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The Evolution of Cross-Cultural Trainings


The Evolution of Cross-Cultural Trainings

Pic Credit: jannoon028

Pic Credit: jannoon028

Since cross-cultural preparation is widely accepted to improve expatriate performance and 83% respondents believe it has good or great value, the lack of a practice that makes the benefit mandatory is disappointing.Brookfield Relocation Report

As you know, I’ve been offering cross-cultural trainings myself, and facilitating programs for global service providers since 2009. I have yet to meet a single expat who thinks it wasn’t worth their time. On the contrary, the feedback is very positive all-round, with both assignee and spouse realizing that investing one or two days in a training has saved them weeks of worry and misunderstandings in settling-in time.

Interestingly, “35% of respondents provided media-based or web-based cross-cultural training – an all-time high. More companies (25%) use it to supplement formal training, and its portability is cited as a chief reason (20%) along with cost (20%).” (Brookfield GRS)

That’s 60 % of respondents using some form of web-based cross-cultural training.

Are you one of the 10 % who exclusively use or have exclusively experienced media-based or web-based training to prepare for your assignment? How effective did you think it was? I can imagine video-conferences and delivering the training in a conversational style. Trainer and expat would see each other, and have some freedom to communicate non-verbally (provided the webcam connection is smooth). I also know that when I’ve facilitated a training where a presentation was given by over the phone, the participants nearly always suggested in-person presenters as an improvement.

When I think about webinars - printed material and narrated slideshows may certainly be appealing to the introvert* assignee, or those who prefer to learn by reading and listening. What about experiential learners or extraverts* though?

Virtual, by definition, is lacking actual human interaction. Can talking to a screen ever be as satisfying as the welcoming handshake, getting up to doodle something on the flipchart, and simple face-to-face communication? The topics we’re dealing can get quite personal in nature, so the relative anonymity when training online might act as a barrier or a lubricant to trusting and sharing, depending on the personality of trainer and assignees.

I wonder what your experience would be comparing online vs. face-to-face. I know that I’ve coached online and it’s worked like magic, but training is not coaching.

The above is assuming there is a live trainer involved in the media- or web-based training delivery. What if they include or allude to self-study courses though? Talking from the extravert perspective now: How, when it’s tough enough to get them into a room with an engaging, personable, experienced professional, are you going to convince your assignees it’s a good investment of their time to go read and do some exercises online? Can you call it a training if it’s tantamount to reading a book?

In summary, using online material to periodically repeat and practice what was learned in a face-to-face training, is something I can get behind. What about you? Looking forward to your comments below!

Thanks and have a good one.

*introverts – one half of the first dichotomy of preferences for energy source as defined by the MBTI®. People with a preference for introversion get their energy from and focus their energy on their inner world of thoughts and experiences. Dealing with the outside world can be draining their energy, they like to think things through.

*extraverts – one half of the first dichotomy of preferences for energy source as defined by the MBTI®. People with a preference for extraversion get their energy from and focus their energy on the world of people and things that surrounds them. Left to their own devices they might get antsy, they prefer talking things over.

(From the archives, first published in April 2010) 



Only 9 % of Expat Spouses are employed during their assignment

Pic credit: stockphoto

Pic credit: stockphoto

Brookfield Global Relocation Trends Survey shows that for relocating couples, 50 % of spouses were employed before the move, and only 9 % also during (2009). In other words, when considering the option to support their partner’s career, four out of five spouses do so at the cost of their own. 

Here are two mitigating circumstances that might make those numbers seem a little less scary:

  1. Some spouses might be unemployed because they cannot find suitable work due to economic challenges. It’s true, the labor market has been difficult to get into, especially in 2009 when this survey was taken. At the risk of sounding spoilt, I know from personal experience that working in another country is especially unappealing when the wages range at about 1/10th of what you’re used to earning.
  2. Other spouses might welcome the break in their working life and use the time abroad to pursue secondary education or start a family. In fact, I would love for Brookfield to add this distinction to their next survey, because I feel it makes a huge difference to the self-esteem of the spouse (and in consequence to the well-being of the family) if they have a choice.

Having said that, it is more likely that the spouse simply did not receive a work permit, because the sad fact is that obtaining such paperwork is costly and - in most countries - a bureaucratic nightmare. Still, 34 % of responding companies reported actually sponsoring spouse work permits.

Given that family issues and spouse career and resistance are the top reasons cited for both “critical family challenges” and “top reasons for assignment refusal,” the report points out:

With such widespread agreement about the nature of these challenges over such a long period of time, the lack of apparent success in addressing them is puzzling and they continue to appear year after year.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself, in fact, I’ve been wondering about this very same thing for some time now.

So, are you one of the four or the one who’s continuing to work? What were your choices? If you are one of the four who do not work anymore, which tips do you have for other readers to make the most of their time? Would you recommend volunteering? Why or why not?

(from the archives, first published in 2010) 



Supporting Expat Spouses

Pic credit - fdecomite

Expat spouses often find themselves having to choose between a rock and a hard place. Moving every few years, relocating your sense of self and establishing new social circles are great fun and fantastic adventures if you have an outgoing, curious and flexible personality. If you're looking for stability on the other hand, your patience will be tested.

When it comes down to it, are you prepared to choose between your relationship and your livelihood?

The 2012 Brookfield Global Relocation Trends Study reports:

Although they are still in the majority, there are far fewer married international assignees than in the past. Given that the re-emergence of optimism in some segments of the economy is widely divergent and cautious at best, the desire of many families to preserve their two-income status is likely a strong factor in this result. In this year’s report, the percentage of international assignees that are married was 60%, the lowest in the last four years of the survey, and a full 7% under the historical average (67%). Furthermore, this year’s percentage is down 8% from last year’s report (68%) and 14% from the survey high of 74% that was reported 12 years ago. As economic realities continue to remain in flux for many employees with families, it is possible that companies’ current international assignment programs are not adequately meeting the needs of employees with spouses, causing them to decline international assignment opportunities. In any case, the identification of this as a longer term trend affords companies the opportunity to ensure their policies and benefits are aligned to meet the changing profiles of their assignees.

Imagine your partner presents you with the fact that it's a 3-year stint in Malaysia, or bye-bye VP promotion. He really wants and needs to go, but he will turn it down if you're not on board.

Great! You're involved in the decision!

Now let's see: you have a great life, your family and friends live nearby, your parents are getting up there in age, you've a fantastic job, your kids adore their school, you love your house - and you love your spouse, too.

If you decide not to give up what you have, will he eventually resent you for it? Probably right around the time that other guy gets the promotion.

If you decide to support him and move, effectively giving up your life as you know it, to a place where you cannot read grocery labels, your hairdresser doesn't understand you wanted blond not red highlights, and the culture is completely alien, will you resent him for it?

Not unlikely. Hell, your marriage may fall apart altogether.

Still, the chances of you going abroad are a lot higher in this scenario than they would be if we swapped pronouns:

Imagine your partner presents you with the fact that it's a 3-year stint in Malaysia, or bye-bye VP promotion. SHE really wants and needs to go, but SHE will turn it down if you're not on board.

As it is, 80 % of expats are men, and only 20 % are women. Brookfield's data does not go into marital status detail by gender, or at least I haven't heard back from them about it. So the reality is, more often than not it's women who have to decide between love and their own careers.

Going back to yesterday's happiness formula, I recommend adopting a positive attitude. If you decide to go abroad, find ways to fill your days with things you love but never had the chance to pursue. Do your best to be prepared for as much as you can prepare yourself for, and maintain open and honest communication throughout the process. Your partner needs to hear how you feel so you can effectively support each other.

Preparing for an international assignment comes in many different shapes and sizes. Sometimes a bit of a Google search is sufficient, many times all out language classes are appropriate. I always recommend cross-cultural trainings - even and especially if you're moving to countries with the same language. And there may also be circumstances that warrant continuous coaching support.

The good news is, your decision doesn't have to be "either relationship, or career". International experiences can lead to a broader range of (marketable!) skills and competencies for everyone involved. They can strengthen a family bond, and you'll create memories ranging from anecdotes to moments of profound shifts in your being.



Global Relocation Trends 2012

Brookfield GRS 2012Expat assignments are a costly and complex change process. In 2011, companies spent about $9.3bn on domestic and international relocations in the USA alone. That makes it comparable to the American plastic surgery ($10bn) and the Chinese gaming industry ($9.7bn). An organization will likely spend four to five times the annual salary for every person they send abroad. Support services including pre-departure readiness assessments, cross-cultural training, language classes, home visits, and coaching amount to under 5 % of total relocation cost. I've written about it before and presented at FIGT (

It appears companies are beginning to recognize that these “soft” services have a hard impact on the bottom line.

According to the Brookfield 2012 Global Relocation Trends Survey, “Respondents indicated that 6 % of assignments fail. (Author’s note: Continuing from our numbers above, that’s a $558m loss every year in the US alone.) Top causes for failure are the employee leaves to work for another company; spouse/partner dissatisfaction; other family concerns; and the job does not meet expectations.”

The top reason for early returns are family concerns: one in three expats (33 %) does not complete their assignment due to, for example, family members not adjusting to the new culture. Companies are trying to improve ROI though “better candidate selection/assessment; career-path planning to utilize cross-border skills upon return; more effective communication of assignment objectives; better assignment preparation; and mandatory cross-cultural preparation”. (

These and similar surveys have been showing the same trends over the last 20+ years: to help ensure you don't lose money on international assignments, take care of the whole family. Making cross-cultural preparation mandatory is a step in the right direction.

What would it take to add personality type-aware coaching to the mix?



D/FW Businesses confirm Brookfield Global Relocation Trends Study's Findings

(FEM Logo) On the heels of Brookfield Relocation Services' webinar presented by the company's Executive VP Global Sales & Marketing Scott Sullivan at 10.00 a.m. Central on June 18th, 2009, the Dallas chapter of the Forum for Expatriate Management welcomed the Houston-based Brookfield Director John Young to present key findings over a round table luncheon meeting. About two dozen corporate representatives of D/FW mobility experts breathed life into the latest Global Relocation Trends Survey report's numbers and compared notes on policy, strategy, and innovative approaches.

The survey was conducted between the months of November 2008 and January 2009; impeccable timing to capture the effects and expectations of the impending economic downturn. The survey contained over 120 questions and was sent out to members of the Foreign Trade Council, amongst others, and 180 companies replied. A copy can be obtained on Brookfield's website, nevertheless, allow me to cite a handful of interesting numbers and observations from the meeting:

67 % of respondents in the previous year had anticipated an increase in the use of expatriate assignments for 2008, only 37 % of current respondents actually reported one. (It is unclear whether they are the same respondents.) 25 % reported a decrease in expat activity, 42 % expect no change.

When asked about the main business objectives of international assignments, 25 % of respondents cited bridging a skills gap, to which one round table participant quoted a colleague who said, and I'm paraphrasing, "if you want skills development, send [them] to Harvard, that's cheaper." Speaking of which, 68 % of current respondents plan to reduce assignment expenses through various means, e.g. reducing the number of assignments, applying increased scrutiny and selection, postponing assignments, not replacing assignees, as well as local hiring. Top 5 policies reported, and echoed by the audience, are localization, extended business travel arrangements, commuter, short-term assignments, and one-way relocations.

Each of these strategies bear their own challenges, as one mobility specialist's comment "[short term assignments] are a pain to organize" that met with wide-spread agreement demonstrated. Participants did not contribute significant data to support the survey's intra-regional relocation trend, but the point of global HR policy being decided centrally was confirmed.

Cross-cultural training programs (CCT) were discussed in that they are mandatory or highly recommended by the larger companies in the audience and are part of policy for some (i.e. cannot be eliminated). Only 2 % of survey respondents think that CCTs have little or no value, yet the survey indicates it is one of the first elements to get cut. Only 35 % of all respondents offer it for all assignments, 19 % do not offer CCTs at all, and for 10 % one of the criteria to provide it is upon employee request. There lies a challenge in the fact that many first-timers simply have no inkling about the big picture of relocation and of which services are available to them out there. Expats are also encouraged to be pro-active about their long-term career goals and insist on frequent HQ contact, mentors, and a defined role to come back to after the average two to three-year assignment. More about repatriation in the following paragraphs.

27 % of survey respondents said they use career planning and 26 % use more thorough candidate selection initiatives to improve return on investment (ROI). With only 6 % reportedly measuring ROI, this statistic appears to leave room for speculation. Considering the complexity of international relocation, its policy, legislation and tax factors  as well as the human element to name a few, this is not surprising. None of the audience members reported to have satisfactory quantifiable measurement systems or timely repatriation discussion practices in place, either. To determine ROI, some of the participants look for lateral continuation of the employee within the company after an assignment, some use performance metrics (information that often doesn't reach the mobility team), others use cost projections (but don't always compare to actual expenses after the fact). It appears a connection between the main reason for assignment refusal and failure (family concerns: 92 %, partner dissatisfaction: 56 % respectively) and measuring ROI has yet to be determined. Further survey data portraying expat family concerns was not addressed in this round table discussion.

It was commented that the business unit receiving the assignee should be best to determine the feasibility of the investment, yet for example an extension of the assignment cannot always be interpreted as, "they're doing a good job, we want them to stay longer." Sometimes, assignments get extended because the project isn't finished, sometimes the investment needs to be protected (as well as face needs to be saved). In any case, it was recommended to maintain and constantly review a list of very clear assignment objectives as well as staying on top of tax regulations. It is important to keep in mind the majority of respondents were US-based or headquartered companies, as there are cultural differences to how much value is placed on a specific task or monetary return as opposed to relationships established and other "soft" indicators.

As for repatriation practices, 37 % of survey respondents said repatriation is discussed less than six months before the end of the assignment. Even if you have a position planned to return to, situations and economies can change, as we have seen, which is why one participant stated they include termination clauses into the expat agreement upfront. As with every other aspect of fair expat dealing, clear communication of policy and boundaries in a timely manner on the part of corporate/HR will greatly reduce misunderstandings and help foster realistic expectations.

Outsourcing was another topic that I hope to hear much more about. Mr. Sullivan cited the benefits of outsourcing as allowing for scalability (once the expat volume picks up again) and increased efficiency. Mr. Young added specialized expertise, a wider network of contacts, as well as better reporting, and that mainly visa and immigration issues are preferably handled in-house. A number of participants pointed out the difference in attitude towards outsourced and in-house personnel, and the benefits of having a mutually supportive "how can we do this better?" attitude were mentioned.

In closing, the advantages and disadvantages of the "core-flex" approach of a consistent base expat package with à la carte items was discussed. On the one hand, it allows for standardization and theoretically reduces confusion (until expats start talking amongst each other and compare who asked and who received what). On the other, no family is the same and circumstances are always different. One participant shared they introduced a "life-style allowance" to avoid single expats arguing against specific spousal allowances that they wouldn't get to enjoy. I admit I didn't think to clarify whether a single person's allowance is the same as that for a family of five. In any case, "core-flex" is supposedly going to be demanded by Gen Y expats, but whether that has any bearing on the fact that according to the survey only 9 % of assignees are in their 20s is unclear.

The FEM round table is a fantastic forum for corporate mobility experts to brainstorm and share solutions, and it offers guests and service providers valuable insight into HR's point-of-view and the complexity of expatriate relocation. Congratulations to Yvonne Bosson for organizing another successful round table and efficiently moderating the hot-off-the-press presentation, thanks to Alcatel-Lucent for generously hosting the event, John Young for his insights and for sponsoring a well-received lunch, and last but not least the participants who so freely shared their experiences. I'm looking forward to next month's meeting already. :-)

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