Jo, can you tell us a bit about your background before joining Cartus?
I have been with Cartus for 8 years (the past 6 years in the USA) but worked within the training industry for my entire career. I started in the Learned Society of the Institution of Electrical Engineers based in London putting together educational programs for the membership.From there I moved to Frost & Sullivan developing a program of open enrollment and client specific programs covering a whole range of topics – telecoms, sales & management. It was a great opportunity to build a really broad base of experiences and take on significant responsibility at a relatively young age; everything from business management to product development through to people management.
What services does Cartus offer?
Cartus is the largest provider of domestic and international relocation services. Part of its core competency is cross cultural and language training.
What is your own particular role?
My role is Director, Account Management & Sales within the intercultural practice at Cartus which means I get to work with our clients on developing language and cultural training programs to prepare their international assignees to live overseas. Sometimes that can be a policy review to make sure that there is enough coverage for skill building e.g. it’s not good offering someone 50 hours on Mandarin Chinese and expecting them to be fluent! More recently there has been a renewed focus on pre-assignment selection so I have been working with large multi-national organizations to create a candidate assessment program that can run alongside their current performance review process.
These assignments are highly visible and costly. It is critical that organizations send the right people to the right place at the right time. Part and parcel of striking that balance is teaching skills that enable the employees and their families to adapt to the new host country.
What are the main issues expats need assistance with?
As my dad would say, “How long is a bit of string?”! There is no one way to answer that question. In our experience assignees get very caught up in the logistics of a move (where’s my stuff, where’s my money?) when perhaps taking a moment to stop and ask themselves some questions about the realities of life overseas would help them better prepare. It’s so easy to get bogged down in packing up, sorting out bank accounts, finding schools etc. that you can lose sight of the enormous changes about to happen. I would urge everybody thinking about an international assignment to consider these questions (including any accompanying family members):
– Aside from the career opportunity, why am I going?
– What makes me successful at home and how much of that do I need to recreate overseas to be successful?
– What support networks am I leaving behind? How will I build new ones?
– What am I going to do when I get back?
Coupled with that, expats need to build skills to live overseas – it doesn’t just come naturally. In fact, Cartus’ recent (spring 2010) Global Policy and Practices survey showed that 30% of respondents cited families’ inability to adapt to the host location as the number-one reason for assignment failure. People need to understand their own cultural values and those of the host country. In exploring values and how they impact everyday life families will get a sense of acceptable norms of behavior and how to adapt.
What is a typical working day like?
There’s no such thing! One day I might be talking to a client about a group move to China, another day my focus might be on a policy review for a client with 800 international moves per year or I could be ploughing through endless lines on a spreadsheet trying figure out a client’s spend patterns and see if I can recommend cost savings.
The other aspect that makes it so varied is that I am truly global – my contacts can be anywhere in the world. I really have to practice what I preach about style switching to suit different cultural contexts. I don’t always succeed but I am always trying!
Generally speaking, do companies do enough to prepare their employees for assignments abroad?
It’s not so much about just preparing assignees as it is preparing their organizations as a whole. Training the assignees to work in the new host country is only half of the equation – what about the receiving team or manager? If you have a project engineer moving from the US to China and his company provides cross cultural training he will arrive with a basic toolkit to help him decode the behaviors that he sees. How will his manager cope when it comes to reward and recognition or giving feedback? He will not get the most out his new employee if he manages him the same way as one of his local direct reports, but he has had no training on the alternatives.
It is true to say, though, that assignees could be better prepared in one key area – coming back home. It’s the forgotten phase in the assignment cycle yet it can be the most critical. The same study that I referenced earlier (our 2010 Global Policy and Practices survey) showed that amongst our client companies, repatriation is still an issue; while 40% of respondents said their organizations do offer advance return career planning, 44% said their employers did not offer it, and 16% weren’t sure! At Cartus we discuss repatriation as part of the outbound cross cultural program so that the families can begin their return home plan as soon as they get to the host country. I know it sounds counter-intuitive and like you are wishing away the assignment experience but you would be amazed how many employees leave an organization within a few months of repatriation because they feel under-utilized and that their new global skills are not being acknowledged. You have to be able to articulate what you have gained from the assignment professionally and personally.
In your experience, which are the hardest transitions and why? Equally, which are the easiest?
Being away from home is being away from home wherever you are. Obviously there are additional layers of transition challenge if there is a language barrier but there really is no easy country to country combination. Lots of people think that UK to US (and vice versa) are easy but they are not – trust me, I speak from experience. You still have to decode behaviors and respond appropriately. Let me give you an example. UK nationals are typically hierarchical. We give respect and status to authority by default whereas for US nationals there is much more the sense that respect has to be earned based upon achievement. As a UK national leading a team in the US it took me a while to understand that I was going to have to earn my stripes with my team – they would not simply follow me because I had Director in my job title!
If you had to give one piece of advice to our members to help them meet cross cultural challenges, what would it be?
That there is no right or wrong answer in cross cultural interactions! The fact that I, as a UK national, have a preference for a more indirect communication style doesn’t mean that someone else’s direct approach is wrong.
What are your plans for the future?
Who knows! I have some decisions to make about what country to call home but there is a big world out there begging to be experienced!
What do you do to relax?
I’m doing my best to integrate into my chosen city of Chicago so an afternoon at Wrigley Field watching the Cubs play is about as good as it gets – the most recent season’s performance notwithstanding!
For more information about the services provided by Cartus email Jo at firstname.lastname@example.org