I was gobsmacked by the results of Personnel Today’s research into attitudes
of HR professionals towards taking international assignments.
Probably the best two years of my career were those I spent in Guangzhou,
China, as head of HR for a Fortune 50 telecoms company.
Before I moved I had all the classic worries. Could I do the job? What about
language? How would I do in a foreign city? What would happen when I
Essentially, I shared the concerns shown in the survey. However, I also
realised that I had a terrific opportunity to establish professional
credentials that would stand me well in the future (it did).
The biggest surprises, though, were the magnitude of the concerns about an
assignment being risky for the career and the divergence between the 78 per
cent who wanted to take on an international role and the "tiny 6 per
cent" who were willing to leave the UK.
In other words, 94 per cent would not be willing to move overseas. I’d argue
that our credibility as HR professionals can only be validated, and then
enhanced, when we are seen as on a par with our line colleagues. In a boardroom
full of internationally-experienced executives, the HR director unwilling to
work overseas may not be perceived as credibly as the other executives.
I was also concerned that 60 per cent of respondents felt they were
insufficiently equipped to compete for these roles. How did we define that?
Many listed their language skills as a detriment. I’d suggest they identify one
or two languages and learn enough to get through airports, hotels and
restaurants effectively; and to meet and greet their colleagues. The world,
right or wrong, uses English as the main business language. The ability to
converse, even briefly, in your host country’s tongue goes miles in building
I’d argue that being "sufficiently equipped" for an assignment has
more to do with flexibility, perseverance and a sense of humour than language
fluency. Sure, there’s the table stakes of being highly skilled in your
specific discipline, but it’s the ability to move to a different place, live
and work in that culture, and still be the best at what you do that will define
Finally, 76 per cent thought that an overseas assignment would be more
pressurised than back home. Good point. Expat assignments are not for wimps.
When the assignee’s salary costs jump in an offshore locale, the expectations
for delivery of excellence understandably increases. Yes, it can be
challenging, but that’s the best and most career-enhancing part!
My message is that HR people need overseas assignments for the sake of
credibility. You can be the best in your own country and culture. The real test
is taking those skills and experiences and using them abroad.
By Lance J Richards, Vice-president HR, Teleglobe