The end of the expat assignment: Westerners ‘go local’ in Asia rather than return to headquarters

Take the plunge

Take the plunge

We all know that multinationals have cut back on expatriate assignments. So what are the expats doing? Also going local.

Expats and their employers—each for different reasons—are converging on a similar outcome: an end to the expat commitment. We’re witnessing the rise of the un-expat.

Bonnie, an American citizen, has shuttled between the U.S., Singapore, and Australia for most of her work life, always as an assignee from headquarters. Now a regional executive in Asia with a top-tier U.S.-based company, she was almost speechless when I asked her if she has any plans to return to headquarters. “Why would I do that? The opportunities are in Asia.” Another American, a top regional executive with a U.S. multinational who has been in Singapore less than a year, is just now coming to terms with the realization that he is happier in Asia than in headquarters. “It’s emotionally tough to consider the possibility of leaving after spending my entire life with this company. But I’ve got to look to where the opportunities are, here or on the outside. And after being exposed to the opportunities in Asia, this is where the action is.” Like Bonnie, he is open to giving up the lucrative expat deal for a local-hire package with a great organization.

There are many reasons multinationals continue to send their high-potential executives to Asia as expats, even as the emphasis has shifted to hiring local talent. Once these executives arrive in Asia, from what I see, all bets are off. For many expats, the traditional three-to-five-year expatriate assignment is a thing of the past. Over time, some willingly bail out of their expat status, recognizing these benefits as symbols of a colonial mindset or as visible and costly burdens for their employers. Others, like those I mentioned, look to stay on with their new expertise as “local” hires. At any rate, good people want to manage their careers on their own terms, while good companies are taking steps to hire and develop local talent.

For a multinational corporation trying to manage the shift, though, it’s not so easy. Building a pipeline of mature, agile, and ready local leaders is both strategic and cost-effective. But apprenticing local talent takes time. So even as they reduce their expat employees, most companies still need a blend of expatriate mentors and high-potential local talent. That’s why, the top, at the most strategic and regional levels, fully-loaded expatriate packages are still the norm. Getting this balance right, and keeping it, is tough. Especially now that the talent—whether local nationals, localized expats or strategic assignees—hold all the cards.

Indeed, few self-respecting executives would describe themselves as expats today. All talent, local or non-local, recognize the need to blend into the local melting pot to make a meaningful contribution. There’s also more eagerness to gain experience over immediate reward—a bold shift in mindset borne partly out of expats’ survival instincts and partly out of a desire to shape their own careers.

These un-expats understand that with success and the right attitude, career opportunities exist internally and externally, locally and overseas, all the time, regardless of a current employer’s repatriation plan, especially in fast-evolving Asia. Their future is determined by the cut and thrust of the market for talent, not by some executive sponsor in headquarters. Recruiters call every day. These executives are in it for the journey, not just the job; they own their careers and take things as they come. Being “an expat” is a thing of the past. They’re now local.

A multinational will win the loyalty of an assignee not with a binding expat deal, but by ensuring that the he or she receives immediate and tangible career benefits here and now (and that these benefits outweigh sexy opportunities on the outside). At the same time, let the expats “go local.” Don’t fear losing them and don’t talk in vague notions about three to five years.

All career paths don’t lead back to headquarters, after all. They lead to where the customers are.

Roads not taken: Considering the opportunity costs of career choices

Which track?

Most of my conversations with job-seekers focus more on finding jobs than on making career or life changes. This makes sense. My corporate clients are practical: they need to know if and how the candidate’s leadership skills, motivations, and competencies match the needs of the organization. Most of my candidates are not out of work; they tend to view their career as a linear trek up the ladder. They’ll ask if the opportunity provides more responsibility, challenge or pay.

And yet every step up the ladder has an opportunity cost: the road not taken. The conversation on “career changes” forces executives to ponder deeper questions relating to their basic motivations, aspirations, and dreams. What am I good at and why? What if I did follow my dreams? What are the consequences of not taking the big leap? How realistic are my aspirations? What’s blocking me from achieving them or even taking the first step?

Most of us don’t take the time to envision our future. The recent Great Recession forced many executives to re-examine their careers only after they found themselves out of a job.

When is the right time to ask these questions? Probably every year if you want to make sure your career doesn’t head off down a track you didn’t intend.

These are meaty conversations for career coaches, spouses, mentors, priests, and best friends – someone with no axe to grind, who has no other agenda than to help with your career choices and life goals. There are books written on the subject and you’ll also find links on the right side of this blog. Most of these articles or guides provide “tips” rather than start with the unique needs of the career-changer.

It wouldn’t hurt to open up to executive search consultants when you get the call – if you can find one that will care about you, the person, not you, the candidate. But the conversations need to start somewhere. If it doesn’t start here and now, then when is a better time?

The body of work: A career is not a ladder, but a zig-zag path through experience

Yesterday a young candidate asked me, “If you were me, what would you do? Go for this new position, stay and get promoted, or wait for something better to come along?” He seemed bewildered, almost distraught with the weight of his decision.

We’ve all experienced this feeling. I said to him, think of each career step not as a ladder to climb, a good or bad decision, but as an opportunity to stretch yourself, gain insights, and learn new things. Your career will be marked by the total body of your work.

By constantly selecting — devouring — opportunities for personal development (isn’t this what a promotion is?), you will differentiate yourself, prompting others to take notice because you become a solution to their problem. The result, over time, is advancement. The path is not linear or always up. It is a zig-zag road defined by failures, heartaches, satisfaction, and celebration. Responsibility is heaped on those who don’t always aspire to it.

Meanwhile, back to our candidate. Rather than grab every new experience that comes his way, he’ll need to establish his bearings. What is he good at, how does he need to develop, and what is his ultimate destination? The sign-post marking ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ should be based on which direction provides the best or fastest opportunity to acquire the skills and competencies that are critical to reaching his goals. Waiting for the promotion is a mindset that often results in getting passed over. Clarity of purpose will lead to a life of surprises.
Just for fun, take a fresh look at Yojimbo, the Japanese period film directed by Akira Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifune portrays a masterless samurai, or ronin, whose counsel is sought by rival gangs because of his unique ability to provide a solution to each. I’m reminded of the film because the main character also faces a fork in the road. His achievement is measured by his terms.

Job-seeking from the inside out

I received a resume in the mail the other day from an European executive with no experience in Asia seeking a job with a company in Asia in the ‘manufacturing sector.’ Is he trying to sell coal to Newcastle? Think of this executive as a product. Whatever qualities, or benefits, this product has, I’m not buying. So, how does this executive find demand for his product? In this market, it’s not as simple as saying “build it and they will come.”
Product innovation is about building a product from the inside out to address a real need. Can job seekers approach job hunting the same way? To some degree. The only difference is that our task in job hunting is to find the real need after the product has been engineered. Still we’ll need to spend some time understanding our offering from the inside-out.
Most hiring managers will want to know that the executive they are hiring is about 90% right and that they address a critical need. They are not interest in facilitating someone’s career change. They don’t care about someone else’s dreams. Companies care about solving their problem and will arrange an interview only if they think we can be an answer to their dreams. So what about the perfect job for you and me? Is it too idealistic to consider that our ideal job might also be the one for which we are 90 percent right?
Here is your assignment, your bit of self-reflection and questioning. What are you most proud of, what impact have you made and how? Observe how your actions and behaviors in the past have led to positive outcomes. In what types of situations? And what about the opposite? When outcomes have been negative, what actions and behaviors did you demonstrate that led to these outcomes? In what situations? Most of us excel in certain situations and at certain things, and not at others. You will find that when these situations repeat themselves, your success rate goes up. Focus on the successes. Are there patterns? Organize your strengths and weaknesses. Use words to these describe these behaviors that led to your successes (Lominger has a library of competencies for you to use). You might organize these words into headings, like Strategic, Operational, Interpersonal, and the like. Link these word descriptions to actual examples in your past. Validate these words by asking others how they would describe you. When they use a word to describe your style or strengths, ask them why and to cite examples of situations when you used that strength. You can tell yourself that you will only explore opportunities that hit 90% of these qualities.
Now it’s time to engage with the outside world. Research companies and situation that are experiencing challenges might require your qualities or strengths. What are the challenges these companies are facing? Hypothesize about the critical organizational capabilities needed to address these challenges. Network your way in. Find someone inside the company to engage with. Test your hypotheses. Probe and listen. Remember your research on the issues and hunches about the organizational capabilities that are critical for success. Are your hunches correct?
This type of meeting doesn’t seem like an interview because it isn’t. You can provide solutions only by understanding their needs, based on your unique perspective and understanding of this company’s challenges. Your probing during the meeting will provide the opening to use specific expamples of situations where you’ve helped to build the same organizational capabilities, where your competencies have led to positive results in situations that the company can relate to. So, can you demonstrate your unique benefits in a way that results in a buyer, a potential hiring manager, reaching across the table and saying “I need some of this?” Remember my example of the executive in Europe? Does it really make sense for him to cast his resume as far as possible and hope to get lucky?

Zig-zag your way to the top

Another 540,000 jobs lost in the United States last month. Unemployment inching towards ten percent. Don’t despair. Those of us who are not economists are no longer pessimists.

Now that the knee-jerk-driven 10 percent job cuts have hit the P&L and revenues have bottomed out, CEOs are doing their spring cleaning with more thought, believing that now is the time to re-deploying a tighter and tattered workforce more effectively around the real work that needs to get done.
The requires that bosses get a firm grasp of a narrower strategy and know the in-house capabilities of their people. They need to understand the strengths of their leaders, plug the gaps, find the fast learners, and move to implement the new organization fast. There will be a few more lay-offs, but the result will be a more motivated and relevant workforce. Welcome to a more productive phase of the recession.
If you’ve managed to emerge with a new and interesting job, you’re one of few lucky ones. Here’s what you’ve probably done, more or less: You’ve accurately assessed your company’s strategy and the capabilities necessary to achieve success. Then you’ve assessed your own competencies in light of your company’s strategies and did a good job of communicating with your boss about your personal goals and development needs. You were proactive but also empathetic about the needs of the company. All of this takes some honesty, humility, and a willingness to grow during these bleak times. Don’t wait to get shown the door. Take the time to figure this stuff out. If you’re job hasn’t changed, don’t take your company’s narrower strategy for granted.
The willingness to see the upside of a lateral move is a sign of maturity. This recession will slow your progress up the ladder. But don’t let it slow your personal and professional development. For better or worse, seize the fruits of a zig-zag career.
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