Book Review: How They Made it in America

Fiona's bookSeven success values and the immigrant women who cultivated them by Fiona Citkin, due to publish in December 2018 by a Simon & Schuster affiliate

How They Made it in America is a welcome dose of reality amidst a very worrisome worldwide rise in nationalism and xenophobia. With 40.4 million foreign-born people living in the USA—one in every eight residents—this book is enormously important and timely, providing an inside look at the personal journeys of 18 women from five continents who emigrated to the USA.

The women interviewed represent all socio-economic origins, from some who grew up as daughters of government officials and business leaders, to those born into poverty, and everything in between. Some chose to emigrate; others’ lives depended upon doing so. Each has made her mark in disciplines as diverse as technology, development, business, education, journalism, and the arts; most of them are also philanthropists and community volunteers. The author’s choice of these specific women provides a broad and deep spectrum of experience in the book’s quick-reading 314 pages.

There are over one million foreign-born women business owners in the USA—that’s 13% of all women-owned firms in the country. This book offers an understanding of how starting a new life overseas not only changed these immigrant women themselves, but the economy and community as a whole—locally, nationally, and internationally. One woman’s impact comes from starting a company that has annual revenues of $3 billion, another developed a brand now sold at 10,000 stores in 68 countries, and another is changing the world through her micro-lending organization. We see how some immigrant women struggle to regain the status they had at home, while others begin on the ground floor and work their way up step-by-step.

Interview subjects include such well-known women as Chilean-born Isabel Allende and Ivana Trump, originally from the Czech Republic, to women I’d never heard of like social entrepreneur Alfa Demmellash from Ethiopia or Weili Dai from China, the only female co-founder of a major semiconductor company. By the end of the book most any US American reader will feel blessed to have such talented immigrants in our country!

We learn what these women love about the USA, what brought them in the first place, and what keeps them proudly living there. We gain insight about the effect immigration has on their relationships with those who stayed behind, with the children they birth in their new home, and with their American friends and colleagues. We hear about their struggles—from language, accents, and schoolyard bullying to the professional glass ceiling, assertiveness, and risk taking. Plus, we are privy to their hard-earned advice for others like them.

The author, Fiona Citkin, writes that she and her husband made the decision to immigrate because they wanted their 16-year-old daughter to “grow up in a country where she could fulfill her potential through her own efforts—not because of bribery, conformism, or her parents’ connections” (p. 7). Fiona’s first-hand experience informs the book deeply; she’s an immigrant who has had success as an academic, a corporate employee and executive, and an entrepreneur. “My own struggles in America have helped me understand what skills people need to develop in order to succeed in this U.S.—and the special set of challenges faced by immigrant women” (p. 8).

The book is divided into three parts, with two-thirds of it comprised of interviews with the women. From these interviews, Fiona distills seven “success values” that are explained in a second section, and the book concludes with an “Achiever’s Handbook” offered as a guidebook for immigrants wanting to succeed in the USA. Included is a Foreword by Cultural Detective extraordinaire George Simons and an Introduction by Carlos Cortés. The author has certainly done her research; the volume includes 15 pages of footnotes for those who wish to learn more.

Of particular interest and value to me was how the various women describe their blended culture experience. I most definitely wish I could share a copy of Cultural Detective Blended Culture with each of these women, individually and as a group! Most of the interviewees came across as “constructive marginals”—a term used to describe multicultural individuals who have integrated the positive aspects of their various cultural backgrounds into their identities.

  • “I am an eternal transplant… My roots would have dried up by now had they not been nourished by the rich magma of the past,” states Isabel Allende (Chile).
  • Verónica Montes (Mexico) tells us, “I had to reinvent my cultural practices in a different social and cultural context, and in that sense, I have consciously selected those practices that I find more significant and relevant to me. It is like becoming an orphan and needing to make your own cultural framework.” She sees herself as incorporating the best of American traits into Mexican culture, thereby enriching her world.
  • Alfa Demmellash (Ethiopia) shares with us a frequent theme among the 18 women: “I consider myself a global citizen residing in America.”
  • “Immigrants end up being hybrids with two hearts; two countries they love; two languages; and two cultures” is Ani Palacios McBride (Perú)’s take on the subject.
  • Raegan Moya-Jones (Australia) relates, “My children will be culturally richer for having parents from Australia and Chile. Life and work are all becoming more global; this is nothing but a good thing for me personally and for my children.” Her proudest achievement, like mine, is raising “respectful, unbiased, globally-minded children.”
  • Rohini Anand (India), tells us of her blended culture experience: “The U.S. is home, not India. I’m comfortable with my cultural mix and can navigate cultures comfortably. I love the sense of the extended Indian community and an associated support structure. If my family were here, it could change the whole dynamic for me.”

A couple of the interviewees, however, either shared more deeply and realistically, or perhaps have not yet found a way to make peace with the various facets of their multicultural selves. In the intercultural literature, this is called being an “encapsulated marginal.”

  • Irmgard Lafrentz (Germany), like most others, has felt her traditional values change since moving to the U.S. “I feel more American [than German], but as I get older, I long for more belonging somewhere. I am rooted neither here nor in Germany. I am not sure whether it’s possible to become totally integrated, and if it’s an emotional or intellectual issue. There is a social identity that unites all immigrants, regardless of country of origin.”
  • Elena Gogokhove (Russia), “My Russian brain does the speaking with my Russian friends and sometimes my daughter. My English brain takes over when it comes to writing. I write only in English. Like a spy, I live with two identities, American and Russian—two selves perpetually crossing swords over the split inside me. There is no bridge between the two lives.” Unlike most of the interviewees who discussed themselves as changing drastically after emigrating, Elena says, “Moving to America failed to make me a different person… Russia, like a virus, has settled in my blood and hitched a ride across the ocean.”

While references to feminism in each of the interviews are interesting, they aren’t very well-connected to anything larger and feel a bit out of place. That said, this is an interesting and remarkable work that offers valuable insight into the creativity and perseverance needed to be a successful woman immigrant in the USA. How They Made it in America would be a terrific holiday gift for friends and family, and for any immigrants you might wish to help. And, of course, the best gift of all would be to combine the book with a subscription to Cultural Detective Online!

3 Fundamental Skills for Intercultural (and Life) Effectiveness


A, B, C of intercultural effectiveness, and a film recommendation

For well over twenty years I travelled 25 days out of every month. I loved it. Always a new place, thriving off the energy of the people I had the pleasure of working with, each week or two entering a new industry and learning how things work. The fundamentals of human interaction that I dealt with did not vary significantly by industry; the content, however, did.

When my son was small, he and the nanny travelled with me. As he got older, he accompanied me. He sat through my training workshops, he accompanied me on some consulting gigs, and he enjoyed babysitters, daycare and children’s learning clubs around the world. Ten years ago, when my son was about eight, I began scaling back my travels. The impetus for scaling back was that my son was now old enough that it became challenging to take him out of school; he would miss too much. And, there was no way I was going to miss his childhood! An additional reality was that the constant travel was ruining my health, I always felt tired, and, I was honestly just ready for a change.

So, I stopped the 25 days/month travel schedule. It was difficult to say “no” to interesting and high-paying work, but I’d set my priority. I started staying home. I started a small publishing project (Cultural Detective). I absolutely loved it. I was now able to take time to cook regularly, a passion I love. I was able to exercise daily, and meet new people locally via exercise classes and groups. I was able to go out for coffee with girlfriends, and to be present for friends’ major life events—so many things I’d missed when I travelled a lot. Of course, I also missed the travel, and seeing my far away friends.

Now, when I occasionally travel (every couple of months), I find myself grateful for the experience rather than resentful. The journey is enjoyable again. Thus, on a recent flight to Vienna, I relished having two seats to myself. I was grateful for the free-flowing, high-quality red wine on Tirolian/Austrian Air. I read the in-flight magazines on two different airlines and got several blog post ideas. And I very much enjoyed watching a Blended Culture movie entitled, Chef.

The film is an enjoyable reminder of some fundamental intercultural competencies and life truths…

Chef is a 2014 movie starring Jon Favreau, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey, Jr., about a chef whose family and career have both become frustratingly dull. He’s caught up in the busy-ness that can be modern life, and failing to pick up on the cues that his relationships and creativity require a major shift. He reminded me a bit of myself, actually. Have you ever found yourself in a rut? Going through the motions, not paying enough attention to what really matters, focusing primarily on accomplishing all the tasks on your plate?

In true Hollywood style, by the end of the movie the chef figures it all out, and happiness reigns as the credits roll. Along the way, the film is an enjoyable reminder of some fundamental intercultural competencies and life truths.
  1. Attentiveness: Stay alert to what’s around you (family, friends, work environment), as well as to what’s inside you (your passions, talents and desires). Prioritize your activities so that you feed what’s important to you and minimize that which diminishes you. Staying externally attentive will help ensure that you adapt appropriately in cross-cultural situations, while internal attentiveness will help ensure that you do not lose yourself, your ethics and your talents, in the process.
  2. Bravery: Don’t be afraid to take risks. There are many euphemisms for failing to do what we know we need to do: “going through the motions,” “paying the bills,” “not rocking the boat,” “keeping one’s head low.” Staying true to oneself and what you know to be “right” often requires bravery and trust. I’ve seen many times that foreigners or outsiders can effect positive and needed change to a system when old-timers can not. I’ve worked with many people who try so hard to “fit in” to cross-cultural situations that they lose who they are, their authenticity. Be brave enough to adapt, and be brave enough to be yourself.
  3. Creativity: If you’re not feeling energized, if you fail to see connections between the different areas of your daily life, if you’re not frequently generating ideas, experimenting with innovative projects, or exploring new territory, take note. You are probably pushing and trying to do too much too quickly. Slow down, step off the rat race, refresh, restore and recuperate. You are far too precious, and your insights and talents are too needed, in this world of ours. How can any of us bridge cultures if we don’t have access to our innate creativity? And, let’s remember: it takes all of us to be creative if we are to form a truly inclusive society or organization.

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at

42% Fail in Overseas Assignments

As many as two in five managers fail in their overseas assignments, according to a survey released by Right Management. A worldwide average of only 58% of international postings were judged to be successful by their organizations, with little variation across regions.

“This has to be one of the most disappointing findings of our survey,” said Bram Lowsky, Group Executive Vice President Americas at Right Management. “Given the investments being made in bringing along a new generation of leaders and their growing need to be able to think and operate globally, for 42% to fail when they’re sent abroad is hard to fathom. It’s also worth noting that the failure rate is more or less a constant whether it’s Asian, European or North American managers.”

The survey also found disparities in the preparation given expatriates before an assignment, said Lowsky.

Expat Prep

“A global average of 25% of organizations provides language training. However, the average drops to 18% for North American employers, while it’s closer to 33% among European, African and the Middle Eastern companies. Even harder to believe, an average of 16% of companies globally give minimal to no preparation at all, and for North American employers it’s 22% that do virtually nothing. No wonder so many managers don’t perform well outside their home country.”

We know readers of this blog are more savvy than that! There are enough challenges changing jobs within an organization, let alone the additional challenges when transferring to an unfamiliar culture. Smart organizations don’t just invest in training the person going on the international assignment; they invest in building strong relationships among the whole team—domestically and internationally. Learn how Cultural Detective Online can benefit your team by attending one of our free webinars. Or give us a call—we’d be happy to assist you in getting your team subscribed to Cultural Detective Online today!

Leading Across Cultures

Leading X CulturesBack in February, my friend and respected colleague, Michael Tucker, sent me a white paper on leading across cultures that he had just completed with one of our customers, Right Management. I meant to write about the 24-page report at the time, but, alas, time passes while we are focusing on other exciting things.

This was an interesting study due to its scope: participants included 1867 leaders of 13 nationalities, representing 134 industries.

“As we enter the Human Age, where Talentism is the new Capitalism, no organization can afford to overlook optimizing the performance of leaders who operate globally. … The fact is that cultural issues will dominate the competencies required for global leaders to be successful, now and in the future.”

80% of CEOs and human resource professionals reported Cultural Assimilation as the greatest challenge facing successful expatriates. Study findings showed that global leadership differs from domestic leadership due to the complexity of working with people from different cultures. “The global experience results in leaders developing new worldviews, mindsets, perceptual acumen and perspectives,” the white paper states.

“Leading across cultures is a critical element of leading in the Human Age and unleashing the power of what is humanly possible. It often requires making decisions in complex or ambiguous environments, understanding cultural nuances and adapting one’s style accordingly.”

Global Leadership Best PracticesThe study found six competencies required for global leadership success:

  1. Adapting Socially: the ability to socialize comfortably with new people in unfamiliar social situations and to demonstrate genuine interest in other people.
  2. Demonstrating Creativity: the ability to enjoy new challenges, strive for innovative solutions to social and situational issues, and learn from a variety of sources.
  3. Even Disposition: the ability to remain calm, not be critical of self, and learn from mistakes.
  4. Respecting Beliefs: the ability to demonstrate respect for the political and spiritual beliefs of people in other cultures, and the ability to use appropriate humor to diffuse tense situations.
  5. Instilling Trust: the ability to build and maintain trusting relationships. According to the report, trust is the one glue that holds diverse teams together.
  6. Navigating Ambiguity: the ability to work through vagueness and uncertainty, without becoming frustrated, and figure out how things are done in other cultures. Ambiguous situations are the norm in leading across cultures.

“Human Age leaders have the responsibility and opportunity to unleash the potential of all employees who work for them. To effectively unleash this passion and accelerate business success, leaders need new and different skills—managing diverse talent.”

The white paper concludes with four strategies for selecting, developing and retaining leaders who will succeed in a global business environment. An ongoing, structured learning experience such as Cultural Detective Online not only supports, but makes possible, each of the four:

  1. Select Overseas Managers includes assessment processes such as Tucker’s, and developmental tools such as Cultural Detective, used by a competent administrator/facilitator.
  2. Grow International Leadership Bench Strength includes developing and nurturing leaders as well as providing coaching—each of which are greatly aided by the Cultural Detective toolset.
  3. Ensure Success of Leaders in New International Roles includes assigning a coach and meeting for regular reviews, both of which can be significantly enhanced with a subscription to Cultural Detective Online.
  4. Localize Country Management Teams includes the creation of customized leader plans and coaching support. Again, you know what toolset is perfect for this!

This is an excellent report, which I recommend you review in its entirety. We appreciate Tucker International and Right Management making it available. I suspect we can all learn something from this reminder of what it takes to be a competent global leader.

Open Letter to Home Office Senior Management & Their Agents

130124120043-overseas-job-assignment-614xaThis 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.”
—Reyno Magat

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.


Disillusioned but unbowed

*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.

Cultural Awareness Eases Expatriate Assignments

Mercer has released some useful new infographics, based on the findings in their 2012 Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices.

You all know that using Cultural Detective combined with reflexivity and good facilitation, you can do WAY better than “awareness”—developing the ability to collaborate across cultures.





Let’s save the lost money, the aggravation and stress on our people, and the potential loss of talent, by equipping expats and their families for their assignments! Also best to equip the receiving team, and to conduct team building, ongoing mentoring and coaching. Cultural Detective Online, along with good coaching or facilitation and organizational support systems and processes that reward intercultural competence, will make the difference.

Oldie but Goodie: Comprehensive Expatriate Support System


Moving overseas is an exciting yet stressful time for all involved: the person transitioning to a new position, the expat’s family who is relocating, and the organization—both the office dealing with the loss of a valued employee, and the receiving organization. We all know there are a myriad of details involved in preparing someone to work abroad, but where to start and what to include?

Years ago, when Cultural Detective Online was not yet a glimmer in anyone’s dreams, I put together the above guide for a client. You are most welcome to use it if it can be of assistance (click through to view a larger version), though I ask that you retain the copyright and url of the original.

I was proud to work with that client. They valued their international assignees, desiring that the employee and the relocating family become stronger from international assignment, and that both the receiving organization and the organization as a whole learn and grow. They thus asked me to “map” a process to help make that happen.

Today, Cultural Detective Online is an excellent tool to use with expatriates, relocating families, and receiving teams and organizations, at each stage of the relocation process. It offers a process as well as information at your fingertips — anytime, anywhere — to help build bridges across cultures, to help each of us better understand those we work with, and to get to know ourselves better.

“The Cultural Detective Online product is a sound investment for my work as an intercultural and relocation coach. I suggest to my clients to get a subscription for themselves.”
—Maartje Goodeve, Nascence Coaching, BC, Canada

How might you update the process in the graphic above? How could you use Cultural Detective Online in combination with other tools, approaches and your own facilitation to enhance expatriate performance?

Success? It’s All in How We Gauge It…

711079_3691916951303_1580871364_nThis is a story, or perhaps, more correctly, a cautionary tale, about a very successful expatriate and the highly respected, much-envied western company for which he worked. It is a story that made me think again about how we define success in our lives, and, in particular, how we define success in the global marketplace and success on an expatriate assignment.

The Company: The company is one of the very first to enter the Japanese market after World War II. It holds key patents on several important technologies, and invests decades establishing partnerships with Japan’s leading firms. It prides itself on hiring and promoting Japan’s best and brightest.

By the 1990s, it is the envy of other foreign-capitalized companies in Japan: it has a dominant market presence in its niche industries; long-established, trustworthy partnerships with major local players; and a stellar reputation for consistency, reliability and innovation. The president of the company is Japanese, and its management team is a strong and diverse mix of local and international executives who respect one another and leverage their expertise.

The Japan operation is a huge profit center, as well as the home of research and development breakthroughs leveraged by the company globally. They have strong cross-cultural programs in place for their staff worldwide, as well as for transferees and their receiving organizations.

The Expat: Our expat is intelligent, ambitious, and very capable. He has worked for the company for over 30 years, and is known as an excellent turn-around manager who had saved several manufacturing plants and regional operations, turning their losses into profits. Originally educated as an engineer, he is logical and methodical, and very good with numbers, graphs, and trends. Our expat is married with grown children and grandchildren, speaks a bit of French in addition to his native English, is well-travelled, but has never before lived overseas. This will be his last assignment prior to retirement.

The Situation: The global company, and most particularly home office, is experiencing economic hardship. A few expensive ventures have failed, and it is time to tighten belts, cut back, and save money across the board. Though the Japan operation is one of the most profitable worldwide, it is part of the overall organization and must join in company-wide budget cuts.

The expat is sent to Japan as the new CEO, and is told to cut millions from the annual budget. It is the first time in over a decade that the CEO of the Japan operation is a foreigner. The expat and his wife relocate to Tokyo, and quickly integrate into the local expat social scene. They love their new life in this amazing metropolis.

The Backlash: Local and existing expatriate management “cry foul.” They say it is a short-sighted decision to slash budgets in Japan when the operation is functioning smoothly and keeping others afloat. They say they are being punished for errors they did not cause, in which they were not involved. They warn that budget cuts will have long-lasting negative effects in the Japanese marketplace.

The new CEO explains that change always has its naysayers; people need to “get onboard or get off the ship.” “Tough times call for tough decisions.” “It’s a new day, a new world, a new economy.”

The cross-cultural consultant and existing management explain that the culture is different here, that the new CEO doesn’t yet understand Japan. Drastic changes have long-lasting effects that can’t be undone, can’t be apologized for. They urge him to send this message strongly to the home office, to push the decision back up. They say it’s his duty to make the home office aware of the repercussions of their top-down decision. They tell him that following instructions will mean the death of the Japan operation.

But the CEO has been down this road before. No one likes belt-tightening. No one likes budget cuts. He knows how to turn an operation around. He’s done it before. He doesn’t need people to “like” him. He knows they will respect him once they see the results he achieves. This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an incredible capstone to his career.

The Outcome: The expat succeeds, in stellar fashion. He fires people. He closes divisions of the company. He retires long-standing partnerships with important local players. He does exactly what he has been charged to do. And he furthers his career: after his two-year assignment he receives a huge bonus. He departs Japan to begin his retirement, riding the accolades of his success.

Home office is proud of their decision to send him; only an expat could have made these kinds of difficult decisions, taken these drastic measures. A local executive wouldn’t have been able to cut such long-standing local partnerships, couldn’t have bit the bullet to fire staff who had worked their whole careers building the company. It was a perfect decision. Money saved. Bottom line improved.

The Longer Term Outcome: Fast forward to four years after the expat’s departure. The highly successful, highly profitable business in Japan, with the enviable stellar reputation, closes down. Plants close. R&D facilities close. Offices throughout the country close.

Leading companies in the industry are no longer interested in partnering; once burned twice shy. After decades of trust building, smart business and shared success, how can they rely on a company that unilaterally decides to throw it all away to improve bottom-line at some far away home office? Why should they do business with a company that so clearly prioritizes home office needs over international success?

The company’s best and brightest have been hired by the competition. They are sour about their previous employer’s lack of loyalty and its short-sightedness. The company is no longer able to attract talented new hires. Who wants to work for a company that focuses on home office success, punishing those who succeed worldwide?

And today? The Japan operation, such an envied and respected company for over sixty years, is no longer. It was “over-milked,” bled dry. Not financially, but culturally, emotionally, trust-depleted.

So, how would you gauge success in this situation? Knowing what you know now, was the CEO successful? At the time everyone thought so. He achieved the immediate goal. What do you think would have happened had he done things differently? Is there a way the expat could have been successful in his goal and maintained trust? Does this mean that every leader needs special tools when completing an overseas assignment? What can we learn from this?

Please ponder those questions while you read the key takeaways from my point of view.

The Lessons:

  1. As expats, we must learn to distinguish between what we know and what we have to learn. We must ask for help. We must be willing to listen. We need to pause and make sure we understand the cultural context in which we are working.
  2. We must ensure that while we use our strengths, we also use “fresh eyes” to see what’s new and different this time. Not every problem can be approached in the same way it was successfully resolved the last time around, in a different country, with different people.
  3. We must be able to discern when to jump at an opportunity, and when to push a decision back up the chain of command. No person is an island. Even a CEO is part of the interconnected web of relationships, responsibilities, and decisions that make up an organization.
  4. As home office executives, we must be able to weigh our priorities, consciously and purposefully. We must think long-term, even when the short-term is jumping up and down in front of us. It is our job to anticipate the multiple impacts of a decision, and shape the process to benefit the organization.
  5. We must be able to hear the truth, from all perspectives, and separate the facts from the complaining. We need to set aside what we want to hear, what we are used to hearing, and be open not only to what is said, but the context and manner in which it is expressed. A cultural informant may help in “translating” the meaning of the message.
  6. As local management, we must learn to discern when we are accurately predicting the future and when we are just resisting change. These are usually questions to explore through dialogue and open-minded discovery. This can be a challenging process, depending on the cultural norms of local management.
  7. As a global team, we must have the tools to enable us to share, hear, and weigh information in order to make the best decisions, for both the short- and long-term. And it is important to remember that the choice and presentation of information is, to some extent culturally influenced. Without a process to truly understand shared information, team members essentially operate in the dark.
  8. A multinational company, it is wise to employ tools like Cultural Detective to help prepare and guide executives on international assignments. Culturally Effective companies recognize the need, and have found Cultural Detective and a trained facilitator can help prevent stories like this from becoming commonplace Cultural Defectives.

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at

El candidato ideal

(English follows the Spanish)

En un mundo cada vez más interconectado y globalizado, las asignaciones internacionales suelen ser más frecuentes para empleados de empresas multinacionales. Dado lo anterior las empresas han dispuesto de grandes esfuerzos y recursos para optimizar su selección del candidato ideal para las vacantes que surjan y poder iniciar el proceso de expatriación (traslado laboral a otro país con beneficios para el empleado y su familia).

Los llamados departamentos de personal o recursos humanos han alineado sus procesos de reclutamiento y selección con el fin de optimizar la búsqueda y el tan ahnelado hallazgo de quien cumple con los requisitos del cargo y adicionalmente sea capaz adaptarse a un entorno que puede ser similar y muy distante del actual.

A priori se consideran el dominio de los idiomas o experiencias previas en otros países y culturas, lo que podríamos denominar un bagaje intercultural. Sin embargo esto no siempre resulta, ni para la empresa ni para el expatriado.

Conozco dos casos contrastantes de primera mano. Los dos llegaron aquí a Bogotá, de dos países diferentes y para dos asignaciones igualmente diferentes.

El primero venía de Europa, de uno de esos países con cultura monosincrónica, bastante rígido con el tiempo y de los que la puntualidad es un tema que no tiene discusión. Había vivido en Estados Unidos y varios lugares de Europa, incluyendo España por lo cual domina el castellano (con el ceceo que decimos los latinos, yo digo que los españoles hablan siempre con ortografía), soltero, sin hijos y sin pareja. Cambiaba de industria, pero su trabajo vincularía a partir del área comercial su país natal y Colombia como puerta de entrada a América Latina. Llegó con lo que los locales consideramos un muy buen salario, un apartamento en una zona lujosa de la ciudad (cerca a su nueva oficina) y todo el apoyo de su empresa para comenzar una nueva sucursal en mi país. Su tiempo estimado de dos a tres años inicialmente.

Por otro lado, tenemos a un hombre que venía de Israel sin hablar una sílaba de español, casado (llegó con dos hijos, hoy ya tiene tres ) quien vino por una asignación puntual de seis meses. Llegó solo y solamente a dirigir un proyecto de infraestructura en la ciudad. Se enfrentó a dirigir cien operarios y, si podemos decir, a golpes comprender por qué la cerveza es parte del presupuesto de muchas familias de estos empleados a su cargo. Tuvo que lidiar temas familiares, de rendimiento del trabajo individual y de grupo. Aprendió de primera fuente cómo era la contratación pública en Colombia.

Dos escenarios totalmente opuestos y con resultados igualmente contrastantes.

El primero a pesar de su buena voluntad, su dominio del idioma… no logró adaptarse a nuestro entorno, cultura e impuntualidad. Cuando hablaba con él recordaba mi propia vivencia cuando en el Caribe me era tan complicado sentirme fluir. Tuve amigos, pasé momentos muy especiales… pero siempre había algo que me decía, no es tu lugar. En fin, así le pasó a este ejecutivo que no completó el primer año de contrato y se regresó a su país. La última vez que nos comunicamos estaba de paso en Singapur, volvió a su anterior industria y por Facebook me entero de sus movimientos alrededor del planeta (Australia, Alemania, Francia, Estados Unidos…) no ha regresado a Colombia, espero que nos podamos volver a encontrar y disfrutar una buena copa juntos.

El segundo ya habla muy bien español, lleva siete años en el país y ahora ha fundado su propia empresa con talento en un 90% colombiano. Su familia vive con él, y su hijo menor nació aquí. A pesar de tantas diferencias entre su cultura y la nuestra, aprendió a nadar en nuestro rio y podría afirmar que se mueve como pez en el agua. Se proyecta como representante de varias empresas de su país en América Latina, y como dijo uno de nuestros políticos alguna vez… es como si dijera “aquí estoy y aquí me quedo”.

A primera vista el primero de los candidatos se perfilaba como el candidato ideal para quedarse (conozco por cierto muchos solteros que llegan, se casan y se quedan en mi país gracias a la buena fama de las mujeres), pero no fue así y el que parecía que no se quedaría más allá de su asignación regresó a su país por su familia para traerla consigo y quedarse indefinidamente.

No dudo que los departamentos de personal o recursos humanos asociados a cada uno de estos casos y sus esferzos de “relocation” fueron minuciosos, estudiados y abordados con profunda seriedad y profesionalismo. Pienso que a veces, el paso adicional nos corresponde a los que aplicamos y ser muy honestos con nosotros mismos y en la evaluación previa de las nuevas condiciones de vida.

Nuestro desafío desde el punto de vista intercultural es brindar las herramientas adicionales que permitan tomar la decisión más acertada según las condiciones disponibles y hacer el acompañamiento de entrenamiento para su nuevo destino desde el punto de vista de la vida diaria, cultura de negocios, la vida para el empleado y su familia, entre muchos otros.

Debemos entender que no es ni bueno ni malo sentirnos o no a gusto en otro lugar (país, región, entorno). Sin embargo sí debemos conocer lo que más nos impacta (a nosotros y cuando aplique nuestras familias) y por ende identificar en qué lugar nos podemos trasladar para cumplir con el trabajo y además llevar una vida a gusto con nuestra familia.

The Ideal Candidate

By Maryori Vivas, translated by Dianne Hofner Saphiere

In a world that is increasingly interconnected and globalized, international assignments seem ever more frequent for employees of multinational companies. Given the above, firms have invested great efforts and resources to optimize their selection of ideal candidates to fill job vacancies and to be able to initiate the expatriation process (job transfer to another country with benefits for the employee and family).

Personnel and human resource departments have aligned their recruitment and selection processes to optimize the search for those who meet the requirements of the position and who are also capable of adapting to an environment that can be at the same time very similar and very different from their home environment.

It’s considered logical that a successful candidate would have mastery of the new language or previous experience living abroad, but that is not always the case.

I have firsthand knowledge of two contrasting cases. Both transferees arrived here in Bogotá from different countries and for two very different job assignments.

The first person came from Europe, from one of those countries with a monochronic culture, fairly rigid about time, with the belief that punctuality is not a matter for debate. He had lived in North America and various places around Europe, including Spain, and for that reason spoke Castilian well (with the lisp about which Latinos say, “Spaniards always speak with good spelling”). He was single, had no children and no partner. He had changed industries, and his new job involved commercially linking his birth country with Colombia as a gateway to Latin America. The position came with what locals would consider a very good salary, an apartment in an upscale area of the city (near his new office), and the full support of the company to start a new branch in my country. His assignment was estimated to be two to three years, initially.

The contrasting case was a man from Israel, who arrived without speaking even a syllable of Spanish, married (when he arrived he had two children, and today has three), who came for a short-term, six-month assignment. He arrived alone with the single objective of directing an infrastructure project in the city. He needed to manage one hundred operators and, if I might say so, via the school of hard knocks he learned to understand why beer is part of the family budgets of so many of those he supervised. He was thrown into managing employee family issues, individual performance issues, as well as group dynamics. He learned firsthand about public contracting in Colombia.

These were two scenarios that were totally opposite and with results that were equally different.

The first gentleman, despite his goodwill and language skills, failed to adapt himself to our environment, the culture and the tardiness. When I spoke with him I was reminded of my own experience living in the Caribbean, where I found it so complicated to get in the flow of things. I had friends, I had some very special moments, but always there was something telling me, “this is not your place.” In the end, what happened is that this executive returned home before even completing the first year of his multi-year contract. The last time I was in touch with him he was passing through Singapore. He had returned to the previous industry in which he had worked, and I found out via Facebook about his travels all over the world (Australia, Germany, France, USA). He has not returned to Colombia, though I hope we can meet up again some day and enjoy a good drink together.

The second gentleman now speaks Spanish very well. He has spent seven years in country and has now founded his own company with 90% Colombian talent. His family lives with him, and his youngest son was born here. Despite so many differences between his culture and ours, he learned to swim in our river and I can affirm that he moves here like a fish in water. He acts as a Latin American representative for several companies from his country, and as one of our politicians once said, it’s as if he said, “I am here and here I’ll remain.”

At initial glance the first candidate seemed to have the ideal profile for a long-term stay (I definitely know many bachelors who arrive, marry and stay in my country thanks to the good fame of our women), but it was not to be. The one who it would have seemed would not remain beyond a short initial assignment ended up returning to his country to collect his family and bring them back with him to stay here indefinitely.

I have no doubt that the personnel and human resource departments associated with each of these cases engaged in thorough and studied relocation efforts, discussing them with deep seriousness and professionalism. I think that at times, however, the extra step needed is for those of us who apply for overseas assignment to be very honest with ourselves about our life conditions, needs and desires.

Our challenge from an intercultural perspective is to provide additional tools that allow people to make the right decisions according to current realities, and to accompany that with training on daily life, business culture, and personal and social life for the employee and family in the new destination.

We must understand that feeling at home or not in another place (country, region, environment) is not in and of itself good or bad. The key is that we need to know ourselves and our families, what most affects us, and thus be able to discern where we can move in order to conduct our work and maintain a comfortable life with our families.


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