The “Career expatriate”.

By Kevan Hawley – Managing Director of Expatriate Preparation.

I have often wanted to debate this terminology which is so often used in our fraternity and so the time has come.

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So often in the past 21 years of training and developing global workforces I have come across expatriates who have proudly told me that they are “Career Expatriates” and are very proud to tell me that they have “been on three or four assignments and are ready to do more”.

So I ask myself what is a career expatriate?

I have come to the conclusion that there are 2 types of “career expatriates” (there is a continuum between the two of course):

The first types are those that do it for the money and only money (with no desire to understand or integrate into the local culture’s ways of doing things). They live the highlife in the host country and only hang out in the expatriate social circles and essentially can be defined as colonialists. They like the lifestyle with all its trimmings and status. Often when I interview these kinds of assignees, I find they know very little of the country/s they have lived in (apart from all the tourist spots), they understand little of the country culture and its inner workings/dynamics. Few, if any, can even greet adequately in the local language. They are very often the most demanding assignees that a mobility team has to work with in that they are always complaining to head office as to why they should be paid more or why they should be allowed more perks, cost of living calcs are wrong, etc. They are often the most disliked expatriates not only by mobility staff but also by the host nationals as they are often parochial and ethnocentric. They are the worst mentors to a future global workforce as their global skills sets are really poor and inadequate. The trouble with these kinds of assignees is that they often recruit like-minded assignees and the rot sets in. They often do whatever it takes to extend their assignments to maximise their financial gain. This could include not adequately training up suitable locals to take over from them.

The second types are those that do it to enhance their careers and to gain as much global experience and as many global skills as possible to aid the performance of their companies and to be better leaders in the global environment. The global skills sets become crucial part of their career makeup. They more often than not can hold a basic conversation in the local language and they most certainly have a good understanding of the workings and thinking patterns of the local mindsets and integrate well into the country. They understand global management theory and have sound skills of working across cultures. They are often well liked by host nationals, can build bridges and are excellent mentors to the junior international assignees and locals below them. They set good examples to the rest of the team and they stay away from recruiting the first type of assignees defined above. They are less demanding on the mobility team and more often than not they don’t complain much and see the long term benefits and strategy. They are the synergists in our fraternity and are most certainly the ones that should be promoted to the boards of directors of global corporations and become responsible for building a truly globally integrated enterprise.

So having defined the two kinds of “career expats” we need to take a stance on which one is the more desired for our globalising businesses. Clearly it’s the second type that is desired.

My call on this is that the expatriates themselves have no claim to be able to call themselves a “career expatriate” as their definition of what a career expatriate actually is could be wrong or misunderstood. The first type definitely has no understanding and is often only in it for self-enrichment. They often block international assignment spots for the budding type 2 assignees. One could have rotated four type 2 assignees though the system to gain international experience for the four assignments the first type was on.

Companies need to start defining and putting down specific skills requirements and KPAs for international assignees and select accordingly. It is not up to the assignee to define what a “career expatriate” is; it is for the company to set the definition. Talent management and line management needs to get more involved.