Not Just Surviving the Expat Experience But Thriving

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The epitome of receiving a sign that one’s professional accomplishments have been recognized by the upper echelons of one’s company is to be considered for an expatriate position. An appointment to an overseas post signifies competence on behalf of the professional, confidence on the part of the organization, and a promising future for the individual back at headquarters once the international assignment has been successfully completed. After all, it is often thought, if a candidate can make it there – overseas – they can make it anywhere. Or, so the thinking goes.

But, what happens when an international assignment proves to be unsuccessful? As many companies spend literally millions of dollars placing high ranking professionals overseas, the costs associated from a failed assignment can be catastrophic—and not just from a financial point of view. Careers can be lost, families broken, and personal paradigms and identities shattered. What are some of the warning signs and steps that can be taken to prevent such an incident from occurring in the first place? Two key lessons come immediately to mind.

First is to identify not only the technical proficiency needed for the offshore position but also the soft skills needed to survive and thrive in the local environment. To oversee offshore operations and earn the trust of headquarters require hard skills based almost entirely on previous successes that have little to nothing to do with the requisite skills needed in country X. Flexibility, an attitude of risk-taking, and an appreciation for others (not simply ‘tolerance’) are designated key traits that will assist an expat candidate to better appreciate and assimilate into his or her new culture.  

Second, the needs of the family are extremely important. The above mentioned traits are important for not just the expat but his/her entire family in making a successful transition. It is estimated that of the ~20% of assignments that fail each year, an overwhelming majority – between 50%-60% are due to issues with the family’s inability to settle into their new surroundings. Strife at home equates to instability at work that leads into an unproductive (yet expensive) employee in the office. Paying attention to the needs of the family is key. (We’ll take a closer look at family in a post next week.)

Learning these two lessons before determining who the successful candidate will be (and even if an expat position is needed) will go a long way toward retaining a valuable employee and delivering positive fiscal results.

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