Beyond Expatriation: The Strategic Importance of International Mobility

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It’s nine o’clock in the morning. Fred is finishing his first coffee of the day when he receives a call from China. He picks up the phone, and on the other side, a man’s distant voice sounds angry, “Fred, you didn’t warn me about this. I just can’t be like this here; my wife will hit the roof!” Fred loosens his tie apprehensively. The man on the other side of the phone is best qualified for being in charge of opening up the market in the country. Plus this operation has been a major investment for the company.

“David, tell me what happened?”

“Well, something pretty bad, the BBC TV signal doesn’t reach here. I have talked to the provider and there’s no way, not even by cable, satellite or anything else. Nothing doing. We can’t be like this. In this village, there’s nothing to do over the weekend. What are we going to do?”

The following week David was already back with all his family. This is just a simple example of what can happen if a good expat profile isn’t selected. David was an excellent professional, the best in his field, but his capacity to adapt to foreign environments wasn’t mature enough. Such situations can be a great drain for both the mobilized person and the company; fortunately, this happens less and less.

In the last Human Factor conference, where this was told along with other anecdotes, I had a chance to listen to the panel on Expat Management where various HR professionals from multinationals gave their points of view on the subject. All agreed on something fundamental; there is a professionalization of expatriation, where this becomes a field of specialist HR expertise in its own right. We can no longer talk of mere expat relocation management, but rather, international mobility management.

Some years ago the expat post was considered a hardship that had to be rewarded with large benefits packages and pampering. Various panellists told very amusing anecdotes on moving animals: right from relocating a thoroughbred horse to the UK which cost more than 2,000 euros, to six rabbits belonging to the wife of an expat. Fortunately now these scenarios are increasingly less common. Far from being a hardship, expatriation today is considered a plus for personal development, and posts abroad are increasingly in demand. Besides, apart from improving the employee’s skills, for many this is a chance for internal promotion, which in their countries of origin they perhaps would not achieve.

Another point of consensus among panellists is the strategic importance of international mobility, a key component for global development of the organization. That’s why companies are increasingly promoting expat culture, as this is not about where you are, but rather how you are developing your career. And of course, doing this abroad gives you lots of points. Today this is more apparent than ever in a globally connected world where communication between countries is real time and work relationships are increasingly flexible and rendered in many different ways.

This big change in focus in international mobility can be summarized as follows:

  1. Professionalization of international mobility within organizations
  2. Talent pool with the best profiles for expatriation: in addition to covering the profile itself, also look for different skills in adaptability, a suitable family situation and readiness
  3. Creation of professional mobility units in each country
  4. International mobility is strategic: a driver of growth for companies in the global environment we live in
  5. Infusing a culture of international mobility within the organization
  6. Expatriation is an opportunity for professional development for the employee, who may also find better chances of promotion than in the country of origin.
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