Ensure you don’t make a bad expat investment

A few weeks back, I stressed in this column the importance of expatriates
having agendas and exit strategies. I also briefly mentioned why companies look
to expats and design the assignments they do. The ‘brief mention’ was not
sufficient, so here is more on the subject.

Building a clear remit for any expatriate should involve far more than
getting tasks A and B accomplished in Haderslev – in most cases, there should
be an underlying, developmental agenda as well.

A well-vetted expat will be capable of carrying competencies and operational
excellence across borders without deterioration in quality or quantity. While a
return on investment (ROI) on the assignment can be determined based upon
achievements while in a country, the ROI can be accelerated if the assignment
also serves to broaden or deepen the overall strength of the company.

That’s another way of asking if your expats are people being closely watched
for succession planning purposes. I would assume that anyone deemed strong
enough for the company to make a £250,000+ a year investment in, should also be
someone who is in the succession planning spotlight.

Most firms don’t have dedicated executive or leadership development
departments; that falls to HR. So, HR must look at each expat assignment from
several different angles.

I argue there are two types of expatriates: transactional expats and
transformational expats.

A transactional expat is one who is handled on a transactional basis, for
example: "Our firm needs 5,000 telephone boxes painted red, and the local
staff needs to be taught our painting practices. Please fly to Madrid, paint
the phone boxes, train the staff, and be back here in 18 months."

A transformational expat will be dually tasked – transform the business you
are going to, and transform yourself: "We have a turnaround situation in
Thailand. Please go there, change how the business is being run, and return it
to profitability. We view you as having potential with us here, so, while
there, please develop the appropriate skills and competencies to be a general
manager when you return."

Structuring an assignment agenda isn’t that simple. But there are two very
different remits, and two very different ways of demonstrating value and ROI.

Is your HR function asking the right questions when a line manager wants to
send Joe Bloggs off to the Far Corners? Are there future opportunities for him?
Has someone thought through costs and how best to fund and recover them? Has
the expat’s developmental agenda been discussed?

When you look to determine the value an expat assignment is creating for
your business, ensure you look at each facet of the expat/company relationship.
Otherwise, you’ll end up with a bad expat investment. As HR increasingly
focuses on metrics and quantifications of value, that’s something nobody can

By Lance J Richards, senior director, International Human Resources for
Kelly Services, and a board director for SHRM Global Forum

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