As companies become increasingly global and consumers more connected, expatriate assignments are more valuable than ever for one’s career trajectory. Extended periods working abroad not only expand various leadership skills, they enable executives to better understand consumer cultures around the world and add value to their company’s presence in the international marketplace. Despite the sizeable investment companies put into expat workers, these assignments can nonetheless result in unforeseen consequences for employees. After repatriating from an overseas assignment, executives often return home only to find themselves feeling isolated from their personal and professional networks or finding that their career has stagnated. Worse yet, a fairly significant number leave their company shortly after returning from abroad. This has been the case for decades and yet it doesn’t seem to be getting better. So what are the best ways to repatriate after an overseas assignment to get the most value from your expat experience?
Raines International spoke with Vineet Mehra, Chief Marketing Officer for Ancestry.com, to learn how to best take advantage of the benefits of overseas assignments. Mehra has taken expatriate assignments all over the world, including Switzerland, Singapore and India, telling us, “It’s been nothing but a career enhancer.” He acknowledged, however, many global companies treat expats with an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude, and many “expat orphans” fall into traps that can isolate themselves from their domestic networks. “A lot of people go into those assignments without thinking of their exit plan or keeping their network alive back home,” Mehra explains. “Experiences abroad will pay you back ten-fold, but if you go there without staying connected to your network and colleagues you’re going to run into trouble.” For example, while an executive spends time abroad, domestic offices may go through restructuring. Therefore, keeping up with those changes and staying in touch is crucial in order to ease the difficulties of repatriating.
Unfortunately, most global companies have a poor track record of repatriating their employees. Companies often lose out on the costly investment of expatriating their employees when they fail to “re-board” them with the same vigor they apply to on-boarding new employees. “Companies invest so much in expatriation – language training, culture training, etc. – but on the repatriation side, there’s almost nothing,” according to Mehra. Companies “assume you’ll go back to being who you were. And the reality is, that experience has changed who you are as a human being.”
The L’Oréal Group is a company that is attuned to these realities. According to Jacob Bonk, a Vice President of Human Resources at L’Oreal, he went through a similar onboarding process new employees experience after his four-year expat assignment in China. “On Day 1,” he says, “you participate in a new hire orientation to learn about your new benefits package and the various HR resources available to you. During the following days, your time is spent in one-on-one meetings and catch-ups with your team. L’Oréal emphasizes the value of internal networking, so in the first month repats may meet with 50 people or more to rebuild those important relationships.” Unlike many organizations, L’Oréal expatriates many of its HR executives, ensuring that the company’s HR department is better aligned with the needs of employees working abroad. Such is not always the case, Mehra points out, as “many of the people repatriating workers do not have expatriate experience themselves.”
Like culture shock, repatriation can also take an emotional toll on employees after overseas assignments. Employees and their families can experience difficult psychological adjustments and difficulty reintegrating into old and familiar settings as they try to resume their lives. Mehra noted, “You leave the world in which you were and that world moves on, there’s no doubt about that.” Bonk likened his tenure abroad to the college experience. “It’s difficult to be so far away from your family,” he said, “but you develop a circle of friends and other expat colleagues living through the same experiences and changes you are.” When the expat assignment ends, it is difficult to say goodbye to those relationships and reignite older relationships. “It took my family nine months before we really felt at home again,” Bonk added.
Other frustrations can emerge as a result of an employee’s leadership style having become more compatible with the culture they expatriated to. Repatriated employees can find themselves not reaching the level of success they expected after their achievements abroad. Executives may also find that their net salary diminishes after forfeiting housing allowances, tax breaks, and other perks enjoyed overseas. Additionally, studies show that approximately 76% of Fortune 500 CEOs have never worked an expat assignment, and more foreign experience could potentially lead to a longer wait to be appointed to top executive positions in a company. As a result, disenchanted executives often leave a company shortly after repatriating to their domestic offices, reducing the executive and company’s return on investment.
Despite the potential difficulties, overseas assignments can be an enormous asset to executives who skillfully utilize such experiences to accelerate his or her career. Mehra described how overseas assignments enhanced his career trajectory working in marketing. “As globalization takes place with the rise of social media, brands have to carry the same voice around the world,” he explained. “The need to build global brands with a common tone and voice is very important, but how to execute and land that voice is different in different markets. You can’t become a global business leader if you don’t have experience on the ground [overseas]. It’s becoming a right of passage.” With that in mind, it is crucial that executives prepare in advance for a successful repatriation. Studies have shown one way to prevent dissatisfaction and turnover is to team up with your domestic supervisors and outline a clear professional career plan. Furthermore, developing close relationships with a home-country and host-country mentor will ease the repatriation process and provide a sense of continuity. When the executive manages her expectations – professionally and personally – and plans accordingly, an overseas assignment becomes a more valuable asset to her career.
Although companies often display shortcomings in the repatriation process, executives can counter such obstacles by actively cultivating their networks at home, honing their leadership skills, and learning from their immersive cultural experiences. Indeed, the choice to accept expatriated roles should not be made lightly; they must be thoughtfully integrated into a larger vision of what one aspires to professionally. As Mehra optimistically notes, “the vast majority of people in my network regard their expat assignments as the most enriching professional and personal experiences in their career. Some go and stay forever.” For those who don’t: avoid the potential pitfalls and take ownership of the strategic elements of the repatriation process. Your career will benefit tremendously.