Near Yellow Mountain

Friday, April 22, 2011

Odds are "50 - 50"

Many companies send ex-pats to be to an outside company for evaluation of their suitability to live in another culture. My entire family went through an evaluation process before we left for Japan in 2000. After suitability tests and one on one counseling; ideally both the company and the prospective expat get a better idea of their odds of success in a foreign culture. The new ex-pat also learns that the odds of staying more than one year with the same company after repatriation is less than 50%. Reasons given for this phenomena vary....  the expat changes, receiving an interesting job assignment upon return is the exception rather than the rule, the "sponsor" that sent the ex-pat has moved to a different division or a different company, less freedom, etc etc.

Confronted with these statistics, normally the expat tries to get the names of former ex-pats within the company to see how their company performs on the retention issue. I was not an exception to this  "rule" and neither was my company - I checked the the company ex-pat alum population; about 50% stayed with the company more than one year after returning.

By the time the expat in waiting realizes the odds of a successful return are limited, it is usually too late to change course - the plans are made, the family is getting excited about the move, and the replacement for the current job may already have been announced. In short, getting "cold feet" is rarely an option. In my case; I believed to opportunity far exceeded the risk.

In most cases, the expat quickly forgets the potential long term career issues and focuses on the long "to do" list that needs to be completed before departing for the new "homeland".

The move is made. The first six months to a year are a whirlwind of adjustment - strange language (in most cases), different living conditions, new friends, new schools, new colleagues. About the end of the first year when close relationships with ex-pats from other companies, countries and cultures are established; a picture emerges. The ex-pat world has a natural diversity - a melting pot of countries, languages, cultures, etc but in most cases; expats work for multinational corporations that tend to behave in similar fashion. Benefits and ex-pat "premiums" may differ but big companies have a similar modus operandi and the major concern is naturally - the business not the ex-pat. Big companies tend to have a mix of long term ex-pats and short term ex-pats. Long term ex-pats are valued for the ability to change countries often, get things running or fix problems and then move on. Short term ex-pats are often overseas for "career development". In many cases; this means they hopefully develop a broader perspective on the world but often don't contrbute much to the business while they are on assignment.

My company is a small multinational - there was 1 of me in Japan vs 124 ex-pats at P&G when I arrived.
I found out over the years that my experience would be different than my ex-pat friends at P&G and Caterpillar. Better in some ways; not as easy in other ways. I had more freedom and my boss was 7,000 miles away but I had almost no local support and had to get things done on my own. Getting an apartment and a cell phone was tough for a one person foreign office. I adjusted and eventually embraced the freedom I had. I worked with our local joint venture partners and developed new business. I talked to my boss about once a quarter. He visited for a few days a couple times a year. Sales and profits doubled and then doubled again. The family had a great time. I didn't think about going back to the US.

You learn that the long term ex-pat has a different outlook from the "3 year" standard assignment ex-pat. The short term expat tends to be less concerned about learning the local language and more concerned about getting home for Christmas and home leave. The long term expat often dreads the day they are "called home" and, in the increasingly global world, often jumps ship and joins another company rather than moving home. The short timer often never leaves home emotionally and keeps one eye on the company "intra-net" for likely next jobs at HQ.

My family lived overseas almost 11 years. We called two very different countries and living environments home. We tried to embrace both cultures from the beginning and never went "home" for Christmas but oddly I never considered myself a long term ex-pat. Time flew by, my daughters grew from little girls to young women, graduated from high school and moved back to the US for college. My hair color changed to "distinguished". My 10K time slowed.

We were away long enough that moving "home" seemed very much like the other two ex-pat moves. Except for the language, moving to the US had much the same feeling that moving to Shanghai  from Kobe did in 2005.

While I was "out" for 11 years, the company changed significantly My "sponsor" moved on; I had 4 US based bosses during my time away. Even though I came back to the same division within the company; the environment is very different. We have a new CEO - the first "outsider" in the 125 year history of the company. The outsider brought in many of his former colleagues and now the outsiders are insiders running the company. A bit of a trojan horse takeover. My ex-pat experience should have prepared me for all the change on the home front.

I am still only five months into my repatriaion experience. I am not sure whether I will be one of the 50% that stays or goes.