When you need to send your people overseas for extended expat project deployments, how do you pick the right ones?
Much of the early part of my career was spent working as an expat representative of my parent company in various parts of the world. Working amongst small, tight knit teams of engineers, managers and support personnel. In most of these situations the teams worked well, with a strong internal, mutual support philosophy and genuine commitment to the task at hand. There were, of course exceptions to this, and the lessons from those experiences have stuck with me ever since.
I have attempted here to list some of my positive and negative recommendations.
- Expat personnel must be conversant with the company they work for and be committed to the work in hand. I have seen instances where new personnel are hired specifically for an overseas assignment, to represent the company that has hired them and typically this is a high risk option. My experiences with this is that these rarely are as successful as deploying established personnel. Likewise, the expats must be committed to the success of the task, in some instances to the detriment of their own level of short term reward. If they are there to make money, great, as long as that is their only motivation, anyone who is not fully committed to the work will lack commitment when the pressure is on.
- Wherever possible, send some seasoned expat personnel as part of the team. These personnel will typically become mentors and coaches to the new travelers. Having a whole team of newbies will lead to a lot of wasted time in the settling in process and without a mentor, the new personnel are typically prone to repeat mistakes made by others in the past as they find their feet.
- Set clear expectations of behaviour and living conditions before the expats depart. Every project and situation is different so it is very hard to generalise, but expats should know their limits and authorities before they arrive in country. This would encompass any allowances, living costs, transport both to and from and while in country, medical coverage, etc.
- Encourage your expats to integrate into the local community and culture as much as possible. While this is not always easy to do, and again every situation will be different, I would council against expat personnel living in closed communities if at all possible except for safety and security purposes. Even mixing with expats from other companies, communities or countries is better than having a single company living community.
- Select your expats on their personality, aptitude and experience before their level of technical expertise. It does not matter as much how technical strong they are if they are unable to work in the situation they are placed in, and/or can not work with their colleagues and local personnel.
- Plan for, and expect, some issues from your personnel, but try not to be too judgemental about motives. Things can happen when you live in an expat situation that are critical to the expats but seem excessively trivial and inconsequential to those in the home office, so try to be empathetic as long as any issues are genuine.
- Linguistic support is essential. This can range anywhere from the provision of interpreters, language lessons, provision of phrase books or simply learning to communicate in a form of simple common language that relies on basic vocabulary and common technical terms.
- Provide flexible travel and vacation schedules as long as they are fair to all personnel and do not impede the delivery of the project. Expats may have specific needs to return home for family or other events where this travel may fall outside of a fixed roster, or may wish to take their home trip ‘in kind’ as a separate vacation to another part of the world or even spend it in-country. I would advise, wherever possible, try to accommodate these as long as they are reasonable, since demonstrating flexibility toward your people will typically be rewarded in kind.
- The most senior representative must be a seasoned expat, have an established track record with your company and have a reasonable level of authority to act independently with regard to both the treatment of the expat team and also specific project situations. Having this person hamstrung by home office red tape can lead to frustration and wasted effort by both sides of the project team.
- Prepare for, and expect, some failures in your choices. The expat lifestyle is not for everyone and even the most experienced and enthusiastic employee will have problems on some deployments. These people should feel comfortable putting their hand up as needing to be relieved from their posting without compromising their standing with the organisation. Yes, such changes may be inconvenient, but its better to be supportive so that those left in country feel they have the full organisational support and will not be sacrificed if they too have issues.
While this list is far from exhaustive, I have tried to set out the major issues that face organisations in selecting and deploying their expats. Every project and every organisation is as different as the people involved, so challenges change all of the time.
Share your experiences
Do you have any experiences with either working as an expat or selecting personnel for expat assignments you would like to share? If so, we would love to hear from you.
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