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Crossing continents Successfully moving executives from one region of the world to another By Tony Vardy and Emanuela Aureli

March 2012 Companies find greater success moving executives overseas if they first screen candidates for competencies that indicate they will thrive in the unfamiliar environment. Attending to family needs before and after an international move can also pay dividends in terms of retention in the new post and effectiveness in the new job.

Businesses go to great lengths to recruit the best executives for overseas positions and to provide support during a move, but they often stop short of fully maximising their talent investment. To counter that trend, the Korn/Ferry Institute conducted a study into into the challenges faced by individuals who are changing continents for their career. Korn/Ferry surveyed 120 executives, all of whom had moved abroad for a new role, more than half with children in tow, and they shared their opinions and experiences. The research showed that almost 20 percent of C-suite executives leave their overseas role within two years—many well before the planned expiration of their international assignment. Certain personality traits and competencies appeared common to executives who thrived overseas. Those who are curious, adaptable, open-minded, good at creating networks, and motivated by new challenges will flourish in foreign placements. As organisations look to capitalise on the best talent from across the globe and expand their operations to new international markets, evaluating a candidate with these characteristics in mind is essential. To counter that trend, the Korn/Ferry Institute conducted a study into the challenges faced by individuals who are changing continents for their career. Throughout this report, a theme that surfaces repeatedly is how little a successful integration is dictated by professional considerations. Family dynamics are vitally important. Should the family be unwilling or unable to assimilate into a new culture, the executive won’t remain in the post long and may struggle to make a positive contribution in the role. Likewise, logistical assistance—such as housing, schooling, and taxation advice—is valuable, but so is help with ‘softer’ varieties of support, such as cultural assimilation, networking events, and language training. By ensuring the successful social integration of the entire family, companies will reap the reward of a productive and effective executive in the new role.

The suitable candidate

About the survey The 120 respondents worked across a range of sectors including technology and telecoms, life sciences, financial services, consumer, industrial, entertainment, and professional services. They were split evenly between those moving to join a new company and those moving for their existing employer. Above 75 percent had moved with a spouse, and more than half had moved with children. They had moved to or from Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia in order to take a wide variety of roles: chief executive, managing director, chief information officer, executive vice-president, regional vice-president, and director of human resources. They participated in the survey with the understanding that their contributions would not be directly attributable to them or to their organisations.

“ I visited one of my senior team at home eight months after they arrived, and his wife showed me their garage full of food from their home country. I knew right then that they were not happy in the new culture and that I should start preparing for their departure.”


CEO of a global telecoms company

The decision to hire an overseas candidate is driven by a variety of factors. Typically, the company requires either a skill set that cannot be found locally or an international perspective to help it grow. And on other occasions the key driver may be to provide a development move for a key executive, looking to the future. As with all hiring decisions, the challenge is to find the best candidate. Failure to attract and retain the right person in a timely fashion can be costly. Family matters: When beginning a search for an overseas candidate, organisations have dual considerations. They must gauge the willingness and ability of a candidate to move abroad, and simultaneously assess the skills and experience required for the role. “We begin the hiring process by looking for people who have worked in other cultures or expressed an interest in doing so. We then move on to look for people to match the position from within that set,” said one CEO from a software company. This is a wise approach: multiple interviewees said their companies had focused first on the candidate with the strongest skill set and experience, only to see protracted negotiations collapse because the spouse or family was unwilling to move. Indeed, the most consistent theme of the research was the pivotal importance family plays in the success or failure of an overseas move. It is vital that organisations not only evaluate the candidate but also be attuned to the family situation. When we asked our respondents about abortive international placements, family was almost always the aggravating circumstance. “I visited one of my senior team at home eight months after they arrived, and his wife showed me their garage full of food from their home country,” said the CEO of a global telecoms company. “I knew right then that they were not happy in the new culture and that I should start preparing for their departure.” Several of the CEOs interviewed said they extend a dinner invitation to an executive and his or her spouse when considering that person for an overseas position. This opportunity is used to get to know the candidate better. It is also used to gauge how the spouse/partner feels about the move and to evaluate whether she or he is likely to be happy living overseas. Our interviewees were unanimous: if the spouse is not on board, the family should not move. “An executive might think that an overseas move is the same as a promotion at home, but it brings family to the forefront. When you take an overseas position you cannot just concentrate on your career,” explained one CEO. It’s something of a paradox: an overseas move is an important professional decision, but it brings family priorities to the vanguard. An unhappy or resentful family is detrimental to the effectiveness of the executive.

The right personality: Organisations must acknowledge there are two distinct ‘cultural fits’ at play when hiring a candidate from another country: the corporate culture and the national culture. Screening for only one of those dimensions won’t provide a true picture of the potential efficacy of the candidate. “People who are successful in a new culture avoid judgements and embrace the differences,” said the senior vice president of one multinational technology company. They will, for instance, view a different modus operandi as an opportunity rather than a problem. The ability to acclimatise and thrive in a new culture is rarely on a C.V. However, certain measurable competencies—such as Demonstrating Personal Flexibility, Being Open and Receptive, Being Organisationally Savvy, and Making Complex Decisions—can be used to screen for this aptitude.1 Additionally, Learning Agility—an individual’s capacity to adapt quickly to first-time situations and to figure out how to move forward in an unfamiliar scenario—is another key trait that can be measured by assessments (see sidebar). To tease out these traits, hiring organisations must try to build up a holistic view of the candidate, one that goes beyond a C.V. and annual performance review. The candidate’s life outside work can be instrumental to understanding the kind of person he or she is. By asking questions about preferred holiday destinations and personal interests, organisations can glean how a candidate and his/her family engage with the larger world. Interestingly, our interviewees said that an ability The ability to acclimatise to speak a number of languages culture is rarely on a C.V. was less important than the motivation for learning a language. Is it simply a skill, or is this person curious about other cultures and experiences? A polyglot who never, for example, watches foreign films is less likely to acclimatise than a person who speaks a second language poorly but frequently seeks out opportunities to learn about other cultures.

About Learning Agility Learning Agility, a fact-based predictor of continued leadership growth, is currently one of the leading benchmarks in talent management. Studies have repeatedly shown that the ability to learn from experience—to be open to change and willing to learn—is what differentiates executives who succeed, particularly following a promotion to senior levels in an organisation. By some estimates, only 15 percent of the workforce exhibits high levels of Learning Agility. Korn/ Ferry offers a variety of proprietary assessment systems to measure Learning Agility, including Choices® and viaEDGE™.

and thrive in a new

Creating robust social and professional networks quickly also distinguished successful foreign placements. Individuals who continuously integrate new people from different backgrounds into their personal and professional networks are more successful at settling into a foreign role. Those who rely solely on a few well-established groups, such as their former colleagues from school or university, often struggle to integrate themselves fully. 1 Korn/Ferry employs multiple assessments to measure candidate fit. The reference here is to the Leadership Architect® suite of competencies developed by Lominger, a Korn/Ferry company.


Finally, the research overwhelmingly showed that a candidate’s motivation was an important indicator of the likelihood of success. While overseas roles are traditionally viewed as lucrative and a fast track to promotion, a lot depends on the executive’s drive for accepting the role.

Figure 1

“ Almost everyone I know who moved for the money was unable to assimilate and left pretty quickly. The extra money wasn’t enough to compensate for an unhappy living situation.”

What was your primary motivation for taking on the new role? 1% Compensation 21% Promotion 23% Other

56% New challenge

Regional managing director for a global IT firm

Over half of respondents said that their motivation for taking an overseas role was the desire for a new challenge. “Chasing a business card is a ridiculous way to shape a career. You need to chase skill sets and experiences,” explained one regional vice president for a medical manufacturing company. Taking an overseas role for money is a recipe for disaster. “Almost everyone I know who moved for the money was unable to assimilate and left pretty quickly,” said a regional managing director for a global professional services firm. “The extra money wasn’t enough to compensate for an unhappy living situation.”

Maximising cross-continent moves Overseas career moves can be made easier, according to the answers we received to queries into the practical and emotional considerations of relocation. By analysing the nuances of the upheaval, we were then able to develop advice to help overcome the problems.


Priorities for the executive: The immediate goal for new overseas executives is twofold. They must create a situation where their entire family is happy while simultaneously adapting quickly to a new work environment. The family challenge is often difficult because spouses and children are uprooted and taken to a new country, often with a different culture and language. The first few months of a new job can be particularly demanding, especially if the role is regional and requires extensive travel leaving the family to cope on its own.

Figure 2

Which were the most useful forms of support you received for you and your family? 79% Housing

Percentage of respondents choosing each option.

71.6% Logistics

48.1% Taxes 43.2% Schooling

17.3% Financial/Advisory 12.3% Culture insight 11.1% Language

The first question is when to move the family after the executive has taken up his/her new position. We found that 43 percent moved the family within one month, and nearly 70 percent within six months of the start of the job. Only 9 When to move the family? We found that percent waited more than six months; 7 percent did not move percent did so within a month of starting their family at all. Those who and nearly 70 percent within six months. brought their family immediately valued bonding over the challenge of setting up a new life. Those who waited benefited from having time to get settled at work before worrying about getting the family settled.

43 the job,

While some people mentioned the start of the school year as the reason for waiting to move a spouse and children, a number felt strongly that the social integration is harder than academic integration, and deserved special attention. One executive, for instance, brought his children for the last month of school so that they would first make friends before a long break. Had they waited until the school break to move, the children would have had fewer opportunities to meet friends and would have had to rely solely on their parents.


The primary concerns for most executives are finding the right housing and a good school for their children. These two major decisions are often made quickly with the goal of minimising the disruption for the family. However, making the right decision is more important than minimising disruption; the wrong decision can cause more turmoil in the long run. Companies very The goal should be to use the school, and choice of often provide assistance in finding housing and schools. home, as a lever of integration into the community. However, executives should talk to as many people in the community as possible to inform their decisions. The goal should be to use the school, and choice of home, as a lever of integration into the community. While most executives worry about the effect of the move on their children, children often provide the best avenues of integration. Some 55 percent of our respondents said school was one of the most important mechanisms for assimilating into the community—significantly more important than other mechanisms such as sports and social clubs, the expat community, associations, or volunteer work. Only getting to know colleagues (mentioned by 59 percent) was seen as more important.

The benefits of getting it right: Executives > An overseas move can be a career

accelerator and a fast track to more senior roles. It provides the value of international experience within an area of specialisation, the increased visibility of an international role, the chance to address new challenges, and the benefit of a broader understanding of the global business. > Over 80 percent of respondents believed

their overseas move facilitated career progression and improved their leadership style. A further 79 percent believed they had developed new management abilities. Over 86 percent felt their ability to work in a different culture was a major benefit of working abroad. > Many executives felt living abroad provided

a unique bonding experience and brought their family closer together.


That said, our research also highlighted how a professional network cannot consist solely of expats and colleagues. Executives in a foreign country require cultural insight beyond that which the expat community can provide. They also need an objective view of the strengths and weaknesses of their organisation, an unbiased perspective their colleagues can seldom supply. Our interviewees were unanimous that executives in a new country must work harder at networking than they do in their own country. Overseas executives also face the challenge of both drawing on and setting aside their experience in similar situations. The executives interviewed stressed that experiences aren’t automatically transferable; what worked in one country won’t necessarily work in another. They acknowledged the tension between being hired for a set of experiences yet not being able to draw upon them directly. Again, screening candidates for high levels of Learning Agility makes it more likely that the new executive will be able to apply what he or she knows to the local market. An executive arriving from overseas is more reliant on the local leadership team than if appointed within his or her home market, and strong players in those roles also can help a new executive customise and translate communications plans and strategy to the local culture. Most senior roles will require the executive to influence external stakeholders as well, relying on these local executives until new personal relationships are established. This requires wielding influence indirectly, a difficult skill to master.

Priorities for the organisation The priority for any hiring organisation is to support the executives and their family throughout all the unsettling aspects of an overseas move. By doing so, companies will help ensure the success of the executive, both in the new corporate culture and the new country’s culture. Our research revealed that on a scale of Very Good, Good, Moderate, Poor, and Very Poor, 60 percent of executives rated the support their spouse received as Very Good or Good. However, 20 percent rated it as moderate and 20 percent rated it as Poor or Very Poor. Clearly many organisations can improve in this area.

Figure 3

How would you rate the support the company provided for your spouse/partner or family? 8% Very poor

12% Poor

22% Very good

20% Moderate 38% Good

To support the family better, an organisation should go beyond practical considerations and focus as well on softer issues such as cultural insight, language, networks, and leadership styles. “I would have loved to have classes about the country’s culture and for the organisation to have prepared me for the changes that happened with my Only two of the 120 interviewees reported that children,” said a senior vice organisation offered any cultural acclimation president with a global services programs. company. Only two of the 120 interviewees reported that their organisation offered any cultural acclimation programs. Nearly 20 percent of the executives we spoke to would have liked more assistance with culture and networking through social or sports clubs.



Many organisations will outsource support activities to a relocation agency. If so, the organisation must ensure the agency is highly professional and sympathetic to the challenges of moving overseas. A number of respondents discussed the difficulty of dealing with poor relocation agents and felt this was an easy challenge to overcome. Others added

Figure 4

Looking back, in which areas could the support you received been more valuable? Percentage of respondents choosing each option.

46.8% Financial/Advisory

38% Taxes 32.9% Network 26.6% Housing 21.5%



Social clubs

19% Culture 17.7% Sports 15.2% Schooling 10.1% Language

The benefits of getting it right: Organisations > Getting someone with international

experience often helps drive an organisation’s profits by injecting candidates with new ideas and robust experience into strategically important roles. > A recent Korn/Ferry study of boards of

directors in the United States found that 90 percent of the top 100 companies (by market capitalisation) had people with international work experience on their boards.


that top-flight relocation assistance was a good investment. “Don’t bicker over a few thousand dollars to help someone settle in. Because it might mean the difference between the executive and his family being happy or not, and happiness drives performance,” said a regional vice president of a global media company. Organisations could also appoint a mentor to assist in understanding and communicating in the new culture. In one case, a mentor program was established after the executive saw the benefit of the program in his son’s new school. To be most effective, the mentor should be of similar age, similar professional level, and have a similar family background.

The challenge of repatriation “There were lots of tears at the beginning and even more at the end,” said a global communications company’s CEO of his own time abroad. One of the unexpected discoveries of our research was the difficulty executives reported upon coming home after an overseas posting. Professionally, a number of respondents discussed how many ‘homebased’ organisations had difficulty fully appreciating the value of their skills and experiences developed overseas. There can also be a perception that returning expats are too expensive or too ‘foreign’. Furthermore,

“ There were lots of tears at the beginning and even more at the end.”

CEO of a global telecoms company

Figure 5

Where did you go after your overseas move? 7% Other

13% Still there

21% Overseas role with another company

19% Home with company

16% Home with another company

24% Another overseas role with same company

the spouse can sometime struggle finding work because she or he has been out of the home job market for years, or if the executive married while abroad, could now be the expatriate in the family. There was disagreement about whether an individual should pursue an understanding, or at least a conversation, upfront with his/her employer on the career step that will follow the overseas role. Some respondents would have preferred assurances Some respondents would have preferred assurances they could move home at the end of the placement. Others simply they could move home at the end of the placement. wanted a clear idea of how an overseas role might enhance their career progression. In both cases, prior knowledge of the ‘next steps’ can help executives remain positive when times are tough. Despite this, few executives we interviewed were given such clarity: only 7 percent had a guarantee of a position to come back to at the end of their overseas posting.


Many executives also discussed personal difficulties related to moving home. While practical considerations like setting up a house are seldom the problem, emotional ramifications were cited as difficult to overcome. One respondent described the expat lifestyle as one that embraces the best parts of your own and a new culture; alas that life cannot be recreated back at home. “We are much more likely to never go back to what we had and what we were,” said the CEO of a FTSE 100 company. Others described feeling culturally adrift or disconnected from former friends and colleagues. With an increasingly global talent market, maximising investment made in overseas moves will become even more important. Korn/Ferry International continues to monitor trends and via The Korn/Ferry Institute will share further insights on trends and best practices in relation to international relocation.

Making the move a success Advice to organisations > An overseas candidate must be clearly

superior to any local candidate, and he or she must also have the chemistry to fit the new corporate culture and the new country culture. > Choose candidates who are adaptable and

able to assimilate quickly. > Get to know what drives and motivates a

candidate. Learn about his/her family circumstances. > Have a relationship with the local schools

to understand how they work. > Providing airfares home for the whole family

several times a year can make a huge difference helping them settle in. > If you outsource relocation services, ensure

the agency is professional and understands the challenges of moving into a new culture. > The United States can feel familiar to people

from the UK, but the differences are significant and vary by region. A number of British expats who had lived on multiple continents found America the most difficult place in terms of adjustment. For instance,


> there are few accredited international

schools, which makes it harder for the children to continue their education on a familiar path. > Have someone meet the family at the airport

and show them around over the first week so that the most basic things (where to buy food, petrol, etc.) are not a dramatic and painful learning experience. > Offer classes/courses on the culture of the

> Read the local newspapers and watch the news. Get the place names and people’s names into your vocabulary. > Discuss with your family that you will likely be working late and travelling extensively, and won’t be able to provide continuous support. > Remember that each overseas assignment is different. What worked in one country won’t necessarily work in another.

country to which the executive is moving. > Offer language courses for the executive

and the family.

Advice for executives > Visit the country with your family/spouse or

partner before you commit. This allows you to get a sense of the day-to-day life. Don’t base your impressions exclusively on the expat community. > Make an effort to learn the language. Even

rudimentary phrases are appreciated and engender goodwill. > Watch movies and read books to learn

about the culture, which helps with management and avoids potential embarrassment.

> Don’t try to recreate your life at home. Embrace the opportunity for new experiences. > Help your children create a social network, crucial to their happiness in a new country. They will often understand the culture/ language before you do. > Prepare your spouse/partner. Much difficult detailed work—bank accounts, driving licence, etc.—may fall to him or her. There is an added challenge if the spouse/partner is a man. The majority of expat spouses/ partners are women and it can be difficult for a man to integrate into an established network for wives. > Get a home that accommodates visitors so people will come to see you.


Tony Vardy is Managing Director of Korn/Ferry International in the United Kingdom.

Emanuela Aureli is a Senior Client Partner focusing on the technology sector.

About The Korn/Ferry Institute The Korn/Ferry Institute generates forward-thinking research and viewpoints that illuminate how talent advances business strategy. Since its founding in 2008, the institute has published scores of articles, studies, and books that explore global best practices in organizational leadership and human capital development.

About Korn/Ferry International Korn/Ferry International, with a presence throughout the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is a premier global provider of talent management solutions. Based in Los Angeles, the firm delivers an array of solutions that help clients to attract, engage, develop, and retain their talent. Visit for more information on the Korn/Ferry International family of companies, and for thought leadership, intellectual property and research.


Š 2012 The Korn/Ferry Institute

Crossing continents: Successfully moving executives from one region of the world to another  

Crossing continents: Successfully moving executives from one region of the world to another

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