The Repatriation Dilemma: I went abroad & learned a lot! I came back, no one cared, so I left.
Post by David Everhart, President, Aperian Global
More and more people are globally mobile, moving from their home country to other international locations to support global business needs. Sadly, few companies take advantage of the vast knowledge that these roving managers gain of different markets, ideas for inventing or enhancing products and services, and strengthened human networks across functions and geographies. Also, few companies seem to realize that repatriation “shock” is often a more difficult transition than the culture shock expatriates experience when going abroad. According to Brookfield’s 2015 Global Mobility Report, only 5% of companies measure the ROI of international assignments at all. Even though the business case for having a strong “Repatriation Process” is easy to make, only a handful of companies actually have one.
Consider my friend “John.” John and I first met in 2005 at an executive education program that I was leading. In 2006 both John and I found ourselves on international assignments in Shanghai. We both returned to the U.S. after about 3-4 years. John left his Midwest-based manufacturing firm about a year after his repatriation. When I talked with him about why he left he said:
“No one really cared that I’d spent three years in China. There was no plan for my repatriation. I realized that the organization did not value my experience, and did not have any system for transferring my learning to others. The next person, also an expat, who took over my role in China started from the same place I had and made many of the same mistakes. This could have been avoided if the firm had involved me in his on-boarding and allowed for an overlap period when I could have transferred my key relationships, and key learnings, to him. In the end, I realized that I had changed and the company had not, so I left.”
Considering the investment his employer had made in John’s China experience (over four years this added up to about two million dollars), lack of expatriate support, especially during repatriation, is an astonishing loss. In fact, saving just one experienced leader from leaving after repatriation typically pays for the development and implementation of a whole “loss prevention” system. The price of losing one seasoned leader means absorbing the loss of their experience and knowledge plus paying for recruitment, hiring, and training of a replacement. Happily, John’s new firm is now taking advantage of the knowledge, insights, and experience that he acquired at the expense of his old firm!
On the “foreign” side of the coin, often the “receiving manager” and “receiving team” have little or no say in who is selected for assignments. This leads to a lack of ownership of the assignee’s success. As one Japanese manager at a Western MNC told me recently in Tokyo,
“If the company did not bother to ask for our (Japanese market) input on who is coming to ‘lead’ us, our motivation to help the person succeed is lower…. we have learned that we can often ‘wait out’ an expatriate leader who is not interested in taking time to build relationships with us and to really understand our business challenges here… we know the assignment is temporary and the person will go home. We can just continue to operate as we always have and politely ignore the assignee’s sometimes ridiculous ideas.”
Building a process for repatriation saves time, energy, and lots of money. Proactive repatriation processes include:
- Having a development plan for expatriates before they leave for their assignment. This should include on-boarding coaching for the person and his/her team that covers intercultural and interpersonal communication, and a periodic team effectiveness evaluation.
- Building an internal communication forum for expatriate employees. This can include pre and post-assignment interview data that is recorded and shared. Such a forum can also include a social media component enabling communication between future, current, and past international assignees.
- A process for ensuring that returning assignees have a role to come back to that leverages their experience. Most international assignees in large MNCs spend the last six months to a year of their assignment focused on securing their next role. Having institutional support for repatriates ensures that the person remains focused on delivering results right to the end of the assignment.
Shockingly few globally-operating companies have an organized plan for addressing the needs of their “returnees” from abroad. Putting one in place will increase retention, increase the candidate pool interested in international assignments, and improve the “global mindset” of the overall organization.
Aperian Global supports global organizations with repatriation programs to mitigate the potential “reverse culture shock” experience. Learn more about our suite of solutions specifically designed for repatriates and their managers:
Leveraging Your International Assignment
David Everhart currently serves as President of Aperian Global. David conducts leadership development programs, intercultural management assessments, and executive coaching assignments for American, Asian, African, and European management teams at multi-national firms across multiple industry sectors.