New Wave of Expat Managers in China –Familiar Challenges, New Pressures

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Few corporations will send employees overseas if there is any possible alternative. Why? The expats of today have a heavy burden of responsibility on their shoulders compared to their forerunners of the past few decades. These days the success of an international venture can make or break a new start up or large firm. And those expats who fail can blemish the reputation of the firm and ultimately lose face in the community, ruining a trust that could take several years to repair – especially in China.

Large corporations believe it is just the cost of doing business because of the high level of responsibilities involved, expertise, shortage of engineers, technical expertise and the like. Most firms tend to send their best performing and most promising people – usually untrained with the right skills and unprepared for the situation on the ground. One thing they do understand is the notion that success or failure abroad will have a major effect on the future of their position within the company.

Studies have shown that the chances of a successful fit are on average 30-50 percent. Most expat managers will return before their assignment is up. In fact, even venerable firms such as Sun Microsystems’ have experienced a failure rates up to 63 percent of employees returning home prior to mission completion in China. This is with the knowledge that expat benefit package may cost many multiples of his or her salary. It also has been noted that with those remaining 50 percent that stay, most operate at a very low level of productivity and that fewer than 40 percent succeed in completing their posting abroad successfully. Clearly, this is a risk that requires top level managements’ attention.

Other unforeseeable circumstances neither well known nor discussed in great detail but nevertheless very important if the success of the corporate professional oversees is to become a successful fit. One of the more obvious causes for failure of an expat overseas assignment is the inability of the candidate to acclimatize his/her persona or those with family to the environment overseas. i.e.: inability to adjust to the new culture. However this often becomes a game of “blame the expat”. “He probably never met a Chinese person the whole time he was in China” is something I have heard often. However, in my experience, the expats that come to Asia often indicate that “cultural experience” is a top motivation. They are excited about the new culture and do their best to acclimate. Obviously different personalities have varying language skills and ability to morph into new situations. However, this is very difficult to predict even for the employee himself, much less HR.

Corporate culture is another factor in the transplantation of an employee who once was familiar with one way of performing and now is confronted with a whole new set of rules when posted abroad within the same company. This can be seen when a satellite company is managed, structured and based upon a different hierarchy or cultural norms unfamiliar to both the expat and foreign firm which may a cause a great deal of frustration and angst among both parties.

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