The willingness to relocate has long been considered necessary for upward mobility in many companies. Today, relocating can involve moving to another part of the world rather than just to another city or state. If you work for a multinational corporation and want to move up the ladder, are there additional challenges to be faced if you are a woman or person of color?
Or, are women/people of color innately better suited for global assignments simply because they’re accustomed to being “different?” And if so, to what extent are US corporations leveraging their higher levels of cultural competencies? Are those from diverse backgrounds rewarded in similar ways after global assignments?
Research by ORC Worldwide in 2006 reported that:
- While international assignments today are considered an important ticket to get punched for upward mobility, there is a gap between the numbers of women and minorities on ex-pat assignments and the numbers of Whites and men. In other words, women and minorities aren’t receiving these assignments commensurate with their representation in middle to senior levels of management, and they continue to be under-represented at these levels to begin with.
- Over 80% of the companies surveyed believed that global assignments are key to upward mobility in their company. Yet, only 14% of those companies make special efforts to ensure diversity in the expatriate ranks.
The demographics of those that contributed their experiences for this article include African-American males, Asian-American males, and White females. Their titles during their global assignments were manager, general manager, vice president, regional vice president, COO and president. They worked in a variety of industries including consumer products, pharmaceutical, steel, commercial printing, aerospace, and technology manufacturing.
There were a number of similarities in what they had to say about the personal and professional benefits, sacrifices, what they wish they had known in advance, and their advice to those considering a global assignment. Most were very positive about their international experience, but a few were disappointed, primarily because they perceived their successful global assignments were not rewarded when they returned. While there were different perceptions about whether their race/gender created additional challenges for them outside the U.S., most believed that being different in terms of race/gender is an advantage companies should be leveraging more.
Personal & Professional Benefits
The most significant benefits noted were the chance to experience a different culture first-hand, develop a broader worldview, and travel extensively to another country or countries less expensively. Several mentioned how this increased their management and leadership skills by helping them become more patient, tolerant, flexible, adaptable, and humble, as well as better communicators, decision-makers and problem solvers.
Darryl Gresham, general manager for South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa at Abbott Diagnostics Division, says, “The most significant benefit is the visibility and exposure because of the opportunity to meet more senior managers. It is also an opportunity to develop and distinguish yourself. Companies also tend to take good care of their ex-pats in terms of homes, cars, and schools for your children. Typically, you live better than you would in the U.S.”
When you move far away from families and friends, you will miss significant life events such as births, illness/deaths, graduations, birthdays, weddings, retirements, etc. In addition, the ex-pat typically works incredibly long hours and often travels a great deal, placing most of the family responsibility on their spouse. It’s typically very difficult for the accompanying spouse to obtain a work permit, so their career is put on hold while outside the U.S. There is also the possibility of missing other career opportunities in the U.S. while living outside the country. Overall, however, all of them perceived the benefits of living in another culture as being more significant, especially in the long term.
Anthony Tsai, now executive vice president of operations and chief innovation officer for Beijing Hualian Group, spent nine years living outside the U.S. while working for a US company. “For those who are reluctant, I would say go for it,” he says “Be prepared before, during, and upon re-entry for the challenges. You and your family will benefit for the rest of your lifetime if you can be flexible and adaptable to the challenges — professional, personal, and social — in the new host country. The impact on personal life will be immeasurably positive, except that the experience will render you a changed person from the ‘local’ person that you were before you left.”
One ex-pat couple that had returned to the US after a rewarding experience in Eastern Europe noted the necessity of a healthy relationship to deal with the challenges of living outside the US. Those who don’t have a positive experience have often accepted the global assignment for all of the wrong reasons, such as not being happy in their current US assignment, viewing a global assignment as a good way to get out of financial debt, or recognizing that their marriage is in trouble, so going to live in another country will bring them closer together. Like believing that having a baby will cure a bad marriage, this reason for accepting a global assignment usually ends badly.
What They Wish They’d Known
The preparation and support provided by companies prior to, during, and upon return is an area that needs to improve. Many said they received little to no preparation prior to moving. Knowing more about the culture, history, language, thinking style, work approach, lifestyle, and values of the host country were all mentioned, as well as more information about the actual package, what to expect and what not to, and the process for returning once the assignment is over.
One woman who moved to Eastern Europe felt that her company didn’t handle the fact that her husband was going to stay at home to be the primary caregiver for their children. He wasn’t introduced to any spouses for pre-move support, which generally happens for wives in this situation. Another woman said it was the ex-pat community in China that supported her and made the transition easy. Often, it’s the personal things that are unavailable in another country that are helpful to know prior to moving, such as being able to buy over-the-counter medications like aspirin, cold/cough syrup, saline solution, etc. An African-American woman friend who spent more than four years in Australia and Hong Kong with her husband discovered that the hair products she needed were nowhere to be found.
When Gresham moved to Germany, he discovered that the homes are much smaller, and there are no built-in closets. Stoves are much smaller, there are no mirrors in the bathroom, and when people move out of a home, they take the light fixtures with them. There is also no daycare in Germany, so if you need a nanny, you’d best take one with you.
Chris Thomas, regional vice president of Frito Lay (not the company he worked for when he spent four years in Australia) received a great deal of support from the Senior Black Leadership Team in his home country. However, they weren’t able to provide any specific help because he was the first in the group to move outside the U.S. “I thought a similar support group of ex-pats to network with would’ve been very helpful prior to, during and after,” he says.
Gresham believes it’s important to find someone who has had a positive experience in the country you’re moving to, and equally important to find someone that didn’t, because “those who had a good experience will leave things out.”
Tsai suggests mentoring someone who is on international assignment in your home country before you move to theirs. He also believes it’s important to have had one or two power jobs in your home country to prepare you, and to make sure that you have an influential majority’ sponsor in the new host country. In addition, he advises to be prepared to learn about yourself, not to expect the same sensitivities to your culture and be ready to assimilate more, as the concept of diversity is very different outside the U.S.
Many mentioned the importance and difficulty of maintaining relationships and sponsors in the U.S. while on international assignment. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the reality for most, and the burden is on the ex-pat to proactively work at keeping and building relationships with influential executives in your home country. David Wu, who went abroad for three different corporations, feels strongly about “making sure you do not lose your US network, and returning to the US as soon as possible. Obtain commitments that your career will continue to develop before you accept an international assignment. Let your team overseas deliver the results, especially if you’re at risk of losing your US network.”
One woman perceived that it was very different being a woman in a male-dominated area. She was the first female ex-pat and high-level manager in her department early on in her assignment, and she knew that she had to prove herself to earn the respect of co-workers. Another didn’t perceive that she experienced any different challenges because of her gender, while another said, “ There are no challenges that are any different than in North America. The world is a man’s world.”
African-Americans often prefer living outside the U.S. Gresham says, “The personal defining moment in my life was moving to a small town in upstate New York where there were very few minorities. I wouldn’t call it hostile, but it wasn’t friendly.” Thomas adds, “Australia was one of the most accepting places I’ve ever been to. I still return there for vacations and it feels like I’m coming back home. I didn’t feel that kind of racial oppression until I came back to Los Angeles.”
On the other hand, the experiences of Asian-Americans were less positive. Tsai says, “The cultural acceptance of Asian leaders in Europe is far more difficult than in the U.S. I will treasure the European experience for the rest of my life. I grew up.” While the assumption might be that Wu would have a positive experience in China because of his Chinese heritage, it was quite the opposite. “I faced significantly more challenges as a non-traditional ex-pat in the sense that I felt pressure from both the US and China that I did not belong,” he says. “My overseas staff loved me because of my commitment to continuously improve and develop/train them. The other ex-pats did not want me to succeed because my success embarrassed them. My US colleagues wanted me to succeed, but had no position for me back in the US to continue my career development.”
Tsai shares Wu’s perceptions of China. “In most cultures, the White American has rights of passage a minority won’t. In China, there is a near reverential treatment of Whites. But Chinese don’t treat each other with dignity and respect. In China, the people are very hospitable to Whites, but treat each other relatively harshly. On the other hand, the family fits in a bit better in everyday China because you don’t have to worry about standing out physically. So there are plusses and minuses.”
Are Women And People Of Color Innately Better Suited For Global Assignments?
- Anyone who is different and has been the outsider in a society can easily adapt to a global assignment.
- Non-traditional ex-pats are often more sensitive/perceptive to non-verbal cues.
- Women have coping/interpersonal skills, which are useful in conflict resolution and building relationships.
- Women have skills that make them better leaders both in the US and outside. They are better collaborators, more caring, listen attentively to others, etc.
- Being Black, I think I am at ease quicker when in a situation where I am different than most others. I’m the only American on my street in South Africa, which is no big deal. I’m used to being the only Black person in the room.
- Being Black, I’ve always been conscious of the environment I’m in and am respectful of others. This helped me to assimilate in Australia. I think Blacks, in general, like to keep it real and be ourselves. Customers told me that White males had a tendency to come across as “my way or the highway.” My approach was more collaborative, which resulted in more acceptance and was more successful.
- I agree somewhat, but have also seen both men and women who weren’t able to adapt in this environment. The biggest difference is in how they react to the situation. In many cases, men will tough it out to prove themselves, but will inadvertently cause many other problems in the way they interact with locals, often alienating themselves or reinforcing the “ugly American” tag.
- Non-traditional ex-pats are not innately better prepared because they do not meet the stereotype of an American while abroad. By not being a White male, the natural assumption is that you are not a decision-maker.
- Asian stereotypes outside of Asia are more along the colonial lines than in any other culture I’ve seen. As an Asian-American who has worked in Europe, Asia and the U.S., I have a tremendous capability to lead an organization and this is gratifying. I am much better prepared than a white male who may have had more privileges or rights of passage and did not have to wrestle with some of the challenges that I have had.
Most also emphasized the need to maintain relationships in your home country to ensure you aren’t forgotten, as well as the importance of making a difference and delivering results in your global assignment. Several ultimately ended up leaving their companies because their success wasn’t acknowledged or rewarded. However, despite their initial disappointment, each has moved forward in their careers, working for other corporations in more senior-level positions. Wu, for example, formed Wu & Associates LLC and has worked as a consultant for a number of companies in Asia. He also leveraged his experiences in a highly acclaimed book, Organizing for Profit in China: A Case Study Approach.
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