COMPANIES devote a lot of thought to sending people abroad. They offer foreign postings to their most promising employees. They sweeten the deal with higher salaries and big allowances, and sometimes help to find work for spouses. But when it comes to bringing the employees home, it is a different story. One study suggests that a quarter of firms provide no help for repatriates at all. Many others offer at best a few links to websites.
Big companies are more globalised than ever. So you might think that they would treat staff with foreign experience as particularly important for maintaining their competitive advantage. Yet in practice they neglect such employees, blithely assuming they will soon be back in the swing of head-office life. The cost of this neglect is high. Sebastian Reiche of IESE business school in Spain estimates that anything between 10% and 60% of “repats” quit the company within a couple of years of returning home. Their attrition rate is notably higher than for those not sent abroad.
This represents a squandering of investment, given that expats often cost several times as much as locals to employ. It damages the leadership pipeline. It may discourage high-flyers from taking a foreign posting. Worst of all, it can be a subsidy to rival firms: they end up with the people best placed to bury your company, trained at your expense.
Repats often complain of culture shock: things that once seemed familiar about home can seem strange and parochial. No one in the office wants to hear their war stories about the struggles of working in foreign climes. They find they have lost their niche at headquarters—partly because the balance of power has changed (allies have left and newcomers have greased their way into favour) and partly because they have got used to running their own fief rather than slotting into a hierarchy. Add to this the fact that they have to adjust to a lower standard of living—particularly if they have the misfortune to be moving back to an expensive city like London—and it is a recipe for discontent. One review of the academic literature, by Jan Sebastian Knocke of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, notes that “there are signs of repatriation being more difficult than integration into a culturally distant country.”
Most repats would be happy to put up with a bit of culture shock if they came back to a plum job. But most do not. Clare Hughes of PwC, a consulting firm, says that a striking number of them are given no properly defined job. “They wander the corridors or get given ‘projects’,” she says. A 2013 study by Christina Bailey and Lisa Dragoni of Cornell University shows that, far from moving up the hierarchy, the majority of repats return to a job on the same level as the one they had left when going abroad.
A 2011 study by Monika Hamori and Burak Koyuncu of IE, another Spanish business school, casts doubt on the entire idea that a foreign posting is the road to the top. Ms Hamori and Mr Koyuncu studied the CEOs of the 500 biggest European companies and the 500 biggest American ones (the total came to 1,001 because one company had two CEOs), to see what effect being sent abroad had on their careers. They found that the more foreign experience the employees had accumulated—that is, the more foreign postings they had been sent on and the more time they had spent abroad—the longer it had taken to reach the top.
The majority of the 1,001 CEOs—60% in Europe and 76% in the United States—had never had a foreign posting. Of those with foreign experience, more than half were the CEO of a company other than the one that had sent them abroad. So, any doubts employees may have about accepting foreign postings turn out to be well-grounded. Out of sight often does mean out of mind: bosses over-reward the people they meet every day compared with those rarely seen around the office.
Companies’ poor management of foreign transfers extends beyond their blasé treatment of individuals. Firms often justify overseas postings in terms of the circulation of ideas. But repats routinely complain that their bosses ignore the time they have spent abroad. They do not give them jobs that allow them to use their experience, let alone provide them with ways to spread their new insights to other employees. A lot of expensively accumulated global expertise is allowed to moulder away.
Welcome (back) aboard
How can companies improve this dismal record? Half the battle lies in recognising that repatriation is a problem. Bosses need to fight the out-of-sight-out-of-mind problem by making sure that those on foreign assignments have champions back at HQ who look after their interests. They need to pay as much attention to “re-boarding” repats as they do to “on-boarding” new employees: for example, PwC holds cocktail parties at which returning staff can meet each other, and provides them with mentors to help them fit back in. Firms should also find ways to help repats disseminate what they have learned abroad. But some of the onus also lies with the employees themselves. You cannot disappear for a few years and expect to be welcomed back like a hero: you need to keep cultivating your network back home and pestering your allies and mentors to keep your name in the mix.
There are some signs that companies are beginning to recognise that they have a problem—some are even talking about measuring their return on investment for foreign postings and holding senior managers responsible for the loss of repats. But the pace of improvement is glacial. Most CEOs are capable of giving an elegant spiel about how the bulk of the firm’s growth in coming years will come from cities you have never heard of, and how it is being transformed into a “learning machine” that picks up ideas from every corner of the world. That is nothing more than globaloney so long as they continue to spend millions of pounds training high-flyers only to ignore or sideline them when they return to the mothership.
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To thrive in the world of international business today demands an entirely different set of skills than was expected even a decade ago. Now more than ever, global professionals face a “VUCA” business environment—one that’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The skills needed to navigate this new, globalized business landscape aren’t the “hard skills” of, say, analysis or accounting. While strong technical know-how is still essential, it’s the “soft skills” that can mean the difference between survival and true success in international business.
At Hult, we’ve asked 100 of the world’s leading CEOs what key competencies business graduates need in the 21st century. When it comes to international business skills, they confirmed that soft skills in areas like influencing, collaborating, and thinking adaptively were critical for employability and success.
Download the report on the skills CEOs want in business school graduates
In response to these findings and the range of new demands placed on professionals striving to be competitive on an international stage, we have made leadership development central to our business curriculum, ensuring Hult students graduate with these in-demand skills.
Through our engagement with business leaders, our world-class faculty, and successful alumni, we’ve identified the top 7 skills needed for success in international business. Whether you’re hoping to land a job at a top multinational company, seek a new career abroad, or launch your own business venture, these are the skills that you need to succeed:
- Cross-cultural communication skills
- Excellent networking abilities
- Interpersonal influence
- Adaptive thinking
- Emotional intelligence
Cross-cultural communication skills
Any role or function in international business means working in diverse workplace with people from a different country or background to yours. Whether they’re a colleague, a client, or a customer, understanding how to communicate across cultures is an absolutely indispensable skill.
It requires no small amount of sensitivity, respect, and diplomacy. It also requires an open mind and, often, a little bit of research. Make an effort to learn, understand, and appreciate cultural differences and nuances when it comes to communication. Knowing, for instance, how people from other cultures interpret workplace confrontation or something as simple as maintaining eye contact can help to avoid misunderstandings and facilitate better workplace communication. And good communication is good for business. (In fact, studies suggest that a breakdown in communication is one of the top reasons why projects fail.)
Of course, listening skills are an often-overlooked element of effective communication. When you’re working with colleagues or customers abroad, actively listening is more important than ever, especially if there is a language barrier.
Excellent networking abilities
If you want to work in international business, developing a strong network of connections outside of your home country is essential. Successful networking can open the door to unexpected business opportunities overseas, and some reports claim that up to 80% of jobs are now landed through networking.
While online platforms like LinkedIn make it easier to find and maintain professional connections abroad, excellent in-person networking ability is still among the key skills for success in international business. Mastering your “elevator pitch” and attending industry networking events is one useful way meet like-minded professionals and grow your connections. Of course, like cross-cultural communication, networking skills also require diplomacy, tact, and a listening ear—remember that you’re building a relationship rather than simply selling your skills.
For ambitious international business professionals, one of the most valuable networking opportunities is often going to business school. From your peers to your professors, the people you’ll meet on an MBA or Executive MBA program will come from all over the world and boast a diverse range of skills and expertise, making them strong candidates as future collaborators or colleagues.
For success in international business, it’s not enough to simply build a network — you need to work well with others. The ability to collaborate and work together for a common purpose is fundamental in the business world. It requires humility, allowing others to take the lead and share credit for success. It also requires confidence to tackle problems, give and receive feedback, and respectfully fight your cause.
In an international business environment, collaborating with team members from other cultures is especially beneficial. First, it’s an opportunity to use and develop your cross-cultural communication skills. Secondly, it will expose you to new perspectives and ways of addressing difficult business problems. The most inspiring and successful business leaders are often the best collaborators, knowing that collective brainpower can accelerate company success.
“I have developed my leadership skills on so many levels as a result of the Hult MBA program. Hult is more than a business school—it is a transformative experience. I’ve developed a growth-mindset, listening skills, the ability to rally team members towards a common goal, and the ability to seek and give feedback, to name but a few of the skills I’ve learnt at Hult.”
Joy Meregini, Hult MBA Class of 2016
The ability to influence others is fundamental to business success, whether you’re trying to persuade an investor to secure funding for your new venture, encourage an employee to adopt a new way of working, or convince a customer to buy your product. The best business leaders gain influence by developing good professional relationships and building respect — meaning communication, networking, and collaboration can all culminate in influence.
Mastering interpersonal influence eliminates the need for a hard sell, encouraging others to get on board with your ideas because they understand the value you offer. It’s the ability to be assertive, without being aggressive. In international business, it’s a skill that will serve you well in pitching for new business, negotiating deals, and motivating diverse teams. That’s why it’s a core competency in the Hult leadership curriculum.
In today’s VUCA business environment, you must have the confidence to react and adapt quickly, thinking “out of the box” to solve problems. Adaptive thinkers thrive in an ever-changing environment, making them well placed for success in international business. But how can you develop adaptive thinking skills?
According to a 2015 article in Forbes, impulse control, humility, and curiosity breed adaptive thinking. When a swift response is needed in a critical business situation, adaptive thinking means taking thoughtful action rather than giving in to impulsion. It also means accepting when old solutions are not longer fit for purpose.
Adaptive thinking was previously the remit of military commanders, taking decisive action in times of danger and uncertainty. Today it’s a tactical skill demanded of global professionals.
In today’s HR terms, you’re more likely to hear people valuing “EQ” over the more traditional measure of “IQ”. Strong emotional intelligence is noted as a critical skill when it comes to how to do international business. That’s because it influences nearly every aspect of business interaction.
Emotionally intelligent people are self-aware and in control of their emotions, meaning they are better able to react calmly in critical or stressful business situations and adapt flexibly to change. They are also able to work together effectively, collaborating and communicating well thanks to above-average interpersonal skills and a strong sense of empathy.
To help develop the valuable professional skills associated with strong emotional intelligence, a research team from Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School is investigating the role mindfulness practice can play in leadership training.
To succeed in international business unequivocally demands mental toughness and resilience. On a practical level, working across time zones and cultures involves long hours. Failure and setbacks are also a fact of life in the business world, but defeat isn’t. This is where resilience comes in.
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Going hand-in-hand with emotional intelligence, resilience is a key characteristic for success, allowing you to rise to meet the inevitable challenges of global business, maintain motivation, overcome risks, and recover quickly from hardship.
Curious to know how Hult is developing the highly skilled, resilient, and successful international business leaders of tomorrow?
Learn more about Hult’s approach to leadership development with the One-Year MBA.