Expats and Inclusion
My first role as a Vice President involved a move to Canada. I was asked to lead the marketing department for my company’s subsidiary, just outside of Toronto. It was one of the great learning experiences in my career.
You couldn’t ask for a much easier international transition. A flight of less than an hour. People who spoke the same language. A broader portfolio than I was accustomed to, but with many familiar brands. How hard could it be? I read a few books on Canada and its history, and I was ready to roll.
Sure, there were some language issues. Tabling an issue meant to discuss for decision, not to put it off. And then, a decision was taken, not made. British spelling was used, Governour. I had to get used to the metric system (easy guide: 28°C is 82°F, 16°C is 61°F, 0°C is freezing and -10°C is frigging cold.)
There were other subtle differences. Blinking green traffic lights, blue laws that kept grocery stores closed on Sundays, and milk in plastic bags. Some things impacted my business. Price elasticity was more pronounced in Canada. People valued order and politeness more than in the States. Concern about the environment was far more developed.
I felt very fortunate by how I was welcomed by my organization. I made friends there. I had a generous allowance for housing. I dove into my work and had some early successes. And my wife and I knew that this was to be a three-year rotation. At home with three small kids, she was more supportive than she had to be about my absences, as our family didn’t move from Connecticut until about 3 months into my tenure.
The learning experience was sometimes painful. I went through my first layoffs and firings. I overestimated the equity I had built in some of our brands. My boss become abusive as his position was threatened and he feared I was more politically connected than he was. I dealt with the awkwardness of succession as my rotation came to an end.
Truth be told, we were sorry that our expat life ended with a repatriation to the US. We were geared up for an assignment in Europe that didn’t come. Years later, my wife and I spent Thanksgiving in Buenos Aires as we considered a move there. We concluded that the culture was too far out of our comfort zone for that to work for our family.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen international assignments that didn’t go well. A colleague told me of his experience when a rotation in Greece left him with no sponsor there and no way back home for five years. In my first visit to South Africa, I ran into a newly-placed country manager who hadn’t realized what living in the Third World really entailed. I asked my company’s MD in Korea to take on a role in the US, because he was one of the best marketers in the company. He faced enormous resistance from an American team that was unconvinced that his successes in Asia would translate elsewhere.
Learning a new culture, whether it is national or corporate, is hard work. It is easy to make a misstep. Some of us are better prepared for the transition than others. Some of us read books on Canadian history, others get coaches who prepare them and their family for their new lives. Almost always, that coaching ends by the time an executive arrives in their new home. And that’s a problem.
As well prepared as my friend in South Africa thought he was, his failure came from not having help in- market. Same with the guy marooned in Greece. My own plate was too full to adequately provide the support my colleague from Korea needed in the US.
What is gained from spending the money to send an executive halfway around the world for a three-year rotation? Arguably, it makes the executive more effective and versatile, creating a more well-rounded company. Hopefully, it injects a new perspective into the host company. Leaving aside moral justifications, this is the business case for diversity practices.
If diversity is operationally defined by the number of underrepresented people hired by a company, inclusion is more about their retention and success. Inclusion often focuses on making cultural changes in the organization to encourage acceptance. That’s playing the long game. But shorter term, it often misses the opportunity to provide sponsorship to those diverse employees that the company wants to keep and grow.
Here is the lesson I learned. While almost everybody needs a coach or mentor, the need is critical for those who are different. While inclusion efforts attempt to tear down the wall to acceptance, those recruited can't wait for the wall to come down. They need a boost right now.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.