This is a guest blog post by Reyno Magat (full bio at bottom of the post), leadership and talent development consultant, coach and mentor, about a topic of crucial importance in the global mobility arena: management of headquarters’ expectations. I find it far too infrequently talked about, particularly in light of the huge impact it has on both expatriate and subsidiary (and in turn, overall organizational) success. I have previously written on this subject. I trust this open letter, intended as an exercise in empathy and walking in an expat’s shoes, and not as an indictment (unless the shoe fits), will help raise awareness and effect some change. Put those Cultural Detective subscriptions to good use, please! We need organizations that enable sustainable success, in all locations in which we operate.
“Much of expats’ energy, motivation and performance are affected by having to contend with home office senior leaders and their agents, who can be clueless and typically, frankly disinterested in the local realities, other than financial targets being met. These leaders and their collaborators often place unremitting pressure on expats to continue to conform to a home office-centric mindset, group-think, and timelines, with complete disregard of the challenges actually faced locally. All of these factors are at play as the expats are expected to perform and deliver results whilst mindful of risks to their personal reputation and consequent relationships with these leaders—affecting pay, bonuses, career progression AND family.”
Dear former colleagues,
Before you ask, I’m happy to say my family and I are settled back home, having secured a really incredible new job at one of your competitors. As an added incentive, they have given me the promotion I had missed out on [for the second time, even though it had been verbally promised to me when you offered me the foreign assignment], and they’ve generously made up the cumulative pay awards and bonuses which you have steadfastly refused to give me, all on top of their superlative relocation package. Although I guess it was rather flattering that you had me flown back home for a series of discussions [business class flights and fine dining at your expense no less!] after I sent you my resignation letter, I have to say all of your efforts were too late, frankly, far too late.
Oh, just in case you’re genuinely interested to know, my dear wife is now able to have the medical attention she wasn’t entitled to whilst we were abroad, because your medical benefits package did not apply to her. You considered her a local national there, even though she has lived abroad for most of her life. You would have enjoyed meeting her when you visited, but of course you always had such tight schedules, having to fit in client meetings and their entertainment at the grand sporting and social events there [I always assured the local team that the timing was purely coincidental]. Memories of having to cajole the team to drop whatever they were doing [with unpaid overtime, as Group Finance would not have approved it] so that your visits, however frankly disrupting, went smoothly, are all in the distant past.
Speaking of clients, I’m relieved I no longer have to ask them, plead even, to provide yet more information to comply with your constant demands [which by the way seemed to invariably arrive late on Friday afternoons]. Thankfully, I’ve built very good relationships with them, although it never stopped them naturally making barely polite comments about what they call ‘imperialist/colonialist’ mentality and behaviours that must prevail at your home office. As I have often pointed out to you, many of your clients and, indeed, your employees there are well educated [including graduates from some of the best universities/business schools in the world], cosmopolitan and culturally sophisticated, some of whom coming from families, dynasties even, dating back to a time before our own nation became one. Unlike in our own culture, where people seemingly seek every opportunity to boast about their personal achievements, status and wealth, they are far too well brought up and well mannered to ever behave with such brashness, immodesty and self-publicity.
The local nationals there certainly never appreciated your inability and unwillingness to recognise that they come from an independent, sovereign nation which is only one, albeit in their eyes the most economically vibrant, of several that make up a region of different histories, politics, economics and cultures. Yes, as I had pointed out so many times until I was blue in the face, indeed that country belongs to a geographical region, but their nation has a distinct market, business practices and customs, and political sensitivities [which may be different to ours, but not to be equated or conveniently labelled as being ‘corrupt’, ‘illegal’ or ‘laissez faire’]. I always felt very uncomfortable and worried about having to translate your memos, circulars and announcements into a language that all can understand, and have them not be seen as offensive. Inevitably, I was often accused by yourselves of having gone ‘native’ and not being mindful of Group initiatives or indeed being a dutiful corporate citizen. Frankly, frequently I didn’t understand them either, and our lives were made tougher, especially when the timelines were so compressed that they required all of us to stop everything else to comply. And, when I queried some of the content, somehow I was invariably referred to the corporate intranet. Because of time zone differences, it was often difficult to find anyone at your offices in any case who was available to help. Actually, even when I did visit your home office as part of my bi-annual leave, I found there were so many new faces, and that some of the people I had known well before I departed seemed to have moved on.
I believe you really ought to stop believing your own advertisement; that of being a truly global company, as in reality you are principally a domestic company that happens to have international offices. The market there as well as the clients, competitors and your very own employees think the same. Certainly, the employees witness on a daily basis the battles between yourselves and the local management team, with yours truly often being ‘piggy in the middle’! I know for sure that none of you ever appreciated my many sincere efforts to mediate, and to offer what I believed to be workable solutions, as such actions had most certainly cost me my promotion and any chances of pay awards and bonuses during the time I was there. How I wish I was wiser when you asked me to take on the assignment and uproot my family, for what you then described as a ‘fast track’ for my career. I should have suspected earlier on, indeed even before I left the home office, that you were really ever only interested in sending a ‘body’ over there when HR suggested, as my own and my family’s only preparation, to go to the CIA website to read the country report of where we were going, as well as to go to the Amazon website to search for books about that country. Apart from a lengthy briefing on the company’s tax equalisation policy, that was the sum total of help my family and I were ever given.
I had actually used my own initiative before departing, by contacting Manuel Jones who you know had been an expat himself in several countries [mostly in other regions], and had been assigned previously to that country. After arrival though, I soon discovered that despite his many years of working and living abroad, his perceptions were inaccurate, dated, narrowly focused, and on many occasions, frankly racist. In fact, it made me wonder whether he actually met or formed any meaningful relationships with the local nationals, as he painted a significantly different picture of the people and the country. I suppose it was some years ago when he had all that foreign experience, and norms and business practices and realities have moved on rapidly since his time.
Looking ahead, and positively, senior management [and HR!] in my new company have warmly welcomed my offer to assist them in selecting people for foreign assignments, and to coach and mentor current and future expats. As HR is presently reviewing their foreign assignment policies and procedures, they have asked me to be one of their advisors, and I shall be collaborating with them too to identify new methods and sources of direct help aimed at all foreign assignees and their families. These will include setting up a panel of coaches and mentors specifically available to assist them [despite her own ill-treatment from you, my wife is certainly willing to assist too]. The Group CEO has already started introducing me as the Executive Committee’s newly appointed ‘BS detector’, who is expected to carry out reality checks on important home office directives before they are issued.
My experience with your company has made me justifiably sceptical, naturally, about what my new company will actually ‘deliver’ vs. intent, but I shall nevertheless be optimistic. I owe it to other expats and their families.
*Reyno Magat is a London-based leadership and talent development consultant, coach and mentor. Over 35 years of working in the learning and development field has not diminished his relish and enthusiasm for working with leaders at various levels to equip them with the self-awareness, skills and motivation to perform at their best and to develop to their full potential. Having worked with some 30 nationalities in about 15 countries from 5 sectors, he brings to bear his own personal international background, extensive insights into business and organisational realities, creative spark, and a healthy dose of pragmatism, whether he is facilitating a leadership workshop or on an executive coaching assignment. With the added direct experience of having been a corporate buyer of external leadership and cross-cultural development services, he is keenly aware of the imperative to seamlessly integrate learning interventions with the values, culture, priorities and realities within, client organisations. By being challenging and provoking honest reflection, his primary focus typically is on consistent, culturally-appropriate behaviours, and commercially-anchored, sustainable decisions that will produce the desired results for the client.