Executive Recruiting Blog

EFL Associates insights on executive recruiting, talent management and succession planning.

October 31, 2017

5 Key Success Factors of an International Assignment

By Ted Toburen

EFL Associates has a unique understanding of the “success factors” to look for in the executive you’re asking to relocate for an international expatriate position. As Managing Director of EFL Associates’ Life Sciences Practice, I know the issue well. I have moved 10 times in my career, including three times as an expatriate to Southeast Asia, Japan and the United Kingdom, which has accounted for nearly 15 years of my work life in the Life Sciences industry.

Here are five key individual attributes I believe make for a successful expatriate assignment:

  1. Bring Something Special to the Party: Let’s face it, expatriates are expensive. More and more these days companies are opting to select local executives who are less expensive, generally well-trained and often highly competent. But, depending on the circumstances, an expatriate may be well worth the additional investment. Three examples immediately come to mind:
    • When the position is regional in scope: The expatriate with prior success in the region may come with an established network of customer relationships and reach with new clients. More important is the battle-tested understanding of how successful businesses operate and prosper in that region and not just at the country level.
    • Developmental investments in high-potential individuals: They are even more expensive as the impact of these positions will often be more on the individual and less on the business. But it’s still an excellent strategy for developing key Hi-Po individuals. These employees are often placed in secondary roles under experienced regional executives, mentioned above, who can provide mentorship.
    • Technical transfer technicians: Individuals with a defined technical set of skills who are expatriated with the mission to teach local employees a particular skill, often in manufacturing, R&D or IT. They typically are contracted for shorter periods, not years.
  2. Be a "Connector":The expat shouldn’t just bring something to the table at the local level; ideally they are also a liaison to the rest of the global organization. Being a “connector” of local managers with global counterparts and service suppliers makes for more efficient communications and greater productivity. It’s a subtle effect that significantly helps organizations become global and not just international.
  3. An Extra Helping of Patience:Being a manager in a foreign country can be difficult on many levels – there are new languages, brand new cultures, and new ways of doing business. The expat needs to practice patience when trying to understand, change, and mold the latter to his or her preferred management style. Business decisions will need to be made, but s/he must know which changes to push and which to leave alone. I would remind myself of The Serenity Prayer when faced with such situations. Sometimes it’s as much an art as it is a science, but this skill is absolutely critical to a successful expat assignment.
  4. Cultural Awareness & Sensitivity:Someone who has a global mindset will have a head-start in a foreign assignment. But this goes beyond a general awareness of the country where he or she will be living. You will have a greater chance for success with a new expat manager who has knowledge of and embraces multiple cultures and environments.
  5. A Strong Personal Relationship: I bet you weren’t expecting this, but if a spouse or partner is moving with your new hire, it’s imperative the couple has a good foundation. This is sometimes hard for couples to know in advance, and nearly impossible for their employer. But moving overseas can create cracks or unmask issues when the lines of security with extended family and friends are cut. Most couples lean together under these circumstances, while a few fall apart. All learn a lot. Regardless, relocations anywhere are tough on families. I explore this topic further here.

You may be wondering why foreign language proficiency didn’t make my Top 5 “success factors.” It is certainly very helpful, especially if the position is country-level in scope. But which language do you learn when you manage a region with multiple national languages, especially when English is the global language of business? International business is full of tragic examples of locals chosen more for their ability to speak English and expats chosen primarily on their foreign language fluency. They generally have one thing in common, and that’s a better grasp of language than business. There are some great examples to the contrary, but I suggest the first five boxes above should get ticked first.

It’s important to EFL Associates that you find executives who can lead your global organizations effectively. Awareness of the above five “success factors” will help ensure your investment in an international assignment will be well worth it.

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