Human Capital & Careers

Keep Overseas Staff Focused on the Right Goals

What's the best way for an American manager to track the quality of work done thousands of miles away from headquarters?
Mary KisselJune 11, 2004

Keeping track of what expatriates do while working in foreign countries can sometimes present big challenges to U.S.-based managers. Given the expense of sending employees overseas, the issue of expatriate accountability is being raised more frequently within U.S. companies.

One way to address this concern is to ensure that expatriates receive clear instructions and understand the goals they’re expected to achieve during their foreign stints. The second is to manage them effectively, say mobility experts.

Bill Maxwell, an executive vice president and managing director with Cendant Mobility in Danbury, Conn., counsels U.S. companies on how to manage expatriate staff. He also is in charge of the consulting firm’s own 12 expatriates. When managing these overseas employees, “I believe in the three Cs,” he says. “Communicate, communicate, communicate… I don’t know any company or corporation that ‘over-communicates’ with its people.”

Mr. Maxwell, 50, connects with his team abroad through frequent e-mails, one-on-one phone calls, and conference calls. Keeping tabs on overseas staffers using these high-tech methods is easy and relatively inexpensive. For Mr. Maxwell, though, there’s no substitute for face-to-face talks. He regularly jumps on a plane and visits Cendant’s employees abroad. “Our CEO and I firmly believe that it’s better to have us continually cycling through our facilities globally,” he says. “You get a better sense of what’s going on.”

Set Goals Before They Leave

Still, the most important issue is an expatriate’s ability to achieve the desired results for the parent company while living and working overseas. U.S.-based managers must be accountable for the results of their employees, while the expats themselves should be held responsible for reaching their goals. So what’s the best way for an American manager to track the quality of work done thousands of miles away from headquarters?

The first step is to set the expatriates’ expectations and goals before they leave the U.S., says Brenda Fender, an Atlanta-based director of global initiatives for Worldwide ERC, an association for relocation professionals headquartered in Washington, D.C. She advises U.S. managers to write “assignment letters” defining an expat’s mission abroad explicitly. The letter should say, “here’s what it [your assignment] means to you, here’s what your cash will look like, here’s the system in which you’ll go for merit reviews,” she explains.

Once the expat is settled overseas, making sure that U.S.-based managers’ instructions are crystal clear is what counts, says Priscilla Wisner, a professor of global business at Thunderbird’s Garvin School of International Management in Glendale, Ariz. “The looser you are, the fuzzier you are, the more room for interpretation [and] for misinterpretation,” says Dr. Wisner, who specializes in “organizational control” issues confronting global corporations. If objectives and expectations are well-established from the outset, managers at headquarters can more easily assess progress toward those goals during the assignment without constantly checking up on the employee. What’s more, have the expat review his or her job description on an annual basis, say mobility experts.

Talk with Local Managers

It’s also important to communicate regularly with local nationals who manage expatriates overseas. This practice has two benefits; first, it helps to train foreign managers and spread “best practices” globally. Second, it ensures that expatriates have a communication lifeline to the home office, by having a manager or mentor back home to whom they can voice concerns or turn to for career advice. Many firms that neglect this latter point see valuable, experienced expatriates jump ship to other companies that are more attentive to their needs.

“I personally believe that you have to watch them throughout the assignment and make sure that the company [headquarters] doesn’t forget about them,” says Carolyn Gould, a principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers Human Resource Services in Florham Park, N.J.

United Parcel Service Inc. in Atlanta has integrated this advice. “Ten years ago, we were just sending [expats] over,” says John Valeri, vice president of international human resources for the global package-delivery company. “As we’ve matured and progressed, we’re sending them out with a purpose in mind, to fill a need.”

Over the years, Mr. Valeri and his associates developed a streamlined career-progression path for UPS expatriates, including an extensive orientation program that defines the terms of their assignments. Once the expat is abroad, Mr. Valeri keeps in constant phone and e-mail contact with the local manager, who tracks the expat’s performance closely.

UPS also keeps a comprehensive database of expatriate employees’ skills to help U.S.-based managers, such as Mr. Valeri, plan their future career paths. “We have a whole career-development process in place,” he says. “We’ve become more sophisticated.”

It Takes a Personal Touch

But despite consistent long-distance communication, it’s hard for U.S. managers to understand fully an expatriate’s environment without seeing it themselves, says Mr. Maxwell. Some might argue that the need to make personal visits is outdated, thanks to e-mail and Web-based audio- and video-conferencing ability. After all, why get on a plane if you can roll out of bed, flip on your computer, and participate in a meeting being held in the Hong Kong office?

But high-tech communication isn’t a substitute for talking in person, says Mr. Maxwell. On-site visits allow managers to reassure expats that their work is truly valued and help to spread a U.S-based firm’s culture to far-flung operations.

Going overseas helps U.S. managers to understand the social and cultural environments in which expats operate. They also can hold informal “water cooler” talks that expats miss when they’re posted overseas. When Mr. Maxwell is abroad, for instance, he participates in employee-recognition programs and operating reviews and dines out with employees on an informal basis.

“Linkage to home is important,” says Imran Qureshi, a consultant at Watson Wyatt & Co. in Chicago, who advises firms on expatriate programs. He cites an example of a U.S.-based manager who couldn’t understand why his Tokyo-based employee was slow to win new business. “[The manager] hadn’t actually visited Tokyo and didn’t understand the environment in which [the expat] was working,” says Mr. Qureshi, who says U.S.-based firms often lack managers with foreign experience. “You spend a lot of time giving training to the expat and the expat’s spouse, but how much time do you spend giving training to the U.S. manager? That individual needs to appreciate the challenges that the expat is facing.”

Communicating with Spouses

Communication shouldn’t be limited to just the expatriates and their foreign managers. In the best-case scenario, U.S.-based managers should talk to the expat’s spouse, too. This can help them gauge the family’s adjustment abroad. Says Mr. Maxwell: “If the spouse and family aren’t happy, the likelihood is that the associate [abroad] won’t be successful.”

UPS’s Mr. Valeri, who also visits employees overseas, strives to talk often with expats and their spouses. He takes couples out to dinner when he heads abroad. “We ask, ‘Hey, how’s everything going here?’ ” he says.

On a recent trip to Singapore, he chaired a global conference call to discuss changes in the firm’s global health-care benefits with expats and spouses. “We hooked up the expatriate’s spouses from Europe, the U.S. and Asia and allowed them to get on and ask questions [about the program],” he says.