International exposure key to top-level roles
by Stuart Spencer
In an era of videoconferencing and virtual meetings, distance is no longer a barrier to doing business. But succeeding internationally means more than getting hold of people overseas. You must have a global mindset – a blend of experience, attitude and fluency in other cultures.
As business becomes more international, senior-level executives need experience that matches the global ambitions of their companies. Spencer Stuart consultants report that without international exposure, executives aren’t in the running for senior-level positions with world-class companies.
“For first- and second-level management assignments it’s almost impossible to get those jobs without international experience,” says Reinhold Thiele, leader of the European Industrial practice and a consultant in the Board Services practice at Spencer Stuart Munich and Zurich.
As companies’ horizons have expanded, so have the ways in which you can gain significant international exposure at senior executive level.
Exporting skills and gaining experience
In a survey on trends in international working conducted in May 2002, Cranfield School of Management identified four main types of international working which differ according to how much overseas living and travel is involved.
Options for international working
Short-term expat assignment: relocation for less than one year
Long-term expat assignment: relocation for a year or longer
Frequent flyer: run operations remotely from base; frequent visits
Commuter: work abroad weekdays; return home weekends
The most common forms are expatriate assignments which mean relocating to a new job in a new country. There are two types of expatriate assignments. Short-term assignments lasting up to one year and long-term assignments of more than 12 months’ duration.
Although expat packages are not as generous as they used to be, they are still a costly option for employers. There has to be a strong business case – such as the need to start up or shake up an overseas office. The Cranfield survey identified three main reasons for long-term expatriation: skills transfer, managerial control and management development.
From a candidate’s point of view, living and working abroad can bring great career benefits. Even if relocation is short-term, the experience is invaluable. Often the only way to understand another business culture is to become immersed in it, particularly in younger economies such as Russia and China.
International working doesn’t automatically mean relocations. Many executives run overseas operations from base, maintaining control by remote working and visits.
The rise of such “frequent flyers” is the most significant recent trend in international working. According to Cranfield Management School, many companies are still trying to understand the costs and benefits of this form of working.
It has pros and cons for executives too. Although frequent flyers avoid the disruption of relocating, being on call across time zones creates new challenges to work/life balance – a life spent in airport lounges soon loses its glamor.
Constant travel is also part of the fourth trend in international working, commuter arrangements. Here, the employee works in another country but comes home on weekends.
Commuting gives companies an affordable way of directing management talent to where it’s needed and suits executives trying to reduce the hidden cost of international working –disruption to personal life. It allows more family time and could be less disruptive to a partner’s career.
However, regular commuting can quickly become tiring so these arrangements have a limited lifespan. “You do not see people doing a weekend commute for ten years unless they do not have a family – if that’s the case it becomes too much of a compromise,” says Mark Broer, consultant for the Life Sciences Practice, Spencer Stuart London.
Bringing the whole family on board
All international roles are more disruptive than a nine-to-five routine. If expatriation is involved this means real upheaval so family priorities can be the determining factor in a successful international role. Spencer Stuart consultants check that a spouse is also committed to the changes an international assignment brings. While children aren’t automatically a problem, it helps if they are either very young or nearly grown up. Children at secondary school often find moving abroad most difficult.
Broaden your mind, sharpen your tool-kit
When it goes well, international exposure can be a transforming experience. It demonstrates flexibility, one of the most important assets for a career in business today. Achieving results in an unfamiliar setting also gives your leadership skills a great workout, showing you can operate effectively in new and stressful situations. “It shows that you can adapt business models and ways of working to different scenarios,” says leader of Spencer Stuart’s European Consumer Goods & Services Practice, Edward Speed.
Speed explains that international working often means setting up or working with joint ventures. In many cases an international assignment offers a faster way of gaining this valuable experience than working at head office.
Learning new languages and cultures can only broaden your perspective, says Thiele. He adds that international exposure gives executives the ability to look at the world from a different angle: “Generally speaking, they have a higher tolerance for other cultures and other points of view.”
The experience also rounds off the softer management skills that interest recruiters. “It demonstrates something else people are always looking for - all around interpersonal savvy,” says Speed.
Staying on track
The opportunity to shine on an international stage also brings the risk of derailment.
In the past, one of the attractions of heading an international operation was the P&L responsibility. “Now you’re a mini-CEO, where before you’ve just been part of a big organization,” says Thiele.
For executives without multi-functional experience, this could prove overwhelming. Nevertheless Speed thinks that, increasingly, the problem is lack of autonomy. Many functions in a regional office may report to other global heads, leaving an international executive in the worst of both worlds: “stuck in the matrix” and miles from home.
To avoid these traps, it’s vital to be clear on the aims and scope of an international role. Be clear on deliverables and the timescale and try to be as specific as possible about what will happen at the end of the assignment.
Broer warns against the “expat carousel”, moving from one country to another, running local businesses. “I would only recommend a more senior executive to relocate if it involved a truly international remit,” he says.