Coaching Expats Is Opportunity for HR Consultants

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Sep 5, 2008

As more companies expand their operations globally, there are opportunities for HR consultants to work with the HR departments of multinational corporations as well as with expatriate employees themselves. In addition, companies already established in other countries report a need for qualified talent.

More than 66 percent of multinational corporations reported an increase in the number of international assignments in 2006, the highest percentage in the history of the Global Relocation Trends Survey, which is published annually by GMAC Global Relocation Services. While companies rely heavily on expatriates to achieve their business objectives, the primary purpose of most international assignments is to build management expertise, the GMAC survey says.

Scott Sullivan is senior vice president of GMAC Global Relocation Services and a former expat. Having global experience can definitely boost an individual’s marketability and provide a clearer path to the C-suite, he says. “I think it’s quite common now that you pick up any annual report for Fortune 1000 and in there somewhere the CEO will be talking about how the company needs to be more global.”

There is a whole industry behind the trend toward globalization, and a lot of corporate officials do not realize how large this industry is, Sullivan said. “We handle more than 15,000 international assignees for more than 100 companies in 78 countries,” he says. The growth has compelled GMAC’s London office to employ more than 100 workers who—collectively—speak more than 20 languages, he says.

Despite the benefit to resumes and career potential, convincing people to relocate globally has become more challenging, say some HR professionals. Employees are resisting overseas assignments with much of the resistance centering on family concerns, or a spouse or partner’s career, as well as career aspirations. Those are all areas where HR consultants can step in to provide services designed to assist companies with making assignments, and to assist expatriates in acclimating to those assignments.

It is more difficult to convince employees to accept overseas assignments, says Geoff Latta, executive vice president of ORC Worldwide. Many of the locations expats are being sent to today are not like the locations of 30 years ago such as London or Paris, he says. Today, assignments are likely to be in obscure places where employees have to “rush for a map to find it before they go,” he says. Because of that, the job assignment has to be interesting or appealing or beneficial to an employee’s long-term career to entice them to accept, he adds. HR professionals within organizations that are attempting to place employees globally definitely need help in this process, says Latta. “It’s not like sending someone from New York to Atlanta for a job—it’s just so much more complicated and involves so many layers,” he says. “One of the things companies really have to get their arms around is they can’t do it themselves if they don’t have the experience, they really have to go find support,” he adds.

Such support can come from a variety of sources, including large firms like GMAC and ORC. But independent HR consultants can find work in this area as well.

Jonathan Kroner is a Miami-based lawyer who has experience in delivering workshops on cross-cultural communications and who works with HR professionals on going beyond compliance to avoid litigation. The demand for consultants to work in the area of global relocation is coming from sophisticated organizations that recognize the upside value of their employees’ soft skills and the costs associated with the lack of those skills, he says. “I have litigated and mediated commercial and employment cases that arose out of misunderstandings that could have been avoided with little training,” he says.

“Expats and others who suffer from cross-cultural incompetence recognize only its symptoms, litigation, lost opportunities, employee dissension and turnover. “Simple multicultural competency is not sufficient for cross-cultural training,” he says. “The expertise requires not just subject knowledge but also the ability to help clients change deep-seated lifelong habits and perceptual filters.”

Carol Lunger, a former expat who moved from Philadelphia to Dublin, Ireland in 2004 and returned to the United States in 2007, agrees. She moved with her husband, whose company relocated him and provided assistance through a relocation firm. For the most part, it went well, she says. “But, the one thing that was lacking in our many dealings with the consultant assigned to us on our move to Ireland was empathy and a general understanding of the stress on our part in getting ready for the move,” she says. “It was clear that our consultant had no idea what we were going through in getting ready to do this—uprooting our family, finding a place to live and a school for our children,” she says.

All of those are challenging in a domestic move and more so when moving to a foreign country in a short period of time, she says. Consultants entering this field should have experienced an expat move on their own. That ensures that the consultant has a level of understanding about relocating to another country “that would reassure those moving and would help ease the process,” she says. Lunger remains in contact with expats who continue to move to other countries and still dread the move because the relocation company’s consultants do not have an understanding of what is involved with organizing a successful move.

Janet Reid is founder and principal partner of Global Lead, LLC, an international diversity and management consultancy. She works with clients and expatriates abroad. “The prime gap that currently exists is that successful executives and employees have to incorporate cultural competence into their bailiwick of current competencies that include thinking and intuition skills,” she says. “This is necessary to increase productivity in multinational firms and essential to understanding the global customer and consumer bases.”

However, many executives do not have the time to learn cultural basics and nuances before being expected to make critical decisions, Reid says. Therefore, cross-cultural coaching can provide them with critical knowledge and skills to fill in the gap until more direct experience is acquired. Consultants can help to bridge this gap through training—or products that might include e-learning or a blended learning, she adds. In addition, experience as an expat is a must, she says. “Consultants will have to have cross-cultural experience and certainly global experience to be credible to their clients,” she says. For those with that background and interest in this area, breaking in can best be achieved by partnering with larger firms that already have their foot in the door and by doing keynote or break-out sessions at conferences, Reid says.

“Networking can be very helpful,” Latta says. Many new clients come from references made by larger firms. “Businesses are looking for partners that are flexible enough to understand the different business needs and HR environments in different companies and that don’t just have an off-the-shelf solution,” he says.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).

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