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Characteristics of a successful expatriate

Another post dusted off and updated from the archives: Pucik and Saba (1998) define expatriate managers as "an executive who is able to assume a leadership position fulfilling international assignments across countries and cultures."

Yet most companies choose expats based on technical / managerial performance alone. Past behavior may be the best indicator for future behavior when it comes to psychology, but as soon as you cross borders, your usual behavior will yield very unusual results.

Expat leaders have to be culturally aware and open to adapting their style in order to be successful.

Rothwell (1992) defines six characteristics all successful leaders expatriates possess. He defines:

1. "international knowledge"

as "general knowledge about the world and global economy; national information about conditions in a specific country; and business understanding of strategy, process, and leadership style."

Black and Gregersen (1999) found in their research that companies differ in how they assess candidates, while looking for the following characteristics:

2. "a drive to communicate,"

which includes not being afraid to use rudimentary foreign language skills and being embarrassed.

3. A "broad-based sociability,"

which allows expatriates to move out of close expatriate circles and form ties with all kinds of locals.

4. "Cultural Flexibility" and

5. "Cosmopolitan Orientation,"

which both describe the open mind an expatriate needs to have when experimenting with different cultures, understanding and practicing them. The final characteristic is

6. the "collaborative negotiation style."

Expatriates need to be aware of the 'do's and don'ts' of international negotiation. For example, people coming from a low context culture like the Germans and Scandinavians appreciate explicit and clear forms of communication, whereas high context cultures, like Spain, divulge less information officially, but tend to be better informed than their counterparts anyway due to informal networks (Leeds et al, 1994).

These findings were publicized over 10 years ago.

How does your company choose international assignees?

Which training programs are in place to allow potential candidates to bridge the gap and obtain necessary qualifications?

Thank you for leaving your comments below!


Black, J. Stewart and Gregersen, Hal B. (1999) The right way to manage expats, Harvard Business Review

Leeds, Christopher, Kirkbride, Paul S. and Durcan, Jim (1994) Human Resource Management in Europe: Perspectives for the 1990s, London Routledge

Pucik, Vladimir and Saba, Tania (1998) Selecting and developing the global vs. the expatriate manager: a review of the state-of-the-art, Human Resource Planning

Rothwell, S (1992) The development of the international manager, Personnel Management

Til next week, when we'll talk a little bit more about candidate selection, have a good one!

Thanks to Vertes for the free pic!



Reintegration 101

Merriam-Webster online

The concept of home

Home can be a concrete notion, e.g. a soldier returning from war, or a repatriate returning after an international assignment, or a student returning from university or boarding school.

Coming home may have different time values attached to it. You can come home for the holidays, for a visit, or indefinitely.

Home can also be something intangible, in a sense that you may be returning to find yourself after a period of not being who you wanted to be or who you were meant to be. For example, you might be redefining yourself after a divorce, or a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Are you ever the same again after life-changing events?

Well, by that definition, no. A life-changing event changes your life.

Either way, I don't think staying the same is the point of living.

I believe all of us continually forge a "new normal," integrating our experiences from what came before. With a little introspection, we can learn to recognize how those experiences have impacted us. This will help us acknowledge and accept the change. Some changes are harder to accept than others, and some we may reject altogether.

But when we're ready to step into our new normal, we have to learn how to reestablish connections with people we knew from before.

Home-coming challenges

One of the challenges is reestablishing connections with people we knew from before if they have not gone through a similar transition. Someone who has never lived abroad or who has never been sent into battle has little concept of what that's like.

For repatriates, it can be difficult not sounding like a spoiled brat when recounting exciting exotic vacations or international adventures and mishaps to the folks who stayed back home.

For veterans, it can be difficult putting words to the things they have seen and done. More than that, you may not be allowed to talk about any of it to your family or friends. If that is the case, I hope you take advantage of mental health support that should be available to you. According to this Forbes articles, 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Don't be a statistic, call the Veteran Crisis Line.

Either way, the challenges of returning into a supposedly familiar environment after having broadened one's horizons are often underestimated. Consider the example of a disaster relief worker, who spent 12 months helping people on the other side of the globe survive. Upon returning home, none of her interactions had the same urgency or life-or-death aspect. This is also the case for many soldiers - once you get used to having adrenaline-filled days, standing in line at the local groceries store can be underwhelming, and disconcerting.

How can you deal with these challenges?

Approach your reintegration process the same as you did that of moving out. They are not called a process for nothing: it will take time and practice to feel at home again. If you like to plan, make a list. If you like to learn from others, contact your local vets center, or other repatriates from your company. If you like to read, consider any of the books (affiliate links).

Forging a new normal takes conscious awareness. You can only work on what you're aware of. If you don't think you need support in reintegrating, fine. But if you're the only one who feels that way, and you're receiving consistent feedback telling you otherwise (either directly in the form of verbal suggestions, or indirectly in the form of nobody's calling to hang out anymore) - maybe it's time to take a deep breath and think this through.

More on how to do that tomorrow.



What Soldiers and Expats have in common

landmines sandboxOne fearlessly accepts a challenge, moves to a foreign land, learns to dodge bullets, not step on landmines, and is afraid for his family's well-being, and the other is a soldier.


Both go abroad

Kidding aside, I'm not going to equate avoiding cultural landmines with avoiding actual ones. Still, many expats find themselves in so-called crisis posts or on hardship assignments. Depending on how sensitive you are to change, the adrenaline rush may even be comparable.landmines visual

Leaving your friends and families behind to serve your country or your corporation is a tremendous change process. You'll be cut off from your usual cultural cues, your living arrangements will be different, you may not speak the local language, you may not have access to your favorite food or entertainment items.

All of these changes contribute to brain shock. First, you'll have a reaction to the external differences. Then, later on, you may find yourself wondering about how you are the one that's different on the inside.

Both need training

Soldiers I've spoken to received an overview of local customs. Granted, their missions may not always involve connecting with the locals, but thankfully, e.g. the US Army is recognizing the importance of understanding your enemy at a cultural level. The following are quotes from the CNN article, "'Smart power': Army making cultural training a priority":

While physical conditioning and live-fire exercises certainly help prepare troops for deployment, they're culturally blind if they don't understand the people among whom they'll be fighting. In the 21st century, when the U.S. is at war with ideals as much as -- if not more than -- foreign armies, this blind side can be as dangerous as your M249 jamming.


Currently, anthropology, language and 10,000 years of heritage are squeezed into troops' curricula a few weeks before deployment, what Dowling calls "cultural training on steroids." Between pre-deployment paperwork and drills, they are handed a small pamphlet outlining some history and cultural no-nos to avoid.


Col. Jeff Broadwater said efforts to craft a more culturally savvy Army is an effort to foster more symbiotic relationships across various regions.

(...)The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated how cognizance of cultures, ethnicities and religions was essential to understanding the source of conflict, Broadwater said.

Dowling added that the training alone can help a soldier better understand the lay of any land. Even if troops received cultural training specifically for African nations, it would be better to use that unit in the Middle East than troops who weren't culturally aligned at all, he said.

"Anthropologically, socially, economically, they'll have to reset what the answers are, but the right questions will already be in their mind," he said.

Most corporations also understand the positive impact cultural awareness can have. The following are figures reported in the 2012 Brookfield Global Relocation Survey:

  • 81% of companies provided formal cross-cultural preparation. 44% on some assignments; and 37% on all assignments. Where cross-cultural preparation was offered only on some assignments, 51% made it available based on the type of assignment; 28% based on host location; and 21% based on other criteria.
  • Where cross-cultural training was offered on all assignments, 60% provided it to the entire family; 27% to the international assignee and spouse; and 8% for employees alone. There was an 11% increase in offering cross- cultural training on all assignments from the 2011 report.
  • At companies where cross-cultural training was offered, it was mandatory at 24% of companies.
  • 85% of respondents rated cross-cultural training as having good or great value.

As you can see, we're still far away from 100 %.

Both will face Reintegration issues

And this is what I want to take this week to explore a little further. I'll reference the "Introduction to Type and Reintegration" book by Elizabeth Hirsh, Katherine W. Hirsh and James Peak.

Thanks for joining me.



Tipping the Right Amount

Pic credit: Grant Cochrane Eating out, getting your nails done, taking a taxi - how much do you tip?

I asked myself that again last week while in New York. Taxis in Manhattan have a handy screen where you can choose the amount you wish to add as tip: 20 %, 25 %, or 30 %. If you want more options, I guess you better have cash on hand.

The tour guide through the UN building was offered a tip from an eager participant. She declined but vehemently hugged her.

Here in Texas if you don't like the service you simply give double the tax, about 16 %. If you like it, 20 % upwards it goes.

In Germany, we usually rounded up to the nearest two or so Euros. Base salaries for the service industry may be a bit higher though.

In Spain, my sister-in-law told us tipping was completely out since the crisis. Nobody had money to tip with, and waiters didn't expect it anymore.

In Mexico, everybody expected a tip whether we asked for the service or not. People would simply grab my grocery bags outside the store and insist on putting them in the trunk for me, or wave me out of the parking spot blowing on rather annoying whistles.

If you're an expat, the tips you are used to in your home country may be far too much, way too little, or even insulting in your host culture. Service levels will most certainly show discrepancies. The locals may also make exceptions for you and expect extra high contributions, assuming that as an expat your living standards are considerably better than their own or that of the local clientele (which may or may not be true). CNN wrote an article about international tipping a few years ago, and USA Today published this handy tipping chart you might want to consider as a basic guideline.



Domestic Relocations - Leadership Opportunity or Family Pitfall?

Business woman with suitcaseIf you've been following my blog for a while you know that I mainly work with expats - executive assignees and their accompanying spouses. We engage in personality-type based coaching using tools like the MBTI, and of course cross-cultural trainings. Over the past few weeks I've become more focused on women leaders. According to the 2012 Brookfield Global Relocation Study, women make up only 20 % of international assignees. And according to the 2009 Worldwide Employee Relocation Council on domestic relocation assistance (within the USA), which I'm interested in for this post, 32 % of domestic assignees are female.

First of all, let's look at the bright side: women assignees' numbers have been steadily rising from 13 % in 1986 to 31 % in 2003, holding at about 32 % ever since. Still:

Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2006) estimates that half of all workers in management, professional and related occupations are female, only one-third of transferees are women.

Why aren't more women moving for their careers, even across the country?

WERC's research suggests that

Women tend to be more reluctant than men to relocate if they believe a move may be disruptive to their children’s education and/or lives.

That may be a fair assessment. I'd also wonder if women are "leaning back", not applying for jobs they don't feel they're 100 % prepared for.

Ladies - everything we want is on the other side of awkward! I know how hard it can be to let go of "perfect", I'm still trying to work through Brené Brown's 10 Guideposts every day. I just invite you to remember that it's ok for the new assignment to challenge you a bit! After all, you want to learn something new, too, right? Helps with motivation, doesn't it?

As for all the other viable concerns like the housing market, not wanting to lose out on your mortgage, worrying about access to good schools for your children, or lacking career opportunities for the assignee's partners: These are all reasons for male assignees to turn down national and international opportunities, too, so I don't see why that would be different for women.

Domestic relocations are leadership opportunities, and don't have to be relationship or family pitfalls. With the right support, you can get the most talented and qualified person for that position across the country. When the company offers relocation assistance, job-finding support for the relocating spouse, flights back home to take care of e.g. elderly parents, or when questions like housing allowance or home-sales can be openly discussed, chances of coming to a mutually satisfactory agreement are good to great. Communication and dialogue - you should try them sometime, they're really wonderful things. And if you're a first-time relocator, give that WERC report a read, it may spark some ideas about what to ask for in your next relo meeting.

The best example for leaning in I've seen on TV recently is CJ Cregg on the West Wing. Never mind "leaning in", her character was asked to jump off a cliff (aka be Chief of Staff), and she did! Love this show.


How Women's Lives have changed since Downton


How Women's Lives have changed since Downton

Or have they?

Found on Pinterest
Found on Pinterest

Downton Abbey is a TV show set in rich rural estate in England in the early 1900s. The pomp and glamour of the upstairs Lords and Ladies compared and contrasted with the poorer, but no less proud maids' and butlers' lives downstairs is just too good to miss, and oh! the writing for the Dowager Countess. Priceless.

Seems a dream to be a lady in waiting, able to fill your days with reading, playing the piano, and doing some needlework. The odd entertaining of Gentlemen callers, dressing for dinner, sipping some sherry. Only if you were born into the ranks, mind, it's not like you could really "work your way up".

Then again, rich or poor, if you're not married off by your early 20s you're a spinster, and your man will likely leave if you don't bear him children. Sons at that. If you haven't watched the show yet, do, and see what the lives of all the Downton women teach us about women's struggles a mere 100 years ago. Amazing to think the resistance women had to overcome wanting to learn how to drive a car, vote, or seek fair employment.


Fast-forward ca 50 years, and there's another show called Call the Midwife, also BBC original, also available on Netflix and PBS. It's set in London's East End in the late 1950s and - based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth - follows the lives of midwives, nuns, and the women in their care.

It's an amazing history lesson, showing still-bombed out streets, foggy dockyards, and miles and miles of washing lines hung between the tenements. The midwives are riding their bicycles, down gallons of tea, and eat thick slices of buttered toast and sweet cakes. A luxury after the war. Pregnant women smoke during their exams, and countless babies are left in prams outside while their worn-out mothers give birth to yet another hungry mouth to feed. But, thanks to the National Health Service, everyone is better taken care of.

It's those washing lines that reminded me of another TED talk. Hans Rosling considers the washing machine the greatest invention of the 20th century. (The nuns and midwives would probably give that honor to the birth control pill, but anyway.) Rosling takes a short trip back in time to show his grandmother scrubbing every piece of garment, and he soon brings us back to today's reality. Out of 7 Billion people on the planet, only 2 Billion actually have access to a washing machine. The others are still having to heat the water and scrub. He continues to explain the impact washing machines (among other things) have on global energy consumption, and what they have done and can continue to do for women: give time to read books. Get an education themselves, or help educate their children.

There are still regions in the world where conditions described in Downton's and the Midwives' shows are true today. Women and men in Saudi Arabia are still fighting for women's right to drive. Women in countless developing nations don't have access to birthing clinics or medical care. I have written about Half the Sky before, and hope you take a moment to check out their website

So let me ask you: have women's lives really truly changed since Downton?

In some cases and in some places, yes. But not everywhere, and not for every woman.

How do you as an expat deal with being thrown 100 years into the past when moving to a developing country where the rights and amenities you took for granted no longer exist?

Image by Emerson Gibin, Flickr, Creative Commons License.


Self-Actualization Needs


Self-Actualization Needs

“What a man can be, he must be.” - Maslow The same applies to a woman.

Let's take a moment and address the potential bias in Maslow’s framework. Having conceived it through the lens of his own cultural background, Maslow’s hierarchy cannot be applied equally to every person on the planet. For example, the need for belonging might be more important in communitarian cultures. The need for self-fulfillment takes different definitions in cultures driven by achievement or ascription, whether there’s a belief in destiny or personal influence. Still, I hope you found the pyramid useful as a reminder to consider priorities and potential pitfalls in international relocation.

What international assignments help us realize is that we usually function on the higher levels of what is important to us. At home, we have the basic needs covered and take them for granted. Finding yourself in a new country means you get a blank slate. A do-over. Go back to square one. And this can be quite disconcerting. Be patient with yourself, and with your family members, as they may progress through the stages at a different pace.

This fifth level brings together the main lessons for expats from the other levels of needs in a nutshell, as moving abroad forces you to confront critical questions:

1. What can you eat, how can you cover yourself, and where will you sleep?

Thanks wikimedia commons
Thanks wikimedia commons

2. Is it safe, do you have to look over your shoulder, and will your family grow up healthy?

3. Whom can you trust, who will support you, will you have a mate?

4. How do you feel about yourself, what is your contribution, is there respect?

5. What is your purpose?

An international relocation will change how you see yourself, because it gives you new directions. If you’re a spouse who has to give up working, it can interrupt your quest for achievement in your current career. But it can also open your eyes to new possibilities you never even dreamed of, put you in touch with your passion, and strengthen your relationship through shared experiences.

Most of all, it helps you practice patience, planning, and persistence. You’ll learn to choose your response to tough situations. You’ll be responsible for what you make of your time abroad.

There’s a sense of empowerment as you flex your resilience muscles, and all these are life skills that will easily translate into other areas of leadership and personal growth as well.

At no point are you asked to give up your unique identity or cultural background. In fact, bring your diversity to the table and enjoy the synergies that arise! Being mindful of your own biases will help you differentiate between what’s personal and what’s cultural.

Congratulations, you are an expat!

Image by Emilia Garassimo, Flickr, Creative Commons License.



Self-Esteem Needs - Confidence, Achievement, Respect

Copyright Bill Watterson, Awesomest Cartoonist Ever. This one's for accompanying spouses without work-permit in particular: If you are used to being employed, not earning a living changes your sense of self. America is the country of “what do you do?” and the common lack of spousal employment during international assignments is the biggest factor of discontent. Maybe you’re choosing not to work, maybe you’re planning on starting a family, maybe you’ve never worked, or maybe you didn’t get a work-permit: living abroad will burst open even the tiniest cracks of self-doubt.

Become aware of your limiting beliefs that affect your

self-worth. Many are tied to numbers: the scale, the bank account, or friends on Facebook. If you find yourself spiraling into negative self-talk, try a coaching process called cognitive restructuring.

Cognitive restructuring works for thoughts or beliefs that are causing you pain. It helps you examine them and find more helpful alternatives, one belief or thought at a time. There are resources like The Work or of course you can talk with your Coach to get a personalized solution.

There are many ways to make a difference, even if you’re not allowed to work. Learn something in the local college or through an online course. Immerse yourself in the language and culture, you’ll be building marketable skills for your return! Learn to measure your contribution not in money or numbers, but in happiness, or time spent with your kids, or memories created with your partner.

What plans have you always postponed that you could now make time for? Write a book, start to paint, let out all the creative energy you’ve been storing up.



It is often said, Western civilization tends to follow the “having” and “doing” path, where a person’s value is measured by achievement. Eastern civilization, on the other hand, subscribes more to the concept of “being”. Consider the cultural difference in the two approaches: “doing” implies a person is the steward of their own fate, there’s the potential of upward mobility. “Being” implies acceptance and is often tied to the social status you’re born into.

Respect is a two-way street. As an expat, you are walking, living, and breathing diversity. What were your thoughts on immigration back home? How does it feel to be a foreigner yourself?

The more you know, the more you’ll understand what motivates our behaviors. Learn about your own culture and the one you’re moving to. Recognize behaviors are influenced by our values and our different interpretations of the same. The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do to you” does not work across cultures. Apply the Platinum Rule instead: “treat everyone the way they want to be treated”.