Secrets Of An International Assignment

Author: Ashish Kothari

Have you ever wondered why we only ever hear the term “Non-Resident Indian”, and not “Non-Resident any-other-nationality”? Perhaps there is a technical answer deeply embedded in India’s complex tax laws. But viewed from another lens, this group does merit a dedicated terminology. After all, they do constitute by far the largest group expatriates resident abroad1! International assignees are a major sub-group of NRI’s, and the subject of this article.

The Macro Trends

Two macro trends have had a profound influence on the global mobility of Indians in the last couple of decades, and resulted in an increase in international assignments.

First, economic liberalization of the 1990’s expanded the role of foreign investment in the economy. From a minuscule US$132 million in 1991-92, foreign investment grew exponentially to $5.3 billion in 1995-96. Compare the 3.5% economic growth from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, to the 6%-9% growth rate since 1991, to gauge the impact of liberalization. As the economy opened up, multinational companies across a range of industry sectors saw India as one of the few major markets to expand operations. And as their operations have matured over the years, their local talent has become a resource pool for international assignments.

Second, globalization has changed the way business is done. Though global trade existed since ancient times, the recent phase enabled businesses to do R&D in one country, sourcing in others, production in yet another, and distribution all over the world. Notwithstanding politico-economic trade battles, global trade – the sum of imports and exports – grew to about half of world GDP by the early 2000’s. Many millions benefitted by participating in the global economy. As companies shifted from a model of standalone local business units in each country, to unified global operations, jobs were redefined to support international responsibilities or mobility.

What is an International Assignment?

International assignments are short term (up to 1 year) or long term (typically 1 – 5 years) temporary roles in another country where the company has operations. It is unlikely to be a permanent appointment in the host country. Assignees will normally retain a link to their base country, and will return to base at the end of one or more successive assignments. These roles arise when a company has an operational need in one country (such as a major strategic initiative, a business expansion, construction of a new plant, or other similar needs), and prefers to tap into its increasingly globally mobile workforce for the best talent. Equally, it may be a means to broaden exposure of key individuals as part of talent development or succession planning.

What should the successful marketer expect on an International Assignment?

The Indian market is replete with successful brands, and the brains behind them are eventually identified for replicating success in other countries. But is it a slam-dunk? So many case studies indicate that what works well in one market isn’t the magic formula elsewhere.

  1. Kellogg’s entered the Indian market in the mid-1990’s, believing that if they just got 2% of the then 900-million population to buy their corn flakes, they’d make more money than their dominant position in their US home market delivered. The most basic insight they missed was that Indian’s prefer hot milk for breakfast, and hot milk makes corn flakes soggy. Along with many other blunders that have made Kellogg’s a management case study, Kellogg’s found out the hard way that they needed to learn about food and cultural habits when entering a new market.
  2. With a most-adored brand like Disney, you’d think nothing could possibly go wrong. At least, that’s what their American executives thought when they built Euro Disney near Paris, replicating successful theme parks in the US. Back home, Disney’s parks were a destination holiday with the family. It took some time, for the American management to learn that Europeans prefer to book complete vacation packages in contrast to Americans who just fly straight to Disney. The grave implication was that tour operators were an important channel in Europe, but Disney hadn’t integrated with tour operators for packages. More importantly, whereas families and alcohol don’t go together in America, the French like a glass of wine with lunch. Only when Euro Disney changed its no-alcohol policy, integrated with tour operators, and introduced other changes to suit the local culture, did attendance and hotel occupancy skyrocket, and Euro Disney posted its first operational profit.
  3. When Home Depot entered China in 2006, the world economy was booming, China was everybody’s darling, and Home Depot was the leading DIY store brand in USA. 6 years, 12 stores and $160 million dollars later, the American management finally understood that the Chinese didn’t really like to do it themselves.

Recent history is replete with similar examples of leading brands entering new markets around the world, and burning their fingers. Somewhere amongst these sad stories, there is one theme that stands out. When companies conceive a strategic growth plan in an overseas market, they assemble their best brains for the overseas assignment. But not all companies recognise that going global is not a case of “just decide where you’re going to sell next and translate your existing marketing materials into whatever language your new audience speaks”.

The reality is that consumer needs and expectations differ widely among countries, and those “best brains” need more than tactical and operational skills to succeed. They need insights into local culture, customs, habits, preferences – and to customize or redevelop the product offer suitably. They need to understand local competition, and differentiate the proposition rather than replicate from home markets. They need to examine consumers, identify their chosen target segments, position and communicate the brand through locally appropriate channels. They need to understand the distribution infrastructure and the most appropriate route to market. They need to build relationships with local contacts and businesses, and familiarize themselves with legal requirements and advertising standards. They need to rethink price-value contextual to the brand salience in the new market. International assignments, then, are not about transposing the marketing effort from one successful market to the next. Every element of the marketing mix must be challenged, and defined in the context of the local market.

What is in it for me?

International assignments are a prized opportunity for some. And a definite no for others! Ultimately, it is your personal and professional choices that define if it is right for you. Here are some of the considerations:

  1. Professional growth: Is the role a good fit with your career development plan? This question must be answered in two parts.
    First, whether the overseas assignment is a step in the right direction for your overall career aspirations. Does the role itself provide you the kind of platform that you are looking for, either in terms of breadth across functions or depth within your own function? Will you have new opportunities to interact with the senior leadership of your company? Will you learn new skills? Is the role one that will make a real impact to the company, or even externally? Both you and the company should define the success criteria from your respective perspectives.
    Second, at some stage, you will return to your base country, and with a wealth of valuable experience gained overseas. Does your company have a plan to put your expertise to good use? Many organisations fail to do so, with the result that returnees become frustrated because they are “retrofitted” into a role that may not value their expertise, or they lack autonomy, or worse, they end up missing opportunities to progress in their careers; in fact, there may be no roles available at all, leaving the employee stranded in mid- or late-career.
  2. Financial considerations: Typically, companies remunerate employees well when they are sent overseas, though the compensation structures vary widely from highly lucrative “full expat” packages, to marginal differences, if any, compared to local employees in the host country. However, the financial considerations go beyond remuneration, and include areas like taxation (base and host country), insurance, statutory benefits (e.g. pension funds), and indirect relocation costs (direct costs are normally covered by the company). These are complex subjects beyond the scope of this article, but do ensure that you seek advice from the right specialists.
  3. Personal considerations: This is probably the area with the most difficult questions, and will require a fair bit of introspection and consultation with those who are closest to you. An overarching consideration is whether the host location offers you a suitable quality of life. Depending on your personal preferences, you may need to consider crime rates, pollution, healthcare facilities, travel connectivity to home, housing, education, and more.
    1. The Global Citizen: Culture, and in some host countries language, might be the areas that you are least prepared for. Culture shock has the potential to affect work performance, and in some cases, could even result in premature conclusion of the overseas assignment.
      You might be the whiz kid in your professional domain, but if you don’t know how people interact in your new country, the curtains will come down very quickly on your career. Your relocations team should be able to advise you on cultural coaching specific to your host country, as norms in one country might be exactly the opposite in another.
      Avoid the tendency to fraternize only with colleagues and social contacts from your own country. Think of yourself as an ambassador for your country; showcase the best of your culture to the many interesting people who will want to know more about where you come from.
      Learn the basic words and short sentences in the local language; it’s a great ice-breaker when you meet new people. Get to know about local politics, sport, entertainment, history, economy, places of interest to integrate in the local community. Volunteer in local events.
      Think carefully about where to live – an “enclave” where you have easy access to your favourite groceries, or a multi-cultural neighbourhood where you feel that you’ve moved overseas?
    2. The Trailing Spouse: If you have a spouse, how will a move overseas affect them? If you are a dual career couple, is it worth sacrificing one career? Whether your spouse gets work authorization depends on the host country immigration laws. And if they do get work authorization, will they find a suitable job?
      Even if you aren’t a dual career couple, the trailing spouse will be leaving behind their comfort zone, social life, extended family, support systems. You don’t want to discover that your spouse is miserably uncomfortable after you move, so best to have some long conversations beforehand.
      On the other hand, an overseas assignment might enable a trailing spouse to gain access to an advanced degree, take a career break, learn a new skill, or do something they never had time for till now.
      It gets a little bit more complicated if the “trailing spouse” is not yet a spouse. Countries differ in whether they legally recognize that special someone in your life and you may or may not get an accompanying partner visa at all.
    3. Third Culture Kids: The term TCK refers to people who grow up in a culture different from their parents or their home country. Their “third culture” is some sort of amalgamation of the culture of their parents and the culture where they reside(d) during their formative years. Young children are amazingly agile and resilient, and quickly adapt and assimilate languages and accents, behaviours, social and cultural norms. They grow up comfortable with a wider variety of cultural influences than those who grow up in one particular cultural setting. However, it can be different with teenagers, who have a need to form the crucial building blocks of their adulthood – friendships, social skills, academic and “life” competencies – in the environment where they’re likely to live as adults.
      With any age of children, education is bound to be a primary consideration. Again, this varies between countries. In USA, for instance, local schools are zoned to housing neighbourhoods, and funded from local property taxes, so it is mandatory for schools to admit any child living in the neighbourhood. In contrast, Malaysian sekolah’s (local schools) are not allowed to admit foreign students at all. In the former case, the child could opt to go to a private school, whereas in the latter case, the child necessarily has to go to an international school. In all cases, the child will be moving from one of the Indian education systems into some foreign education system – and possibly back into an Indian education system when moving back home. At university level too, there are differences between most countries. All this means the child’s education needs should be carefully thought through beforehand.

An international assignment can be the most enriching and personally fulfilling experience throughout your entire working life. It will give you the opportunity to learn more than you ever could in one country alone. You could shine in your profession, or at the very least, you will be someone that colleagues will reach out to regionally or globally because of your expertise. You will make connections that were never possible before. You will certainly live a life that you would never have imagined if you’d stayed in one country all through your life. But the thin line between success and disappointment is defined by careful planning and a thorough understanding of the choices that you need to make, to avoid being blindsided by the unexpected.

Many readers of this blog post will have been on an international assignment at some point. I urge you to contribute generously by sharing your experiences in the comments section. As the world increasingly becomes a global village, more and more people are likely to benefit from the collective wealth of experiences shared by others.

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