maximize the success and learning of those given international assignments will make sure that their bosses are well-prepared to support them.

One of the most straightforward ways to do this is for organizations to educate bosses about the types of support that are most valuable to their international proteges:

* Provide job-related support, especially on cultural issues, both in advance and during the early stages of the protege's posting.

* Continually fine-tune the degree of challenge in the assignment to ensure that the protege feels stretched and accountable but still has a safety net (e.g., check-ins by the boss, an in-country advisor) to help prevent career-threatening mistakes.

* Get to know the protege's family situation and help him or her balance effectively between family and career.

* Press the protege as needed to manage and promote his or her own career, recognizing that he or she may fall off the radar of key home-country and business sponsors.

The organization that prepares bosses to manage international assignments effectively will be well-positioned to reap leadership development rewards. GS3

Six Strategies Extraordinary Developers of Leadership Talent Use

* Providing Opportunities for Growth. Enticing or sometimes forcing talented people to take on bigger or unconventional assignments, while at the same time carefully sequencing events, keeping an eye on what is happening, and not deserting the protege if or when (the boss is) promoted. Setting clear expectations for both performance and learning, holding the protege accountable, giving guidance and support, and providing "air cover" so that mistakes do not prove fatal.

* Providing Exposure to Senior Executives; Making Connections and Opening Doors. Exposing proteges to the "right" people (such as gatekeepers or mentors) who can provide guidance or help achieve business objectives. Making the protege known to senior management, while appropriately-tempering senior managers' expectations regarding the protege's capabilities and readiness.

* Developing Skills and Mitigating Flaws. Helping proteges develop needed skills or better manage their flaws by giving feedback and offering guidance, and sticking with it long enough to see the results.

* Inspiring. Raising the Bar. Demanding Excellence. Improving the performance of the protege by inspiring, setting high standards, and driving the protege forward.

* Watch Me, Listen to Me. Leading by example. For instance, taking the time to really listen to what their people have to say, giving credit, developing others, dealing with performance issues, explaining their decisions, following up, and delivering on promises.

* Offering Career Advice and Guidance. Offering career advice and support, including arranging temporary or permanent assignments. Aware that mobility is often key to career moves, paying attention to the protege's family situation.


McCall, M.W., Jr. (1998). High flyers: Developing the next generation of leaders. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

McCall, M.W., Jr., & Hollenbeck, G.P. (2002). Developing global executives: The lessons of international experience. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

McCall, M.W., Jr., Lombardo, M.M., &c Morrison, A.M. (1988). The lessons of experience: How successful executives develop on the job. New York: Free Press.

McCall, M.W., Jr., & McHenry, J.J. (2014). Catalytic converters: How exceptional bosses develop leaders. In C.D. McCauley & M.W. McCall, Jr. (Eds.), Using experience to develop leadership talent: How organizations leverage on-the-job development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McCauley, C.D., Ruderman, M.N., Ohlott, P.J., & Morrow, J.E. (1994). "Assessing the developmental components of managerial jobs." Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 544-560.

(1) Each of the 50 bosses interviewed for the study were asked to identify at least one person he or she had developed. We called these individuals proteges.

Jeffrey J. McHenry, Ph.D., is the principal of Rainier Leadership Solutions, which focuses on leadership development and talent management. He can be reached at

Morgan W. McCall Jr., Ph.D., is professor of management and organization at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. He focuses on assessment, development, and derailment of executive talent in his research and writing. He can be reached at morgan.mccall@
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Author:McHenry, Jeffrey J.; McCall, Morgan W., Jr.
Publication:People & Strategy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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