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Executive Cultural Coaching: Linking Expatriate Assignment with Career Management

For many executives, an expatriate assignment could mean a wider path to promotions and leadership positions, or it could be a career-ending move. Upon repatriation, some expatriates find that their footprints were washed up by the waves of change, and they either don't fit in the organization or they become under-utilized. Alternatively, when approached optimally, assignees could ensure successful repatriation by achieving organizational objectives, maintaining their visibility back home, and return to opportunities that exceed their expectations.

The key to this dilemma lies in articulating and differentiating between strategies for the expatriate's "Initial Adjustment" versus "Career Management".

  1. "Initial Adjustment" deals with expatriates and their families' adjustment to the new country and culture.
  2. "Career Management" helps to manage the expatriate's career by giving them the tools to succeed in the new position and ensure successful repatriation.

"Initial Adjustment" is about helping expats and their families to adjust to the new environment by providing them with language lessons and cross-cultural orientations that point to differences in business etiquette, customs and discussions of overall theoretical cultural differences. Additionally, many companies provide destination services to help with housing, schools, bank accounts and other daily necessities. Companies started utilizing these types of services over 20 years ago. Today, a majority of global companies believe in providing some or all of these services.

"Career Management" is about taking a longer term view. This strategy provides customized coaching to ensure that assignees succeed in carrying out the demands of their daily work, and achieve the stated objectives of the expatriation - hence contributing to the success of their organizations in their global endeavors. It is a known fact that many expatriates run into difficulties in achieving their objectives and return home to face a career cul-de-sac, or no job at all.

Although the "Initial Adjustment" model is widely accepted by HR within global organizations, current cross-cultural training services have been a hard sell to line managers and expatriates who can pick up most of the general information regarding differences in cultures and customs on the Internet. This skimming the surface of information might provide a false sense of security about the actual knowledge of working with new co-workers, or cultural generalizations might be misinterpreted and lead to misunderstandings and stereotypes.

Most current cross-cultural trainings offer a shotgun approach that in some cases might be very useful for the initial adjustment of assignees and their families. However, more targeted and customized coaching might be the right approach for many other expatriates. Unless the HR and mobility directors make these distinctions, the assignees may not receive the tools they need to succeed in their new business environment.

Therefore, every expatriate assignment, regardless if it is for three months or three years, must be considered under these two lenses: "Initial Adjustment" and/or "Career Management".

Copyright Sheida Hodge, Hodge International Advisors, September 2009

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