Export Yourself

The education, skill base, attitude and mobility of many Kiwi
executives make them an attractive proposition for overseas employers. But with companies the world over becoming increasingly protective of their bottom line, overseas assignments are no longer the one-way ticket to corporate nirvana they once were. Nevertheless, for growing number of our best and brightest, career advancement, like it or not, means going global.
Trimmings that accompany some overseas postings may still appear alluring. But the unexpected baggage often associated with these appointments can make an otherwise exotic overseas assignment look far more traumatic. These include family upheaval considerations; social, cultural, language and business protocols; not to mention global taxation issues on return to New Zealand.
Whether overseas assignments are deemed necessary evil or preferred option, executives need real-world strategies to ensure they’re seen as smart operators within global markets.
So what should their global survival kit include and how well do companies groom executives for overseas assignments?
Prepared to travel
Despite having 100 people offshore (mostly in Asia) at any one time, Worley Consultants’ chief executive Ian Parton says executives are invariably ill-prepared for overseas assignments. “As world-class brand we need people who can manage an overseas operation. Often heading up another part of the company is the most obvious means of advancement. So our people must be prepared to travel.”
The company does its best to prepare people by providing background reading, arranging language training (with people from that country), assisting with personal affairs (house, pets…) and tax considerations. But owing to the nature of these assignments, Parton says there’s often little time to prepare.
In fact, nine times out of 10, overseas-bound executives know little of the language and only slightly more about the culture to which they’re heading. Nevertheless, Parton takes the view that if they’ve selected the right person for the assignment, they’ll be able to find their feet within an offshore market relatively quickly.
Assuming professional skills are given, he says the more esoteric personal skills take on added meaning when expat executives start living in new culture. In fact, Parton agrees with the findings of US research that shows the three most important social skills needed to successfully embrace new culture are:
? sense of humour: The ability to laugh things off is crucial to overcoming frustration with local behaviour.
? Low goal/task orientation: In developing countries personal relationships are valued over the formal goal-oriented relationships of commerce. Hence the focus of importance is “who you are” (husband, father… ) rather than “what you are” (occupations, qualifications and possessions).
? The ability to fail and bounce: It’s critical to be able to tolerate this in yourself.
So assuming you have the right personal skills to match the overseas assignment, Parton says it’s important executives don’t overlook the obvious when negotiating the terms of their overseas assignment.

Salary parity
Companies like Worley that send lot of staff offshore use international organisation Employment Conditions Abroad (ECA) to help establish salary parity with their home market.
This way the executive’s salary will be adequately packaged to include things like unusual living expenses while away (for example housing and cost-of-living allowance, school fees) plus tax equalisation allowance to cover New Zealand taxes on earnings and investment income earned while overseas.

Language no problem
Ironically, for expats on overseas assignments, language is not the barrier it once was. This is in part due to Asia becoming increasingly more familiar with western culture. It’s also partly due to English now being ensconced as the world’s official business language. As result, the transition into an Asian market is significantly less onerous than it may have been 20 years ago. But there are exceptions to the rule says Eugene Bowen, former Trade New Zealand trade commissioner who spent 19 years in Japan.
The infrastructure provided by large multinational firms and the willingness of foreign businesspeople to embrace English means expat executives can get away without speaking the local lingo within many markets. But even though Tokyo has over 600,000 foreigners, Bowen says mastering the language is still must for Japan. He adds, the South American penchant for talking among themselves in their local tongue during formal meetings also makes learning their language fruitful.
Much of Bowen’s role centres around managing the 27 (mostly trade commissioners) expat Kiwis working for Trade New Zealand offshore. “Whether executives fit culturally is more matter of personal adaptation than gender-related. It just so happens that all our executives in the US are women. And two of the 13 women overseas happen to be single.”
Getting people to put their hands up for plumb postings like Vancouver, New York or Paris is never difficult. However, Bowen says filling positions within “hardship assignments”, (particularly Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia and India) where limited infrastructure and perceived health issues make the lifestyle significantly less comfortable is much harder.

Partner problems
Based on Bowen’s experience, the area that can give executives most grief while on overseas assignment is what to do with bored spouse. This can put stress on the relationship and in extreme cases can lead to separation unless handled properly.
But while employers like Trade New Zealand typically help with the settling-in phase, spouses are ultimately on their own to find employment and develop their own networks with the local and expatriate communities.
With engineering remaining largely “blokes’ profes-sion”, all Worley’s overseas staff are male. Marital status is largely irrelevant when choosing someone to manage new office offshore. Yet Parton freely admits it’s so much easier sending single-status people who don’t have the spouse issue and school costs.
“It’s important that both executive and spouse develop their own networks with the local community as well as the expatriate community, as often this is where spouses end up finding suitable work. And as no one is ever away indefinitely, it’s equally important executives don’t get so caught up in the host country’s culture that they lose contact with their home office. Otherwise integrating them back into the company on their return will be difficult.”

Bailing out
Like Parton, Bowen ranks increased credibility and widening of both personal and business networks the most valuable by-products of overseas assignments. But herein lies smouldering hiatus, says Parton. In fact, spouse issues aside, he says the single biggest problem for people working overseas is having their experience valued once they return to New Zealand. In the case of Trade New Zealand, around 10 percent of executives sent overseas end up taking job offers within the host country. And due to the trapping of these positions, these executives typically wait until the end of their posting before bailing out.
“As lot of senior people on overseas assignments with Worley are shareholders in the firm, they’re less likely to jump ship. We typically utilise their expertise to help perpetuate organic growth. And in many cases that may mean another stint somewhere else offshore.”
Most Kiwi companies would baulk at the cost of sending executives on pre-assignment reconnaissance. But Bowen says there are numerous low-cost alternatives. “Simple exercises like getting someone to video living conditions and surround-ings is cheap way of letting executives and their families know what to expect when they get there. And if someone decides not to

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