Home » Successful Expat Managers Swear By These Foreign Workplace Tips

Successful Expat Managers Swear By These Foreign Workplace Tips

A great many expats are experts in their field. That’s why companies pay to have them move around the world to work in their businesses, injecting new ideas and bringing in their world-beating experiences.

But even if you are the inventor of a product, the top-grossing salesman or an award-winning designer, you may find yourself struggling to adapt to your new role overseas.Management is a strange and mysterious art, where leadership and charisma combine to make your staff work that little bit harder, a little bit longer and a lot more effectively. It’s not an easy job, even in your own culture. There are thousands of books written about good management and effective leadership, all promising to divulge the secret superpower that will make a super-boss.

Sadly, there aren’t as many tips written for expats working overseas, suddenly finding themselves running a department in a strange, different business world that doesn’t equate to anything you may be familiar with.

Your management style may have been very effective at home, mucking in with the troops and getting involved in their projects, but now your team seems to show you less respect since you started getting your hands dirty. You may have trusted your workers to get on with tasks independently, but your new staff need constant supervision and guidance.

Everyone moving overseas expects to run into cultural differences when settling into their new home, but there is a whole world of strange customs and awkward relationships to work out just in the workplace.

A good company will help prepare you for this transition, smoothing the way for you to step into your new workplace with an understanding of language, custom, working culture and legal requirements. Considering it can cost three times an employee’s salary to send them overseas, a little training can go a long way to protecting such a large investment.

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To help give expat managers the best start to their overseas posting, we’ve scoured the top tips of successful leaders to find what works best when moving into a management role in a new country.

Pick the right role for you

It might be an incredibly exciting job offer, taking on a big promotion in an exotic location. But be honest with yourself, are you ready for it?

Every expat appointment will involve a certain amount of challenge and facing a few unknowns, but if you are going from junior salesperson in your home town straight up to regional manager in a foreign country, it’s unlikely you’ve got the skills to cope, let alone thrive.

It’s unlikely that your boss will stitch you up quite this badly, but studies report that over a third of expats return home before their contract is completed. Often this is due to not settling in as a family, but on many occasions it is because things just aren’t working out at work.

Make sure you and your line manager are clear about what you are there to achieve, how long you have you do it and what resources you have available to do it. Constantly review your progress according to these goals, and communicate with your boss about what is going well or where you need help.

Watch your team in action, identify strengths and weaknesses

Every department in every office in every business in every country has its own unique brand of politics. Before ploughing headlong into the middle of a well-worked out pecking order, watch and see who stands out as a strong personality.

You may quickly be able to pick out strong performers and hard workers just as easily as you can see slackers or bullies. It’s important for managers to understand the personalities working for them and be able to head off some unpleasant behaviours and reward the hardest working.

Observing the normal pattern of working life will let you understand the nuances of how meetings work, how to go about asking questions and whether your team are comfortable working independently.

There’s nothing more embarrassing than a manager misjudging a situation and wading in to intervene in something that is normal and acceptable. Leslie Strazzullo, an American marketing expert working in Italy explains “needless to say, you want to avoid putting your foot in your mouth.” She told transitionsabroad.com, “the next time there is an issue that you feel strongly about, you will undoubtedly think first and take a new approach such as to bring up your concerns in a one-on-one environment.”

Network outside the office

‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’; or so the saying goes. And in business this tends to be true, with many a business deal beginning over a chance meeting at a party or networking event.

Expats arrive as total strangers, without a support network of extended family or friends, and a total outsider to the local business world. The connections that can make a manager all the more effective must begin again from scratch.

This kind of networking also allows you to step outside of the office in which you work and keep abreast of what is happening in the wider business community and expose you to new ideas.

Many well-travelled expat destinations are likely to have established networking groups or online forums which can be used to put you in contact with local businesses or to answer questions you might have.

Getting out of the office is a necessary step to take in order to retain your sanity. Long working hours and high targets in many countries can quickly turn the average expat into a workaholic. Make time to play sport, meet friends and bond with your family. Jon Fields, an expert on doing business in China, stresses the need for rest and relaxation, “the language and culture can seem impenetrable. And there is no let-up,” he told globalcoachcenter.com. “These strains push even the most stable people and families to their limits.”

Know the culture

“When I first arrived in Dubai in 1999 nobody back home had heard of it. Later, many multinationals set up their MENA (Middle East and North Africa) offices there and expat professionals make up 80% of the population,” says John Falchetto, an expert in advising expats working in the Middle East. He told theundercoverrecruiter.com, “as the expat population grew so did the ‘incidents’ with the local population, due to a lack of cultural knowledge. From losing your job to ending up in jail, cultural awareness can be vital to thriving in your new home.”

Falchetto’s experiences underline the importance of understanding the culture in your office, in your business and in the wider community. When working for an international company, the manner in which you do day-to-day business may not fit with the world that exists just outside the office doors. Female expats especially may have to contend with a massive change in status between the boardroom and the rest of the country.

Even knowledge of the local lingo might not solve all cultural confusions. There’s a whole range of traditions, courtesies and procedures that might be expected of you but without anyone ever explaining them. Ideally your employer will put you through a cultural orientation course, or at least put you in contact with another expat working in the country who can bring you up to speed.

Failing that, go online and learn from the experiences of others and reach out to expat communities already in the country. Another useful source for understanding the differences in working culture is Geert Hofstede’s study. The research project compared working practices amongst IBM employees in offices in 70 countries. The study builds a model that allows managers to compare the working styles of any two countries investigated.

…but don’t be confined by it

Whilst you don’t want to start your posting by insulting your boss or offending your team, you should feel a certain liberation of coming in from the outside world.

Even in your home country, starting a new job involves coming in with new ideas and a fresh perspective. You may be able to spot solutions to long-standing problems or to break bad habits.

By the same token, you can’t parachute in and start making changes. If you find yourself starting a sentence with ‘we used to do it like this…’, stop talking. The only reason to introduce changes are because they are a better than the current way of doing things.

There is a fine balance to be struck, working within your new culture, but bringing the positive elements of the culture from which you come. You may be able to introduce a more relaxed, friendly atmosphere in the office that helps foster a spirit of collaboration and teamwork. As an outsider you have the freedom to reject stifling parts of the culture and foster a new one. In order to achieve this you will need to be clear about how you are trying to portray yourself and consciously build this ‘personal brand’.

Peter Sterlacci is a personal branding specialist and a New Yorker living in Japan. He underlines the importance of projecting a management personality on undercoverrecruiter.com. “Perhaps your credentials and experience got you into your current role, but your character and story is what will compel people to follow you.”

Understand communication

You may be fluent in the language but still struggle to get things done. Emails sent to Spanish colleagues may go unanswered, but talking to your colleagues in person will get a speedy and efficient reply. In Japan, correcting the boss when he’s made a mistake will get you quickly escorted out of the meeting room.

There are a multitude of ways in which wires can become crossed and confusion introduced. Asian workers will often avoid delivering bad news, meaning projects can stumble at the first hurdle unless a solution is provided. Even the word ‘yes’ can cause chaos as explained on managersresourcehandbook.com. “Avoid the use of questions that have ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. This line of questioning causes confusion as in many cultures ‘yes’ can simply be an acknowledgement that the other party heard you, and may not mean they agreed or understood what you meant.”

Be confident

If you don’t convince yourself you know what you’re doing, why should anyone else believe it?

Accept that mistakes will be made and that lessons will need to be learnt; that’s just part of the process. Let go of the small mistakes and remind yourself of the daily victories you’ve achieved.

You’re in charge because you can think big, so don’t get tied up in the minutiae of daily business. You can’t be in control of every little part of the business, so don’t try. Instead trust your staff and give yourself enough time and space to work on the big projects you are being trusted with.

Don’t underestimate how good you’ll feel when dressed for success, as Jacqueline Whitmore told entrepreneur.com, “When you look the part, you’ll carry yourself with more confidence. Dressing well communicates to others that you are knowledgeable, powerful and competent.”

Socialize with your team, or not, whichever is appropriate

There will be conflicting advice on this point. Some workplaces will insist that everyone hits the town and parties until dawn, mixing work with pleasure in the most raucous way.

Whilst this kind of revelry might help create a fun-loving atmosphere
in the office, as a figure of authority you need to be careful not to lose your cool or to overstep the boundaries of professionalism.

It’s entirely down to you in managing this relationship. Australian Michael Jones told efinancialcareers.com that partying with his staff at HSBC bank was fun and productive. “When I was working at HSBC in Hong Kong one of the things I enjoyed most was when members of my team invited me to play football in their local neighbourhood.”

Find a mentor

There’s nothing more valuable than experience, and it doesn’t need to be your own.

Finding and learning from someone with a wealth of experience can prevent you making the same mistakes they made and speed you through your career.

John Falchetto explained the importance of the mentor-protégé relationship on theundercoverrecruiter.com. “The key word is trust. You want to build a tribe based on trust. Mentors will give you advice and what the main challenges are in their field.”

A mentor can help you in all aspects of your professional life and be a great sounding board for new ideas and a shoulder to cry on when it comes to personal issues.

Put your family first

This might not be the business advice you were expecting, but it is the best advice for any expat to remember.

If you‘ve dragged your nearest and dearest around the world to follow your career, they are sacrificing a lot of opportunities and stability. It would be incredibly selfish not to ensure that they were also healthy, happy and thriving in your new home. Kids need to get the best schooling possible and spouses need to feel valued.

A significant proportion of expat marriages fail because visas won’t allow a partner to work, leaving them to suffer from boredom and starting to build up resentment. These frustrations can make it hard for a family to stay happy overseas.

One American woman living overseas anonymously told Wall Street Journal, “when we lived in America, all of my friends were concerned about our marriage and my well-being because my husband travelled so much – but here no one even notices, though he’s gone considerably more. It’s taken for granted because it is so common.”

Remember, even though it may be your job that gives your family the opportunity to live overseas, you don’t want them to feel like they’d be better off returning home without you.

Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer