A Career on Side Roads and Scenic Routes

My friends and family laugh at me during road trips. “There you go again,” they say, “always taking the scenic route.” Yes, it’s true. Throughout my life I’ve lived and worked for the experience, zigzagging my way through career steps in nine countries on four continents, serving as an Executive Vice President of a publicly held global firm, as head of Asia Pacific, and as head of Europe before starting my own consultancy a few years ago.

The most common questions I get asked are, “What country do you like the most?” and “How do you deal with jet lag?” The first question is like asking me to choose between the colors of the rainbow. I have a few favorites, but it’s how the colors work together that creates the beauty. The second question has an easier answer: keep hydrated and sleep on the flight. Rarely am I asked what the real take-aways from my global career are. Here are a few of them.

I didn’t start out with the ambition to achieve what I have. Over time, with each new step, I slowly realized what I love to do, what I am good at, and what’s most important in my life. When looking in the rear-view mirror, I see that I got to where I am today by taking the scenic route and making course corrections along the way.

Early on, I learned, sometimes the hard way, to find my value proposition in every job. At 29, my first overseas posting, I relocated to Melbourne, Australia, to support the local team. The Los Angeles headquarters wanted to integrate the far-flung office into the global system and I was sent to Melbourne to accomplish this goal. I made every mistake in the book. After a month, the office head, his face burning, told me to either respect the local ways or ship out. He was right. I realized I still had one foot in headquarters. I needed to adjust and learn how best to support and add real value the local team.

A few years ago I asked an American working as an executive vice president for a global Korean company how he was able to adjust to his role: “For the first two weeks,” he said, “I just watched and listened. For me to understand the local ways, I needed to empty what is already in my head.” He was demonstrating humility in order to find his value proposition. Not surprisingly, he was a high performer. I’ve heard many successful expatriates and executives with a global career track express variations on this theme.

I also learned that executives aren’t meant to rocket to the top. Most, like me, zigzag a fair bit on their way up the ladder. This allows time to reflect on the quality of their trajectory, become more self-aware, and integrate the learnings of any hard lessons along the way. A senior executive who worked for Jack Welch once said to me that GE regretted moving their fast-track executives every two years. The practice encouraged action, but not necessarily deep learning.

In any great career there will be high-impact roles—hopefully lots of them—and other roles meant for reflection, learning, and growth. A career can become a colorful body of work; it doesn’t have to always look like a masterpiece.

My purpose didn’t just come to me. At my best, I was an innovator. I could see the big picture. My focus was on achieving results. Not a bad goal. But I wasn’t conscious of my purpose and knew that something was missing. I was not bringing my values to my leadership roles.

This became especially clear when I moved into a global position and learned that to succeed as a leader, I had to put my focus on the success of others. Through executive coaching, I began to reflect on my purpose and decided to hit the pause button, choosing to stop playing someone else’s game and transitioning into an entrepreneurial career that reflects my values to this day.

With these insights, I am hitting the road again and taking another scenic route with my firm. Today, CapitaPartners helps executives grow as effective global leaders. What I really do is to connect people to their passions, which drives bottom line performance and creates careers that matter.

All of us own our careers. We drive into the great landscape before us, take some scenic detours, add value wherever possible, and learn from the journey. In the process, I’ve learned to continually let go and leave something behind in order to expand and refine my purpose to create a brighter future.

Careers: The End of Expats?

Over the course of my career, I’ve packed my bags and moved countries eleven times. Along the way, I also held several short-term assignments lasting about a year for which I chose to live in hotels and serviced apartments instead. For most of those moves, I had my company’s commitment that as long as I performed, opportunities would await me when it was time to return home.

Back then, it was common for repatriation to be the underlying goal of both organizations and the executives they sent overseas. That has fundamentally changed, with high-potential talent managing their careers on their own terms while the best companies are investing more in developing local talent. As a result, the traditional three-to-five-year expatriate assignment is truly a thing of the past.

At the same time, while multinationals have cut back on expatriate packages, expats are more willing to give up those privileges in order to stay where the action is. Many voluntarily bail out of their expat status, recognizing it as a symbol of an outdated colonial mindset, and a costly burden for their employer. Others proactively look for opportunities to stay in Asia and apply their new expertise as “local” hires in new organizations once their initial expat assignment is over.

In fact, few self-respecting, globally minded executives would describe themselves first and foremost as “expats” today. The best recognize that to make a meaningful contribution, they need to blend into the international melting pot. They also value gaining experience over receiving immediate financial rewards— these executives are in it for the journey, not just “the job.”

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 “home.” “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 coming to terms with the realization that he is happier in Asia than in headquarters, just as his assignment there is coming to an end. “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 this is where the action is.”

For organizations, building a pipeline of mature and agile local leaders is a strategic and cost-effective move for the long-term that will take time to achieve. While more and more programs like Capita Partners’ AsiaNext platform are being offered to prepare high-potential local talent for global roles, for the foreseeable future, most companies still need expatriate mentors to help groom them.

Getting and maintaining an appropriate balance between expat and local executives will remain the challenge for HR teams, especially in fast-evolving markets, where “un-expats” with the right experience and attitude are presented with new opportunities all the time, regardless of a their current employer’s repatriation plan. 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, and they know they have choices.

Smart organizations will win their loyalty not with a binding expat deal of “three to five years,” but by ensuring that they provide immediate and tangible career benefits that outweigh tempting opportunities at other companies. It is time to let these expats “go local,” recognizing that all career paths do not lead back to headquarters. They lead to where the action is.

For those expats whose time has come to return home, a strategy for repatriation will help them make a smoother, more successful transition. Capita Partners offers game-changing workshops and one-on-one intensive coaching as part of its Xroads Career Engagement offerings. Contact info@capitapartners.com for more information.

CapitaPartners is a leader in global mindset and careers. The firm consults to multinational organizations on global leadership, expatriate assessment and selection, and repatriation

Castles in the sand? Building talent is the way to leave a lasting mark in Asian businesses

Is this your legacy?

“If you want to do business in China, send over your best people to first serve your customers and employees; not the investors. Build the business to last. Alibaba was born in 1999. I want us to last 102 years so that we last across three centuries.”
— Jack Ma
Founder and CEO, Alibaba

 Bart, a regional expatriate head of Asia for a fast-growing, mid-sized consumer technology company based in the US, spent two years trying to recruit a Country Manager for their largest business in Asia. This executive, young and high-potential, churned through more than twenty candidates over this two-year period, never quite satisfied enough to make an appointment. Meanwhile, Bart, always moving from sales pitch to sales pitch, drove the business in Asia until, after two years, he got the promotion he wanted back home and his assignment in Asia came to an end. He eventually left the company after a frustrating repatriation and called me with a request to assist him in his job search. “I love Asia,” he said. “I grew the business in Asia 30 percent during my two years.” I then asked him how the business is doing now. “Not good,” he said. “After I left, the business fell apart. Weak leadership. They don’t have the talent” I wasn’t sure if he was bragging about his successes before the company’s fall, or admitting to a cardinal sin for a multinational expatriate leader in Asia: failure to build talent.

Could this peripatetic executive have achieved more by helping others be successful? Would this business be stronger today if Bart had built a stronger platform of high-potential local leaders? Bart, like many ‘heroic’ expatriate executives in bustling Asia, ended his career with this multinational with nothing to show for it. With his repatriation back to the US, the business was no better off, an also-ran in a sea of local competitors (like Alibaba).

All expats are tempted to demonstrate value immediately, to be the hero they were hired to be. Yet many expats conclude their assignments having erected castles in the sand. It doesn’t take long for waves of change to wash their achievements away, even as they get promoted for their great work.

So what’s the job of the regional multinational leader in Asia? Effective leaders define their value by setting the agenda, creating the space for others to be successful, building for tomorrow. They find ways to tap into the entrepreneurial value system in China described by Jack Ma. For some this may mean spending more time coaching talent, gaining alignment on a bigger vision, building infrastructure, or unlocking the potential of teams. Or defining a more liberating culture and creating opportunity for locals to create new ideas, business models, products or customers. Or making that long-awaited appointment in North Asia,even if not perfect. Great talent doesn’t need more heroic bosses. They need space to grow.

Tomorrow’s regional head of Asia is today’s unpolished gem. The message to Bart: take a risk on talent, give space. Talent is everything. By the time my 30 year-old associate becomes a gray-haired partner like me, two-thirds of the world’s middle class will be buying through Alibaba or through giant malls in the suburbs of Asia. Our businesses in Asia will have grown five to ten times in scale. For most companies, China will be a larger domestic market than the US. On a typical Friday afternoon, more of your suppliers, customers, outsourcers, and consultants will be connecting through Chengdu on their flights home than through Chicago, with fewer delays.

What does this mean for multinationals doing business in Asia? The Chinese consumer doesn’t know or care where your board members meet or on what stock exchange your shares trade. They want products on the shelves to meet their needs at the right price points. Jack Ma’s principles apply: Focus on the customer. Be entrepreneurial. Treat your employees well. Exploit local opportunities. Multinationals need to build talent on an unprecedented scale from the inside out. For you heads of Asia: what’s your legacy?

(This post is a revised version of a prior post)

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.

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