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International assignments in the old days were exotic perks for a few select executives. Or, they were a means to banish leaders who were making too many waves in the headquarters office.

Nowadays international assignments are becoming a necessity in many organizations. Moreover, top executives need to have international experience if they’re going to have a chance to break into the C-level. 

And many companies – not even just global ones – must have executives who understand international markets, foreign supply chains, exchange rate impact on financial statements, international tax and legal issues, and so forth.

These top global executives must also understand the complexities of leading across cultures and how to mobilize a far-flung global operation toward achieving the company’s highest priorities. This is true whether they are staying put in their current office, expatriating to a new country, or inpatriating from an overseas office to the company’s global headquarters.

There is a human resources specialty that helps facilitate executive moves.  They are called Mobility professionals (and a group of them recently met at the Bay Area Mobility Managers quarterly meeting in the Silicon Valley). Mobility is the department that takes care of the A-Z’s of getting an executive on the ground in her foreign assignment. Expatriation involves a highly complex – and expensive – series of tasks. There is not just the move and visas, but also the “tax equalization” that makes sure taxes are covered for that executive in both the home and destination countries, and that she isn’t hit with extraordinary taxes given the benefits she receives in housing allowances, kids’ schools, moving, etc.

Did you know that moving an executive to an overseas assignment costs 3-4x their annual salary? Take a mid six-figure executive and we are talking $1-2mm to place them in their overseas assignments. Companies don’t take these costs lightly.

But today making sure your top talent have international exposure is a critical to ensure your management bench strength has the smarts and experience to lead the company three, five and ten years in the future. 

Properly preparing executives for these mission-critical global roles is a highly important step. Some companies drop their new international leaders into a new overseas location and expect that “poof!” they are going to succeed working in another culture, time zone and market. This is courting disaster with such a large investment of financial and human capital.

Smart companies today assure their return on investment by developing their future C-level executives through tailored international executive transition programs. These prepare the leader in areas such as creating leverage through diverse national cultures, strategically aligning global and regional organizational cultures, and further advancing their leadership skills. These programs also help the executive assess and groom her new team on the ground in the new locale and mobilize them toward their new mission.

This step greatly enhances the chances of success of the assignment – for both the executive and the organization as a whole. The costs of a failed international assignment are not just in the Mobility costs, but also in the turnover and depleted morale for the team on the ground and their stakeholders around the world.

We have been working with an executive who works for a global organization that has recently placed her in charge of sales and marketing for an entire international region. The company had the foresight to carefully plan and prepare her move months in advance, as she was replacing a predecessor who lasted in the role only a short time. Julie (not her real name) is a rising star in the organization where she has been for over 8 years. She’s proven herself to the most senior people in the organization who recognize her potential to sit in a global C-level role. Julie took the better part of a year assessing her team. She made a number of critical changes “on the ground” in her new location, building her mandate and developing a set of goals and strategies. She gathered her team for a strategic planning and team kickoff retreat, and they are now underway with great enthusiasm and resolve to achieve their team goals together.

After eighteen months of preparation and on the ground architecting, Julie has made a very successful transition as a regional executive. She has established the foundations for her evolution from domestic leader to global leader. The company has a larger asset in terms of management strength that will benefit shareholders for years to come.

If your company is planning to invest in management bench strength through international assignments, you should take these key steps:

  1. Determine what your company will need in terms of global or international “mindset” and experience for executive leaders to be successful in navigating your company in 3-5 years. Consider from which regions will arise the next phase competitive challenges new business opportunities or supply chain issues.
  2. Develop a list of high potential talent for future executive and C-level roles. Consider such factors as: cross-cultural curiosity and adaptability; agility to move into new assignments; have strong leadership skills and a demonstrated following as a leader; and long term commitment to the organization and its mission; etc.
  3. Engage Mobility and Global Leadership experts early as possible to help validate which potentials are qualified for global or international assignments. Assessments to gauge cross-cultural competence can be employed. For example, checking eligibility for visas of domestic partners is a critical early step.
  4. Develop a game plan for transitioning individuals into their international or global leadership role. This should factor in possible successive roles after completing his/her assignment as well. The point is to develop the leader and your leadership bench strength for the future.
  5. Engage a qualified Global Leadership consultant to prepare the leader on planning their preparation and entry into the new market. These consultants will help assess what needs to be developed in the leader to prepare them for the assignment and then coach them prior to their move and afterward as they get situated and lead their multinational team in achieving important new goals. This should be planned and coordinated with the CEO or other C-level sponsor.

The old adage goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” To ensure return on investment for shareholders in developing your company’s future C-level leadership, planning a successful transition into a new global assignment makes good sense.

Make sure today’s rising stars have a powerful, successful international business assignment and your company will be all the better prepared to compete in the global marketplace.

Here are five steps that will help you prepare to step into the C-suite:

Join the team. Approach your new assignment on the executive as starting a new job with a new team. Think about ways you can make that team more effective, even if others don’t approach it as a team or the CEO doesn’t manage it that way.

Focus your efforts on building long-term stakeholder value. The job the company needs you to do as an executive is a offer strategic guidance to increase the long-term value of the organization to all its stakeholders. Contribute your specialized knowledge and accrued business wisdom. Learn everything you can about the areas where you don’t specialize and how they work in combination to build long-term value.

Identify the balance of power. Even though you may have an idea going in, double check your assumptions based on first-hand observations of how executives relate to one another. Check out the body language, displays of power and preference. Who has what assets? How do they compete? Where are the vulnerabilities? Who do you need to partner with to contribute to the achievement of company goals.

Diversify your “conflict mode”. Develop a full range of styles to communicate and collaborate with your fellow executives Find ways to compete more assertively if you’re the type that prizes harmony and happy win-win scenarios. Chances are you’ll get run over by power brokers. Likewise, if you’re the take-no-prisoners type, develop a way of making sure your powerful peers feel respected and willing to trust you.

Find a mentor on the board.  Whether formally or informally, mentorship by a board member will help you see around corners, establish solid footing, and find ways of avoiding “newbie” mistakes on the Executive team. If you don’t feel comfortable with your own company’s board, find someone who’s a veteran from other company boards.

Global Transitions Research

By David Howells, EMEA Region Head, Martin Global Leaders

Before we embarked on our recent research on Global Leadership Transitions we were aware that global leaders, and the organizations within which they work, are frequently frustrated by the length of time that it takes for them to achieve their desired goals. As a result, organizations have frequently been slower than desired in delivering the required results and stakeholders at home and overseas have felt it necessary to ask: “Why?”. Some have described the challenge as being akin to playing 3D Chess.

Research Methodology:

Our working hypothesis was that the mere issue of cultural difference was not a sufficient explanation for this frequent delay in success. Our intuition and anecdotal evidence was that it was the interaction between national cultures and organizational cultures, both local and HQ, that was the grit in the oyster.

Instead of theorizing on the possible causes, we have recently been carrying out research with experienced global leaders who have “been there and done it”, to find out what eased their paths towards international success and, of course, what got in their way. Here are some key insights:

Key insights from the Global Transitions research:

  • Global leaders need a complete understanding of dynamic balance between both national culture and organizational values/culture.
  • While national culture is critical for a global leader to understand, it can be trumped by organizational values/culture, especially in large MNCs.
  • What leaders often struggle with most is tension between organizational cultures across geographies along with their competing priorities and needs.
  • Planning the Mission: in advance of the new assignment, it is essential for the leader to identify who s/he is, where s/he is going, how long it will take and the pressures that will both challenge and inform his/her leadership style.
  • The individual’s own “leadership drive” was a stabilizing force that helped guide and balance the individual during their transition. When clear within themselves about their “leadership drive” they were able to use this to best effect internally and externally.
  • Personal, family and organization support is critical for success in taking on the new leadership role.
  • Getting established in the new market is complex and frequently disorienting, and needs to be planned with great care.

To discuss our other findings, feel free to contact David Howells or Craig Martin. We would be pleased to hear about your experiences and share our thoughts.

The entranceway to the C-Suite is littered with the carcasses of senior leaders who failed to adapt to new conditions and requirements. It’s one of the toughest if not the toughest of all career transitions.

Here are the five most typical points of failure for aspiring C-level leaders:

“I’m the CTO (or whatever). My job is to be the voice of technology on the Exec Team.”

Ahem. You may be the CTO but you must be focused on and contribute to strategy for the entire enterprise. Your specialty certainly needs a voice. But you are first and foremost a member of the Executive Team. And you are the voice of the Executive Team and enterprise strategy to the company’s technology function.

“My #1 priority is to take care of my CEO.”

You may be grateful and loyal to the CEO for your incredible promotion to the C-suite. But myopically pleasing the boss at the C-level reduces an executive’s performance and potential. Furthermore, the most common bottleneck in organizations is the CEO. Too many CEOs unwittingly create their own hub-and-spoke structure around their leadership, and this causes manifold dysfunction throughout the organization. Senior executives need to pay attention to the goals and strategies that lead to long term organizational value. They need to form powerful pragmatic alliances with other C-suite executives to achieve these goals. Oh yes, and your CEO may be taken out by the board tomorrow. Be loyal to your CEO and follow her lead. But take into account the whole C-suite and your responsibility to foster effective executive teamwork.

“The CFO is a pain. I avoid him at all costs.”

“The board is a threat. We need to close ranks and not let them see us sweat.”

The emperor has no clothes. That’s the lesson these executives soon will learn. The power dynamic between the executive management team and board of directors is often very tricky (particularly when you have aggressive, dominant investors). New executives can be intimidated and feel insecure and not want to show vulnerability to powerful board members.

“We executives are all peers. Let’s just get along and play fair with each other.”

Wrong. The C-Suite is filled with sharp elbows. Chances are that your fellow C-level executives are fiercely competitive (after all, that’s how they got to the top) and are competing with you for company resources, attention from the CEO and board and will likely have an entirely different way of engaging (i.e winning) in conflict. The irony of course is that these are the people with whom you have to team and collaborate effectively with