Study: C-Suite Eludes Returning Expats

By Kathy Gurchiek Aug 21, 2009

Taking too many international assignments is one of the factors that can delay a young professional’s journey to becoming a CEO, according to a study released Aug. 10, 2009, at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Chicago.

CEO hopefuls who take on international assignments at a later stage in their career and at an organization other than their current one are especially stymied as they reach for the top office, researchers found.

“Although the day may not be far off when experience abroad speeds the way to the top rank, we are definitely not there yet. Our findings suggest that you advance faster if you are in proximity to the corporate headquarters’ social networks than if you are on assignment abroad,” researcher Monika Hamori said in a press release. Hamori is with IE Business School in Madrid, Spain.

The findings are from Career Advancement in Large Organizations: Do International Assignments Add value? The study was conducted in 2005 and looked at 1,000 chief executives based in 23 countries and affiliated with the 500 largest corporations in the U.S. and the 500 largest corporations in Europe.

Among the study’s findings:

  • The average CEO was age 55 and took 25 years from the start of his or her career to become CEO.
  • Nearly one-fourth started at the organization they lead today vs. one-third who had not started at the organization where they are CEO.
  • On average, those with international experience completed 1.7 assignments and spent a total of almost eight years in a foreign country.
  • Among CEOs in U.S. companies, 51 percent of their assignments took place in the same company they lead; in Europe, it was 33 percent.
  • CEOs spending more than a year in an international assignment fare worse than colleagues without such experience.
  • CEOs spending seven years or more abroad fare significantly worse than colleagues without such experience.

The study acknowledged the increasing importance of international experience in the executive suite and the increased marketability international assignments provide individuals.

“If you truly want to be a CEO of a company that is operating globally, the best advice is to get [international] experience in each stage of your career …”

Warren Heaps, partner, Birches Group LLC


The percentage of executives with international experience doubled between 1997 and 2005, suggesting international experience might be valued more now than a decade ago, according to the study.

There’s been increased turnover among lower-level employees and executives, “which makes it less likely that organizations would use international assignments as a means of career development and a basis for promotion,” according to the study.

Richer Experience, More Responsibility

International assignments allow executives to develop a deeper understanding of the culture and business context, but “executives who take on too many and too long international assignments may see their networks dissolve in the home organization and may miss important promotion opportunities,” Hamori and co-researcher Burak Koyunco write.

“Do it for a year or two, do it when you’re young, and don’t switch companies when you get back,” Hamori advises those who want experience abroad and a fast track to the CEO spot.

Acquiring international experience earlier in one’s career “gives young professionals an unusually large degree of responsibility they otherwise would not have at the home organization,” the researchers say in the study.

“With only a few exceptions, like Nokia, the foreign divisions of companies still often represent the periphery, places far from resources and information available at corporate headquarters,” Hamori said.

Surprise, Surprise

The findings surprise Warren Heaps, who has more than 25 years of HR experience, most of it in international HR. He’s a contributor to International HR Forum, a blog for and about global HR, and works as a consultant for companies who send employees overseas.

He pointed to numerous examples, such as Colgate, where the CEO led Colgate outposts in seven different countries.

“It’s all about succession and career planning. You need to get the right people in the right job at the right time,” Heaps told SHRM Online. “If [that person] happens to be in a different country ... you figure out how to get [him or her].”

The home office also needs to know how to capitalize on the knowledge that those returning from international assignments have gained.

“The key thing that a company needs to realize when they move people overseas: when they come back they’re going to be different,” he said, likening them to first-semester college students returning home for the first time. There is an adjustment from the independence they enjoyed while on campus to the rules of their parents’ house.

“The same thing is true for expats, but it’s even more dramatic,” Heaps said. Often the employers “fail to really seize the opportunity ... and figure out how can I utilize their new knowledge?”

He agrees those returning from such assignments should not switch companies, but doesn’t think international assignments should be limited to younger employees.

“You need to do it when you’re older; also, doing it for a year or two doesn’t make you an expert,” Heaps said. “If you truly want to be a CEO of a company that is operating globally, the best advice is to get [international] experience in each stage of your career ... depending on the kind of company you work for and what kind of business you’re in and where your customers are, you get exposure to all of [that].”

The more important question for HR to ask about the study, he said, “is how it impacts companies that are more and more frequently embracing international assignments as a way of developing global business skills, and putting a higher value on individuals who have those skills.”

Historically, those given long international assignments might not be on the fast track to the C-suite, noted Anil Gupta of the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland at College Park.

In today’s rapidly changing global landscape, though, fast-track managers should be sent on international assignments “so we can groom them for the top positions,” he said.

He pointed to GE, IBM, Proctor & Gamble, Nokia and Accenture.

“When I look at these companies, most of their senior leaders had multiple assignments abroad.”

Where’s the Puck?

Gupta said the study seemed well done, but questioned the findings’ applicability to today’s rapidly changing global landscape.

“Because it’s reporting who rose to the top today, that’s merely reflecting the decisions that were made 10 years back. ... It doesn’t necessarily mean that, that’s what’s happening today.”

He cited the words of Canadian hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who famously said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

That should be the approach corporations take, Gupta said, with HR talking with the CEO and other top-line executives about the company’s profile five and 10 years into the future. Where will the revenue come from; where and how will research and development take place?

Like Heaps, Gupta says there needs to be better use of employees returning from global assignments.

“The proportion of people who return back from expat assignments and resign shortly thereafter is pretty high,” he said. “The ideal approach is to give them a position where they can leverage their experience and knowledge that was gained abroad and apply it to a more global level.”

In addition, there’s the matter, he said, of “how do we make sure that the people who are sent on expat assignments remain a critical part of the social network of the company?”

The researchers concurred with Gupta’s assessment.

“Organizations should support executives who go on longer assignments,” Hamori and Koyunco write, “by investing in employee career planning and providing suitable assignments upon repatriation.”

They suggest those on global assignments need to be proactive by selecting someone in the home organization to provide them with headquarters updates, visit the home office frequently and encourage visits from headquarters personnel.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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