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Your Company Needs You: Are You Ready to Lead Internationally?

Declan Mulkeen

18 Jan 2017

Choosing the right candidate for an international leadership role is no easy task. A number of factors come into play that would not necessarily be considered for a domestic vacancy. If your company calls – are you ready to lead internationally? Find out some of the key challenges to manage and lead internationally and some great tips on how to overcome them.

The International Conundrum: Can You Lead Internationally?

Finding and placing an expatriate is an expensive proposition.  Although most organisations are good at identifying and budgeting for the hard costs of moving the employee and their family to their new destination, many organisations don’t look at the additional factors that are required to select and deploy a new expatriate.

In fact, many don’t look much further than the technical competencies required for the expatriate role.

Ill prepared expatriates, especially those with families, often struggle with factors that are often extraneous to the office environment

The Challenges

A recent INSEAD post explored many of these issues.  Ill prepared expatriates, especially those with families, often struggle with factors that are often extraneous to the office environment.

This can include needing to learn the local language, even if the office environment itself uses the expatriate’s mother tongue or an international business language such as English.

Daily Living Factors

Daily living issues are often more complex in a new location.  This can include anything from mundane errands that take longer to waiting for service people who never turn up.

Although some of these types of issues can be minimised in some locations with the employment of household staff, this can also add complications, especially for an expatriate unused to managing such staff.

Family Matters

Expatriates who relocate with their family add another dimension to the assignment.  Now, not only must the employee be successful; the employee’s family must also adapt to their new environment successfully as well.

Although young children often do this well, some older children may be very resistant to change.  The adaptation of accompanying partners, especially those who have compromised their own career, is also a big factor in a successful relocation.

In fact, INSEAD report that ‘The most frequent reason for an executive’s failure to complete an assignment in another country is the negative reaction of the spouse.’

The most frequent reason for an executive’s failure to complete an assignment in another country is the negative reaction of the spouse

Soft Skills

Although technical competence, i.e. the ability to perform required tasks in a job well, is the foundation for a successful career, they are not the only factor.  Interpersonal skills are important as well.

In a domestic environment, they may include the ability to be a team player and the general ability to get on with co-workers.

An overseas leader needs all of these factors and more if they are going to be a success working abroad.

They need a suite of soft skills in addition to the technical skills that are easily identified.  These skills include cultural adaptability and emotional intelligence, which includes the ability to look at another environment in an open minded, curious and self-confident way.

It also means finding a way to manage ambiguous situations.

Providing Overseas Skills

Soft skills may be more difficult to identify than relocation costs and technical skills, yet they are equally important for a global leader to succeed abroad.

HR management, who value these soft skills and work with organisational influencers, are key to providing an overseas leader with the remaining elements needed for their leadership toolkit. This often includes providing the leader with cultural awareness training and executive coaching sessions to provide these important soft skills. Leading internationally is a skill to be acquired like any other.

One would think it would be common sense to get input from the target market about the suitability of the expatriate to their prospective location

Market Input

One would think it would be common sense to get input from the target market about the suitability of the expatriate to their prospective location.

However, many organisations fail to do this, some to the point where host country nationals are not consulted prior to identifying an expatriate who is about to enter and perhaps lead their entire market.

Other organisations may select a candidate who has little experience in leading international teams and sends them into a market that may simply be too challenging for them with such limited exposure.

Leadership

Leadership is much more than completing a target on time and on budget.  It’s also about finding the right balance between cultural paradoxes.  In the INSEAD post, this is described as managing the ‘as if’ without losing sight of resilient core values.

This means cultural empathy and the ability to adapt to culturally appropriate behaviour ‘as if’ they are part of their new culture.  It also means maintaining resilient core values, including core corporate values that lead to the genuine success of an expatriate assignment.

Leading internationally also means leading one’s family to success.  Managing family dynamics is at least as important as choosing the right candidate.  Successful organisations who choose their international leaders wisely know this.

Is your organisation giving you as a future global leader all of the tools you need to succeed?