In an increasingly global world, where people travel and move around the planet to an ever greater extent, and where engaging with people from different cultural backgrounds is commonplace, some wonder about the role of expat coaching in the future. If you add to the picture the ease with which we can gather information on the internet, it’s no surprise some think there is no need for employer-initiated, structured support in the shape of coaching and training — I mean, why bother when all the information you need is right there, a few keystrokes away?
Individuals may be travel-savvy and interculturally knowledgeable these days. However, when looking at the bigger picture of moving and working abroad, that isn’t enough. An international assignment carries with it inherent challenges such as culture shock and language barriers, for example. In addition, every assignee comes with their own set of challenges, be it the family settling well, a partner wanting to work, or elderly parents left at home. In order to have a successful international posting, assignees (and their families) need to learn not just how to perform their work in a new environment — they need to learn how to live life in their new environment.
Why coaching is needed
Taking on an expat assignment isn’t like taking on a difficult new job that you can leave at the end of the day. Being an expat is much more complicated — it’s a new life. It’s a 24/7-proposition, and the stumbling blocks are many: if you are single, loneliness is a common problem. If you are relocating with a family, helping your children settle is a big task. Dual career partnerships are particularly tricky as the assignee’s career takes off while the partner’s career is severely altered, or as is often the case, comes to a halt completely.
Failure rates of international assignments vary. Researchers at INSEAD put the figure at 10-50 percent depending on the country (cultural differences, language barriers, etc, vary, making adjustment more or less easy depending on location). Unhappiness of the partner and the inability to adapt to cultural differences are reported as the most common reasons for a failed assignment.
In addition to the risk of a failed assignment because of family adjustment issues, you also have to take this into account: many expats are significantly less efficient at work because of increased stress and the need to cut hours to tend to relocation-related concerns at home.
Interviews with executive managers of expats show that, particularly in the initial phases (the first four to six months of an assignment), many expats are operating at about 90 percent with regard to time on the job. The extra work goes either undone or is being covered by bosses and colleagues, resulting in inefficiency, and prolonging the time it takes for everyone to assimilate in their respective new roles in the work environment.
Why isn’t coaching more popular?
International assignments are complex, expensive, and strategically important — they require a variety of support programs and personnel, as well as several levels of management participation. In short, international assignments are big investments. Considering the complexity and the investment, it seems reasonable that a proven technique such as coaching should have a natural place in an organization’s global mobility program — so why isn’t expat coaching more widely used?
There are several reasons:
- Available resources — global mobility and HR managers have budgetary restrictions to manage relocation as cheaply as possible. Priority tends to be on providing basic services like moving furniture or ensuring that compliance issues are met.
- Manager’s experience — many global mobility managers have no personal experience of living and working abroad, which means they don’t have a real knowledge of what the challenges involved are.
- Employer’s mindset — assignees are chosen for their expertise — be it their technical skills, their leadership skills or the general knowledge base they bring to the table. Their emotional intelligence, flexibility, family circumstance, and resilience are rarely part of the assessment when matching an employee to a position. There is little thought given to the person/family as a whole.
- Assignee’s concern — assignees will often say they don’t need coaching because they worry it will make them seem as if they don’t have the confidence or the skills to take on the assignment. They worry that accepting coaching will reflect badly on them. Typically, only one in four takes advantage of coaching that is offered to them at no cost on an optional basis.
- Assignee’s and employer’s unawareness — there is an increasing trend to give a lump sum for the assignee to spend on support. Because of the unawareness of both parties, this is an inefficient way to offer/receive help. It’s not uncommon for the assignee to simply pocket the money, effectively going without support. Meanwhile, the employer has spent resources that could’ve been used for proven effective measures such as coaching.
Benefits of coaching
Most former expats, regardless of family constellation — single, accompanying partner, or family — will tell you that they benefited from coaching. In particular, coaching that helps set realistic expectations of what relocation entails is perceived as helpful.
Learning about how cultural differences can impact work is crucial, as is learning to cope with losing your familiar support system for example, or dealing with homesickness. Without adequate support, the likelihood that factors like these will negatively impact an assignee’s job performance or the assignment as a whole is very real.
Apart from coaching having a positive impact on the assignee and the accompanying family, an ICF (International Coach Federation) study also shows that 60 percent of companies with strong coaching cultures report having revenue above average for their industry. The same study says that 65 percent of employees from companies with a strong coaching culture rated themselves as highly engaged in their company.
Although surveys measuring the success of coaching programs indicate highly engaged employees, and higher than average revenue, the real measure of a successful coaching program will be the day-to-day effects it has on the organization as a whole — leaders that are better equipped to lead, workgroups that are more creative and functional, higher employee satisfaction and retention, as well as positive business outcomes.
What’s involved in coaching?
The ideal coaching program is comprehensive and flexible enough to cover both general and personal challenges. As assignments vary in everything from location and family situation, to language barriers and cultural differences, it’s hard to pinpoint what the exact needs are going to be; what is clear is that all these variables can have an impact.
An effective coaching program should, at the least, be:
- Flexible in scope — to cover the varying needs expats bring to the table.
- Confidential — to remove the worry that accepting coaching will reflect badly on an assignee.
- Required — to ensure maximum uptake. Numbers show that only one in four takes advantage when it’s optional.
- Inclusive — to ensure that the accompanying partner/family has access. The family as a whole will have an impact on the success of the employee.
- Ongoing — to provide support beyond the initial relocation. Issues arise at various points of relocation, including during repatriation. Continued support is important for long-term retention.
By: Felicia Shermis