What qualities do expats need to succeed?

4 July 2017

The task of managing a global assignment is a complex one. Global mobility departments are constantly asking themselves how best to do it. The cost of failure is high – and according to the most pessimistic figures, 40% of global assignments are deemed unsuccessful. So what can global mobility departments do to ensure success? Should they offer different financial packages? Offer more training? Manage the relocation itself in a different way? Or maybe think more about the assignee’s family?

All of these are valid concerns for global mobility professionals. But one of the most important factors for success is utterly beyond their control: whether the chosen candidate has the personal qualities to succeed. These qualities for success can be grouped into three areas: intellectual, psychological and social.

1. Intellectual qualities for expat success

The cognitive nature of intellectual qualities means that, if a candidate does not already possess them, they can be learned, either during the assignment or before departure.

Technical and business skills

These may include knowledge of products and technological developments, as well as the skills required to adapt them to local markets and needs. Frequently the assignee’s role will involve collaboration between geographies, making it important for them to understand global processes and inter-relations.

Industry knowledge

A successful assignee needs awareness of markets and competitors. For example, if a product expert is sent on assignment from the US to South America, they would need to understand how the market dynamic differs in South America, even though the required knowledge of the competitors’ products themselves remains the same.

Management knowledge

Understanding of (and a track-record in) management and leadership is important. But one size does not fit all. As Mansour Javidan – dean of research at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and co-author of the HBR article Making It Overseas – points out: “There are fundamental differences in the cultures of different countries, in the expectations of leaders in different countries, so the same style that works in one country not only may not work in another country but it may actually cause some negative consequences”.

Language skills

Candidates will benefit from having a grasp of the local language. However, truly bilingual candidates, able to conduct business meetings in more than one language, will be at a significant advantage and are more likely to thrive.

2. Psychological qualities for expat success

While harder to quantify than the knowledge-based qualities of the previous section, these ‘softer’ psychological traits are still critical. Broadly, they fit into the following types:

Personal drive

The desire to succeed is a key factor. Expats will encounter problems, but some are blessed with a resilience that comes from pure ambition. If your assignee has the strength to deal with difficult times and handle the many complications that come with doing business in a different country, they are far more likely to succeed.

Flexibility

In the same way that management skills and leadership styles will have to be adapted, the successful expat will find themselves questioning the way they do almost everything. From technology to business processes, daily routines and even domestic life, expats must be open minded and ready to change rather than expecting the new environment to change around them.

Organization

Flexibility does not, however, mean lack of structure. Expats who are poorly organised are less likely to thrive. An expat’s personal financial affairs, for example, can become quite complex (see our recent post on Expat Financial Considerations) and highly organized individuals are more likely to cope with this, and therefore be able to apply themselves to their work without the stress caused by personal disorganization.

Patience

A very important virtue during a global assignment, patience will help expats to remain stress-free. Different cultures move at different speeds and you cannot expect, for example, German punctuality in a culture that is a little more relaxed about timing. On a people level too, expats are more likely to succeed if they don’t pile pressure on others or expect too much of them too soon.

3. Social qualities for expat success

The last but not least of the qualities required is the ability to get on with others. Building trusted working relationships with people from different cultures is not easy, but some are innately better at it than others. Their social skills no doubt derive from other aspects of their personality (e.g. the patience and flexibility mentioned earlier) but sometimes it is simply a matter of charisma. If you want to choose an expat to go into a new environment and be successful, he or she needs to be able to build effective working relationships quickly.

This was already noted as far back as 1992, when S. Rothwell wrote in The Development of the International Manager about the need for expats to possess a “drive to communicate," and a "broad-based sociability". Mr. Rothwell suggested that the expatriates most likely to succeed were those psychologically inclined to establish a rapport with people outside their typical national peer group. Clearly, you can be the smartest business person in the world, but just being friendly is a key factor in the success of a global assignment overseas.

The relationships are of course essential in getting the work done and therefore in proving the success of the assignment on a business effectiveness level – but expats are far more likely to see out the duration of their assignment if they (and their families) forge social bonds quickly. 

Language skills will also help assignees to build relationships. Even if an assignee never becomes proficient enough to conduct business in the local language, showing a willingness to try will help enormously. It is a compliment to your hosts and an assignee who genuinely possesses the qualities to build trusted local relationships instinctively knows this.

Choosing the right candidate

Once you know the qualities required, the most important task is to create a candidate selection process that takes these into account. There will be other factors – internal political influences, the need to ‘reward’ key talent, as well as specific experience factors – but if you can ensure that your candidates have at least a fair proportion of the qualities listed above, you will be maximising your chances of success.

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