The Christmas festivities are but a dim memory and you’re battling your way
to work through the snow and ice, coping with cancelled trains and equally grim
Suddenly the thought of being an international HR manager – landing, Tony
Blair-like, to sort out a little local difficulty, preferably somewhere hot –
seems positively attractive.
The role of international HR manager can indeed be some of this, but the
reality is that in an increasingly global business community it is a pivotal
position, often acting as a springboard to greater things – as well as giving
you an intimate knowledge of airport departure lounges.
"In my last year, I think I spent the equivalent of two whole weeks, 24
hours a day, sitting in airline seats. It was grindingly awful," laments
Ian Mann, who until 1997 was international HR manager at NatWest Bank.
Now chief executive of ECA International, a firm specialising in providing
data for international assignments, Mann says being a successful international
HR manager requires two key elements: a broad knowledge base and a sharp
awareness of cultural mores.
By its very nature, an international HR manager role will be less parochial
than its domestic equivalent. Being able to make sense of the different
employment legislation between countries and making sure the international
operations have seamless international HR policies in place are central
elements of the job.
"You don’t have to have all the answers, but you do need to know where
to access those answers. A good address book is a big help," says Mann.
A decent international HR manager will also be expected to spread the
organisation’s culture across borders, argues Frances Wilson, international
manager at the CIPD.
Being aware of cultural differences is a must, adds Mann. For instance,
attitudes towards the family – and hence legislation regarding provision for
old age – vary widely from the Far East to Europe and the US.
The role is likely to encompass dealing with regional offices and involve
co-ordinating with local staff as well as expats who may not necessarily be
British. Key tasks might include the deployment of staff, both expat and local,
transfer of knowledge from expats, international recruitment and assessment and
Other minefields can be competency assessment (of which both attitudes and
practices can vary immensely from country to country) and compensation and
The introduction of the euro as a tangible currency within the eurozone
countries on 1 January has put this issue firmly in the spotlight at the
The international manager role will be a fairly senior one, probably at
board level or just below. The manager may answer to a global director or
similarly titled position or report directly to the board.
The position will normally command a salary of not much less than £45,000 although
there may also be substantial foreign subsidies, relocation allowances,
schooling payments and so forth.
An international HR manager, Wilson says, normally needs to have proved his
or her mettle on the domestic stage, probably for about two years. A CIPD
module on international HR, a university qualification or an MBA can all help.
"A lot of companies are sending out younger people to take on their
international roles. It gives them some valuable management and development
"It is seen as good role for high-fliers. It is becoming quite
necessary on your CV to have had an international role if you are going to make
it to the higher echelons," she says.
There may also be fewer issues surrounding family, mortgages and so on with
Languages can be useful, but as English is the language of business across
the world, not essential.
Nevertheless, being prepared to learn at least enough to make polite
chitchat will inevitably earn you Brownie points.
In the rapidly changing business environment, one of the difficulties with
an international role is that, once posted, there may be a sense of feeling out
of the loop. E-mail and videoconferencing have, to some extent, made this less
of an issue in recent years.
But, after a few years out, even if a position has been guaranteed back at
HQ, head office may seem like a very different place. Indeed, if the
organisation has merged in that time, it may actually be a different place.
And with so much travelling involved, being an international HR manager can
play havoc with your family or private life, warns Wilson. "It is not like
going for a holiday. Once you are there you are stuck in an office."
You may also find yourself working early or late in the office to fit in
with other people’s time zones.
But, on the plus side, you will be doing something different and will be
exposed to different cultures and working practices that will probably be
fascinating, challenging, infuriating and stimulating.
"I can genuinely say no two days were alike. It is a job of infinite
variety, best served by a wealth of common sense," says Mann.
Case study: Mark Davies
Mark Davies has been international HR manager for Europe, the
Middle East and Africa with Dow Jones Newswires since September.
Based in London, he joined the newswire service of the global
financial news organisation – home to the Wall Street Journal – from Dutch
chemicals firm Royal Vopak.
With a team of two, he oversees the HR for 425 reporters, IT,
sales and marketing staff across the EMEA region.
Davies got his CIPD qualification in 1985/86, working his way
up through Racal Electronics and BP Chemicals, part of oil giant BP, before
joining Vopak in 1994 in an international HR role, primarily in Europe.
His last 18 months there saw him co-ordinating a pan-European
management change project as the company merged a number of separate
organisations into one.
At Dow Jones, inevitably there is more of a US bias. For
instance, despite being a stand-alone department, Davies reports directly to
the New York head office. A key challenge of this year will be the introduction
of an appraisal system across the EMEA region.
"Other challenges will include general support and
coaching of managers and staff from long range, managing local expectations and
taking cultural considerations into account from long range," he says.
An ability to see the big picture and ensuring you have sound
advice on local employment law are vital attributes to succeeding in
international HR management, he argues.
"You have to be able to concentrate on the big issues. It
is about dealing with issues and managers who are not just down the corridor,
so that is an additional challenge," he says.