Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Keep Overseas Staff Focused on the Right Goals

In my previous articles I had written about Importance of International experience, The need for Global Managers, and Global careers and culture shock. Continuing in the same series, this article is all about managing people who are working abroad. Particularly when their manager works at the head office thousands of miles away.

Keeping track of the work done by expats has been a tough challenge for managers. In today’s global economy, companies cannot afford to lose out to competition - so when expat managers are sent abroad the issue of expat accountability becomes very important. The risk of failure of a foreign subsidiary and the associated loss of investments forces the company management to carefully manage expat employees who are working abroad.

People Management Challenges

Managing people who are working abroad is always a challenge. Different time zones and higher cost of communications make it difficult to communicate effectively with expat managers.

Another problem managers face while dealing with expat employees is the human nature - "Out-of-sight, Out-of-mind" attitude. Since the manager does not see his expat employees, he tends not to think about them. This attitude has serious implications: Expats may feel isolated or cutoff, Expats will start working in their own direction - but that may not be inline with that of the company’s direction, and even Expats may take undue advantage of this lack of employee monitoring.

Knowing the problems people management helps recommend a suitable solutions. There are few things I would recommend:

  1. Give clear instructions and set the goals for expat managers before they leave

    Once a person is selected to go abroad, his/her manager must openly discuss the objectives of the foreign assignment, how to achieve it, the do’s and don’t etc. The outcome of this discussion must be a clearly documented goals/objectives for the expat during his/her stint abroad.

    The goals/objectives must be well defined. If not there will be room for interpretation and misinterpretation. Some companies even have a "letter of assignment" which states - "This is your assignment, these are the goals, and this is how your performance will be measured during the next appraisal cycle".

    If objectives and expectations are well-established from the outset, managers at headquarters can more easily assess progress toward those goals during the assignment without constantly checking up on the employee. This results in better organizational control.

  2. Communicate effectively and continuously with the expat employee

    In today’s fast paced global economy goals are set and then reset. The new goals/objectives must be effectively communicated to the expat employees in a timely manner. To accomplish this, managers must communication effectively and continuously with his/her expat subordinates. Fortunately the cost of International communication has come down to the point that money spent on communication is not a concern anymore. Communication tools such as E-mail, Intranet, Internet, Cell phones, video conferencing etc are now affordable by all companies. Managers should have one-on-one calls or conference calls with expat employees on regular basis.

    In addition to electronic communications, managers must setup face-to-face meetings with his/her expat employees frequently - at least once a quarter. Managers must take the extra effort (of travel & time) to meet his/her expat employees face-to-face. These direct meetings are very important for expat’s morale and gives them the assurance of support from their leaders. They get a better idea of what is going on in their home office or head office during these face-to-face meetings. Remember that there is no such thing as "over communicating".
  3. Make Expats report to Local Managers

    Expats must also have a local manager when working overseas. These local managers are local nationals who help expats settle down in the new country, help them deal with culture shocks, mentor them, teach them how to work effectively in that country, and act as communication hotline between the expat and the headquarters. Local managers are important for expats - they can voice their concerns about local issues and also seek career advice.

    Many companies make their expat managers report to the local General Manager. The general manager is mostly incharge of people/facilities issues and is removed from the line functions. The role of local managers is very important in the success of the expats foreign assignment. Many companies have realized the importance of a local leader - who also helps smooth out regulatory/political issues also. And have often appointed a General Manager or a VP at the local office (VP of Indian operations, GM of Malaysian Operations etc.)

    Often times this aspect of local managers is overlooked - mostly because the manager at the head office does not know the local managers or he/she does not know how to make use of these local managers. It is therefore recommended that the manager from the head office must visit the foreign offices and meet with managers in that foreign office.

  4. Give it a personal Touch

    Managers who send their employees aboard need to get involved a bit more personally with the employee. Despite all electronic communications, it is important to meet face-to-face atleast twice a year and ideally once a quarter. Managers must treat their expat employees as their trusted friends who have been sent to foreign location. This implies that the manager takes personal responsibility for the success for the expat. And at head office, manager must actively campaign for recognition and rewards of the expat employee - and share that news with the expat employee.

    Another important thing to improve personal relations with the employee will be to talk to spouse & family of the expat employee and if possible build a friendship. This will help the manager know how the expat’s family is coping with their relocation and the associated culture shock. Interacting with expat’s family will also give a feel for the local culture and local work environment. A good practice for managers to do is to meet the employee atleast once a quarter and also meet the family/spouse during that visit. A senior manager at Intel used to take out the employee and his family for dinner every time he visited Bangalore - this gave him an opportunity to feel the pulse of happenings in the local office.

Closing Thoughts


In today’s global economy, employees are being sent aboard on important assignments - expat’s success or failure aboard has a direct impact on the success or failure of the company. Given the high levels of investments needed to succeed abroad, managers must ensure that they have taken all the necessary steps to help their employees succeed aboard.

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