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Going where you’re not wanted
Your first expat challenge may be convincing the local office to accept you at all
By Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared in Expatrium)

Where previously expatriates were most frequently greeted with enthusiasm by overseas subsidiaries, increasingly they are viewed with resentment, and seen as appropriating valuable jobs and resources from the local operation.

Don’t ask us to baby-sit

Marjolein has enjoyed a fast-track career as marketing manager at a large European brewery. When her husband was recently offered an assignment to the Philippines, she saw an opportunity to gain crucial international experience at reduced cost to her employer, since her partner’s company already covered housing and living allowances. Her senior management reacted enthusiastically to the idea, seeing in this assignment an excellent opportunity for both Marjolein’s own management development and also transfer of knowledge to the local firm, most timely following a reorganisation which created a separate marketing department for the first time in the Manila-based Southeast Asian holding company. Marjolein’s services were offered, on secondment for a two-year period, to the Manila office. Instead of the open-arms reception to this proposal the company expected, they were told in no uncertain terms that the local holding company was in no need of marketing input from the head office, and furthermore did not need or desire expatriates in its operations. In an interview with Marjolein herself, the senior Filipino manager commented on her relative youth, inexperience and lack of knowledge regarding Asian marketing practices.

After a great deal of direct, even forceful, intervention on the part of the head office, Marjolein’s assignment went through (although still over the strenuous objections of the local management in Manila).

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Dirk had been waiting for four years for an international assignment with his employer, one of the world’s largest chemical firms. The firm did not have a policy of sending expatriates on assignment on a regular basis, and Dirk was becoming impatient. Two years previously the company had implemented the first phase of a worldwide reorganisation plan, beginning initially with its European head office and extending gradually to all subsidiary firms worldwide. Now it was Indonesia’s turn, and despite the excellent results currently being booked by the firm’s new management, it was decided the reorganisation nevertheless must begin as scheduled.

Dirk’s senior management decided to send him to Jakarta for a period of 2 _ years, rationalising that this would be beneficial both to Dirk himself, in order to gain international management experience, and to the Indonesia firm, to have a facilitator for the introduction of the new management structure. To the great surprise of the company’s senior management the Indonesian firm’s CEO strenuously protested the arrival of an expatriate in his operation. Himself a UCLA graduate, he made it very clear both to Dirk, and the management, that expatriate expertise was not required in his operation, and furthermore since the Indonesia operation was more successful than many European subsidiaries, he could not see the need for the proposed reorganisation.

Eventually the company was able to convince the Indonesian CEO that Dirk’s assignment to Indonesia could not be avoided, and in his final interview the Indonesian told Dirk ‘at least it is only for 2 _ years since it is pointless to place expatriates in operations such as ours for longer than this. You will be able to learn a great deal from us, and then take this knowledge back to the head office’. The proposed reorganisation was not discussed further.

Both Marjolein and Dirk began their assignments under a cloud, and their predicament is not unique. The traditional expatriate assignment of even a few years ago saw experts sent from the ‘developed’ to the ‘developing’ world, often including such new tiger nations as Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan. Viewed as either a necessary evil providing a direct link with head office or as a means of strengthening internal development programmes, the expatriate was generally welcomed and pampered during his/her assignment which lasted on average 2 – 4 years. The new reality is that it may be up to the expatriates themselves to fight their way into an organisation, and their career survival will depend on whether or not they can manage to be taken on board.

Another point of view

Fawzy Siddik is an Indonesian executive, and as Commissioner of Ericsson Indonesia he leads the local joint venture of the Swedish telecom giant. While he has not experienced the problem of unwanted expatriates so far at Ericsson, largely due to his key role in defining assignment conditions, he is familiar with the phenomenon. He believes firmly that in order to avoid unwelcome surprises the local firm must play an active part in expatriate selection. When this does not happen, expect trouble. In a former position, as senior executive with an American oil company in Jakarta, the Indonesian management was forced to call for the resignation of the American CEO. "This person had an unsuitable personality and he did not like Indonesia. His wife did not join him, so his mind was elsewhere, and the combination of these factors meant he was not effective. Technically he was good, but that wasn’t enough. Time and again I’ve seen that the family is a key factor -- if the family is not happy then it is very hard to make the assignment a success".

Particularly when selecting expatriates for complex assignments where there is no host-country buy-in, both technical and human criteria must be considered. This is one reason that international studies have revealed a lower failure rate for Asian (and European) companies sending expatriates abroad than for American firms. In a mid-90s study conducted of U.S. and Japanese companies by cross-cultural management professor Rosalie Tung many of the U.S. firms had poor success in choosing people for overseas assignments. The Japanese firms were quite successful as a result of their selection process, with the primary difference between the two groups being that the Americans tended to focus most heavily on technical considerations, whereas the Japanese also considered behavioural or relational skills of the employee such as the ability of the manager to deal with clients, customer, superiors, peers, and subordinates. The Japanese also placed higher emphasis on family adaptability.

Overpaid and over here

The local workforce can resent expatriates, and this is an issue that also cannot be overlooked, says Fawzy. "The challenge is that Indonesians complain about expats and their luxurious lifestyle, so they have to be convinced that getting a good expat is difficult, and you have to pay for it. There is a ‘CNN syndrome’ of selective reporting concerning Indonesia and many expats think Indonesia is very dangerous. It is hard to persuade them to come and incentives have to be offered. Once they are here, though, they realise there is no violence".

In observing the situation in other companies, Fawzy has seen what happens when head office wants to send someone for management development reasons, and the local operation is not in agreement. "Making a success of this situation depends upon the individual expatriates: if they are able to make the best out of the circumstances rather than become a pain to the organisation, they can make a positive contribution. Everything depends on the person’s attitude, because it is hard coming to a place where the organization doesn’t really need you. I’ve seen the expatriate’s reaction go one of two ways: they either hide away and don’t do anything, becoming hostile and very aggressive, or they try to say okay, I’m assigned here, I know you’re not happy, let’s work together to open the situation up and benefit others. Whatever you do, don’t play the big boss from overseas. Have an attitude in which you acknowledge that your local partners know more about what’s happening in the organization, but you have certain expertise and can also make a contribution. Your goal is to make people in the company want to accept you".

Ericsson Indonesia has a strong program designed to facilitate the transfer of technology so that Indonesians can fill those positions presently taken by expatriates in the future, a program that includes sending Indonesians overseas.

"Ericsson has an international program on career planning for every employee, and at a certain level they have to get overseas training," says Fawzy. "This can be anywhere in world, and can be for one month or one to two years depending on which job they are doing. This is very positive and we’ve received reports that Indonesians overseas are doing very well."

None so blind

Given the above, the question remains as to why multinational head offices are so stubborn in their insistence that expatriates are essential to the operation of local subsidiaries when these expats are often resented. Certainly there is an element of international human resources arrogance, but more commonly the assignment fulfils a strategic objective. Multinational giant Philips generally sees two types of expat assignments: job assignments, which are to fill a particular local requirement for skills, knowledge and experience, and career assignments, which fit into the management development programme. Particularly the latter may be increasingly hard to sell to the local operations that must accept them.

In the case of job assignments, which are geared towards transfer of essential knowledge and skills both head office and the expats themselves tend to underestimate the ability of local executives (usually because of lack of information or conflicting communication styles). Company management and expats can avoid this by doing their homework on the people they will be dealing with. Fawzy, a graduate of several prestigious overseas institutions, is constantly amazed when he meets foreigners who say ‘you speak English’ in a very surprised tone. This, he feels, is something they should have known already.

Overcoming opposition

Both Philips and Ericsson have cross-cultural and country orientation training programs for their inbound and outbound expats. When Indonesian executives are sent abroad, Fawzy tries to match them with others who have international experience. This buddy-mentor system provides them with an informal support network so they don’t have to bring potentially embarrassing situations to the attention of HR and can solve them unofficially, instead.

Experts recommend laying your cards on the table and being honest with all concerned about the reasons for the expatriate assignment, and in particularly letting the expatriates know what they should expect. De-centralization strategies followed by many multinationals recently have resulted in autonomous local subsidiary responsibility for budgets and objectives, and consideration must be paid to who will end up footing the bill for the expat, and what the return on investment should be for the host country. By dealing with these issues transparently and in advance, a great deal of resentment can be avoided. Managing the expectations of all parties will pay dividends in the future.