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international perspectives By Michael Diliberto

Traveling Executives: Strangers in a Strange Land

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e spend a lot of time talking about and work­ ing on the management of our expatriate employees. After all, an expatriate assignment can be one of the toughest stages of an executive’s career. With research showing that up to half of all expatriate assignments result in an executive returning home earlier than expected, it is imperative that we groom the right people for these assignments before their departure and provide ongoing support throughout their assign­ ments. It is easy to assume that no news is good news when an expatriate is far away from the home office. But in remote employee situations, this is rarely the case. To be successful overseas in the long term, your expatriate managers must be knowledgeable about that particular culture. This is far from a uniquely American challenge. Having a level of comfort and understanding with regard to his or her new culture is just as important for an Italian manager moving to New Zealand as for an American manager moving to China. As a stranger in a strange land, t ­ raveling executives have to be prepared for the unexpected and accept that they will sometimes be uncomfortable. PREPARING TRAVELING STAFF As part of a multinational corporation, our executives, managers, and salespeople spend a lot of time on the road as well as overseas to meet customers, partners, and vendors. While we as a company invest time and energy into ensuring the success of our expatriate employees, we did not initially equip our domestic managers for success in foreign travels. We found that sending managers to China for the first time with no background training was often a recipe for frustration for both the manager and the Chinese employees and business partners that he or she was sent to meet.

“T he methods

that work for the expats rarely work for those traveling over­ s eas for a week or two.”

These brief immersions into a foreign culture—even as seemingly simple as sending domestic office staff to one of our international offices—can be particularly jarring for managers who spend 90 percent of their time in their home country. With business travel costs on the rise, we are all under pressure to make sure that the time our executives spend on the ground is worthwhile. Equipping our managers with some simple language and ­ cultural lessons has proved very beneficial. DREADING IT LESS When we consider potential expatriate candidates, we size up whether our candidate has the right mentality and aptitude to do well in an expatriate assignment. We look

for a thirst for adventure, a desire or proven ability to understand other cultures, and most of all, the ability to strike the right balance between holding on to the candidate’s own cultural identity and adopting some characteristics of the local culture. I think about expatriate positions the way that I think about running. I like running; I run to relieve stress and stay in shape, and at least a few times each year I manage to run a half marathon somewhere in the world. Running for me is something that I am driven to do. I feel similarly about holding an expatriate position. Living and working overseas is something that I am also driven to do. Like running, the expatriate journey is at times full of elation and at other times filled with suffering. During a running clinic I attended in the U.S., a woman in the group asked the running coach if she would learn to like running after completing the training. The coach responded that most people either like running or they don’t. He said that he could promise her that upon completion of the running class, she would dread going for runs less. That idea of “dreading it less” has stuck with me, and I find it particularly applicable here. If one of our American employees does not like to travel, that is okay. We know that not everyone is driven to go abroad, nor do most of our positions require extensive overseas travel. What we do have is a global business where, from time to time, nearly everyone will need to make a trip overseas to work with a supplier or close a deal with a customer. In these cases—when our home-officebased staff are traveling outside of their borders and their comfort zones—what we want is for them to dread it less. We cannot instill in all of our employees the desire to travel, but we can provide them with
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enough training to approach periodic trips with less apprehension. Beyond the mental preparations that we make for employees prior to their departure, we also have found that the environment overseas plays a huge role in both their experience and how effective they are at their jobs. Although we cannot control the environment of a whole country, we can give our travelers as many creature comforts as possible to help them keep their focus. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE FAMILIAR Speaking from personal experience, it was not until I starting living overseas fulltime that I appreciated the crucial role that food plays in the travel-abroad experience. Even during short-term trips, being unable to eat any familiar food, coupled together with all of the other unfamiliar aspects of international travel, can sometimes mean the difference between a successful trip and an unsuccessful one. We now have some executives who come to China IPR_8.375x5.875_JL6.5.pdf 1 (especially 6/5/13 2:21

those that travel to the smaller cities), who arrive with microwave meals stashed in their suitcases. Not everyone needs to go to that extreme, but at the very least, a few granola bars can be a lifesaver when your hosts want to serve you nothing but durian, stinky tofu, and fried scorpion. (Yes, we have been served all three by vendors— thankfully not at the same time!) There is always pressure, especially from some of the long-term expatriates and even the seasoned China hands in the home office, to encourage traveling managers to immerse themselves fully into the foreign environment as a way to “assimilate.” But the methods that work for the expats rarely work for those traveling overseas for a week or two. In my experience, trying to “go local” in less than a week can be counterproductive. The nuance of language and culture is not something that can be learned in a classroom. So instead of recommending that our traveling staff learn to love strange foods, PM

hard beds, or crazy taxi drivers, I now teach them just the opposite. I tell them that they might like their overseas experience—but that it is equally likely that they might hate it. I tell them that either is okay, so not to worry about it. I tell them not to worry about strange foods, suggesting that they have a granola bar if they reach their limit. I tell them they don’t need to learn the language, but they should at least get a good dictionary app for their smartphone. My goal is to equip my managers for dealing with unfamiliarity. They may not look forward to these trips, but my hope is that they dread it less and less each time they go.

Mike Diliberto is ­general manager, China, for Bloomington, Minn.-based Lynx Innovation Inc. Contact him at miked@ lynxinnovation.com.

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