The challenges of finding people who will succeed in an international setting are considerable, says Jeff Toms, who offers some advice on how to develop an effective global manager.
Understanding and working with people from different cultures is not always easy and often organisations underestimate the investment in preparation and training required to make such transitions go smoothly.
Individuals facing the prospect of working internationally need additional support – particularly in areas of personal development – to meet the challenges they will face.
Whether working in a ‘global’ or ‘trans-national’ organisation, or simply one that exports to its customers from its home country, the successful international manager needs to have developed the competencies and personal attributes necessary to allow him or her to work effectively in an international and cross-cultural environment.
They will be expected to interact, manage, negotiate, live and work effectively as individuals and in teams with people whose values, beliefs, languages, customs and business practices are very different from their own. It will also be an environment where misunderstandings in relationships can lead to costly mistakes and even business failures.
Only the best
The considerable expense that can be incurred when an international assignment fails, means that organisations do need to develop professional and focused processes for ensuring that only the best people are selected and developed for international management roles.
The first step in this process should be to identify not the people but the competencies, motivation and personal attributes required for success. International assignments are so often filled as a ‘knee-jerk reaction’ with the most technically competent and readily available person, and frequently someone who, until that point in time, had never really considered an overseas assignment as part of their career. Experience shows, however, that ‘technical’ competence, while important, does not of itself produce an effective international manager.
There is also the danger that, in their eagerness to take an international assignment or perhaps the fear of possible harm to their careers of being seen to refuse one, people will not think through the personal implications for themselves or for their partners or families.
To compound this problem, organisations frequently offer inflated international remuneration and benefits packages to help convince the individual that this is the right career move for them and leave them to sort out any personal difficulties.
The organisation needs to clearly define criteria for success at international, managerial, functional and personal levels and then select and develop potential international managers against these.
It is also important not to assume that there is a single attribute (or personality) profile for all markets. For example, the person who is ideally suited, in terms of their motivation and personality, to work in one market, say the USA, may find it very difficult to work in another, say Germany or Venezuela.
It is recommended that the process of selecting and developing the global manager is an ongoing one, where people who are considered as high performers with international potential are identified early and then given the appropriate opportunities to develop their experience and skills in that direction throughout their career.
Involvement in projects that require them to visit and work for short periods in the organisation’s overseas operations, or with its customers, would allow in-market senior managers to assess and provide feedback on how effectively, or otherwise, the person is able to work with the local team and in the different cultural environment.
A further part of the process should be to give individuals the opportunity, with their partners if this is appropriate, to attend relevant country briefings and cross-cultural awareness workshops. This can help them more fully appreciate the opportunities and challenges of an international career and allow them to take an informed and objective view of what they might be letting themselves in for.
In this way, there can be a process of self-selection, which helps ensure that the people who are eventually offered and accept an international assignment, and their families, are fully committed to it.
Once committed in principle, the process might then include the use of international focused development assessment centres in which the in-company assessors themselves have a proven international track record and who can become mentors to people once they take up an assignment.
Having identified people with potential as international managers, and who are able and willing to take up international assignments, appropriate formal training should become an integral part of the process. Ideally this will include advanced management and functional skills training, and country briefings covering in some detail the historical, political, economic, social and business environments of the market(s) the individual will visit or be asked to move to.
Also required will be cross-cultural awareness training to help them appreciate the values, beliefs and practices of the other cultures and how their own culture may be seen by people from the host culture.
Where appropriate, language training is also very important and should not be left until the person has to take up their appointment. For such training it is advisable to use a specialist organsiation, which has the appropriate resources and bank of expert trainers, focused on cross cultural briefings and intensive language training.
For any organisation operating internationally, a key strategic imperative must be to develop effective international managers over the medium to long term. People who have the knowledge, skills, experience, motivation, personal attributes and cultural sensitivity that will allow them to create a sustainable competitive advantage through the ways in which they are able to interact and operate with people from other cultures.
Developing culturally-aware international staff, with related skills at all levels of management, will not only considerably reduce potential failures but it can also contribute substantially to the bottom line.
In addition, a positive attitude towards cultural diversity can open new doors and create new synergies within business. If well managed through preparation of its operational leaders, cultural diversity can bring tremendous dividends to any organisation.
Jeff Toms is director of marketing & client services at Farnham Castle, an international briefing and conference centre, specialising in cross cultural management development programmes and international assignment briefings.