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Five Success Factors for Managing Successful Assignments

Matthew MacLachlan

19 Apr 2017

Is an international assignment worth the risk and cost to an organisation? According to a recent Harvard Business Review, study organisations can anticipate costs to be about three to five times the expatriate’s annual salary. As global mobility teams are under pressure than ever to reduce costs, they need to ask themselves, how can they ensure a successful assignment?

What prevents a successful assignment?

Moving is already a stressful time of life for most people. Moving abroad only enhances this stress. It also raises the chances of personal or professional failure if it is not managed well.

The personal, professional and cultural challenges make an international assignment a potential risk for the individual, their family and the organisation – it is also, of course, a huge opportunity.

There are plenty of areas that can reduce the chance of a successful assignment:

  • The local office may resent the imposition of an outsider into a senior role, with the implication that they are not good enough.
  • The success criteria of the assignment may not be clear to the assignee or the host and sending organisation
  • The assignee may feel isolated, and that they are missing out on opportunities at head office

The personal, professional and cultural challenges make an international assignment a potential risk

Most organisations recognise that they need to offer a robust relocation package as an attractive, practical part of their assignees’ relocation. Ideally, this includes much more than assistance with the logistics of moving.

Most organisations will provide:

  • Tax and financial advice
  • Immigration support
  • Home and school search

Many also provide support to the family. For example, providing support for a partner, ranging from family wellbeing matters to assistance in executive search for their own career. These additional services can make a huge difference in the expatriate’s chance of success.

Similarly, providing cultural training benefits the assignee in both their work and everyday life, and benefits their family as well. Without these basics, international assignments have a much higher chance of failure.

But this is not enough to maximise the chances of a successful assignment.

Managing The Assignee And The Assignment

A successful assignment is much more than simply performing a job well in a new environment. Most assignees get to grips with the tasks required in their new position quickly enough. Organisations often look at the bottom line in assessing the employee’s performance.

But this is not the whole picture. Learning how to adapt to their new environment also means learning how different cultures do things differently.

For those assignees who do this well, a new level of knowledge is gained that enhances the assignee’s skills and knowledge. Smart employers recognise that these new skills and knowledge enhances their organisation as well.

Most organisations fail to maximise the assignee’s new value. Here is what they can do to maximise the return on investment in a successful assignment.

5 Keys to Managing Assignees Successfully

1. Have a business plan

Of course, there needs to be a business case for the assignment to begin with. Is there a gap in the market? Is the assignee the best person to fill this gap? How will the market work with the new assignee? How can the market and the organisation both benefit from the assignee’s placement during and after the assignment?

Considering these questions lays the foundation for an assignment that adds value to the organisation.

2. Choose the right person

Professional and technical skills should not be the only criteria for consideration. Assignees with the best chance of being successful abroad are open- minded and able to adapt to a new environment and culture.

Choosing the right person includes recognising these abilities and not simply their effectiveness in getting things done. Being curious about their new assignment should extend to curiosity about how and why things may be different in their new location.

Assignees with the best chance of being successful abroad are open- minded and able to adapt

Learning how to incorporate this new knowledge into their skillset means gain for the assignee and their organisation.

3. Select assignee sponsors both home and abroad

Organisations wanting to manage assignees successfully may wish to establish a sponsorship or mentoring system, where someone is working with the assignee in two locations: the assignment destination and back home.

Organisations wanting to manage assignees successfully may wish to establish a sponsorship or mentoring system

This system does wonders for keeping both the employee and the organisation informed of key events and activities undertaken by the assignee. It also keeps the assignee current about what is happening back home and helps the host office understand the wider objectives for the assignment.

4. Set up formal channels to keep in touch

Structured communication is key. Sponsors on both ends of the assignment and the assignee should consider communicating openly and often. Scheduling calls to discuss key targets, progress and challenges of the assignment are a step that many organisations fail to do, especially if they are operating in crisis mode or are only focusing on task-related deliverables.

Scheduling calls to discuss key targets, progress and challenges of the assignment are a step that many organisations fail to do

Setting up a strong channel of communication allows the assignee to adjust to most situations. It also provides the organisation with an opportunity to assess what is going well and what could be improved upon whilst there is still a chance to change things for the better.

5. Plan for the assignee’s repatriation or next assignment

Many well-planned international assignments are successful while the assignee is abroad. However, expatriate assignments eventually end. Assignees either accept the next assignment or they return home.

Either way, many organisations fail to get the maximum benefit from the assignment. Many organisations do not recognise the valuable information and experience of a freshly returned assignee.

The return home is also a source of frustration for the assignee. They may feel that:

  • their experience is not valued
  • their role may have less independence
  • they have missed opportunities to progress in their careers

The biggest frustration is that they feel as if they no longer fit into an organisation that they do not recognise – either because they have changed or the organisation has changed.

Many organisations do not recognise the valuable information and experience of a freshly returned assignee.

Many assignees come home to find that they do not have a clearly defined role – as if a job was created for them as an afterthought.

Ensuring that an assignment is a success means that organisations must not only leverage the assignee’s experience but must also find a meaningful way for the assignee to continue to be motivated within the organisation, building on their new skills and experience. Otherwise, it’s almost certain that the assignee will quickly find another organisation that does value their skills and experience.

To the uninitiated, an assignment is as simple as getting a visa and a plane ticket. However, to ensure that it is a successful assignment, organisations must carefully:

  • define the success criteria
  • select the correct person
  • engage host and sending offices
  • keep communication lines open
  • plan the repatriation

Adding Value to the Assignment

Global mobility teams are often considered a cost centre, adding little value, beyond their administrative skills. And this is certainly true for those who limit themselves to providing the logistical support to an assignment.

However, a successful assignment that contributes to the long-term performance of the organisation is managed by a strategic global mobility team that is actively involved from the identification of the need to utilising the talent development on return. A strategic global mobility team can maximise the return on investment that comes from a successful assignment.