MAKE THAT FOREIGN POSTING - YOUR TICKET TO THE BOARDROOM - Europe is on the rise, Asia rebounds, the US powers on ... The demand is for executives who think beyond national boundaries. Today it is no longer a case of 'out of sight, out of mind' - a postin

MAKE THAT FOREIGN POSTING - YOUR TICKET TO THE BOARDROOM - Europe is on the rise, Asia rebounds, the US powers on ... The demand is for executives who think beyond national boundaries. Today it is no longer a case of 'out of sight, out of mind' - a postin

by JONATHAN FENBY
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Go west, young man - or woman - to catch the American boom while it lasts. Head south across the Channel to join France's economic boom. Venture further afield, to rapidly reviving Asia and the uncharted business frontier of China. Or, if you really don't want to leave home, at least form part of a global team working over corporate intranets on anything from a new airliner to financial market software.

As ideas, techniques and goods have become increasingly globalised, so have the managers who originate and absorb all those ideas, apply those techniques and organise the production and sale of those goods. The onrushing internationalisation of business and the huge growth of cross-border alliances - 15,000 in the past two years - is fuelling the demand for a new breed of executives whose key strengths are experience in working outside a closed domestic environment. And all the evidence is that, however much emphasis companies may put on training local staff, the expatriate's role will remain vital for a good few years to come - if only as a trainer and mentor in the developing countries that are striving to become part of the new 21st-century economy.

Nationality means less and less in a world of unprecedented mobility where British Airways is run by an Australian and France's biggest beauty products firm by a Welshman, where Daimler embraces Chrysler and a French-Brazilian flies off to tell Nissan how to run its car business - and where Orange bounces between Asian, German and French ownership under the stewardship of an entrepreneur born to a British father in Germany, brought up in Canada, trained in Hong Kong and married to a Chinese wife. All of which means rising executives would do well to have a spell of overseas experience on their CV as they plan their further ascension.

Some companies have internationalisation thrust on them by the nature of their business or the limits of their domestic markets. Nobody could pigeonhole ABB as a Swiss-Swedish company, or Nokia as purely Finnish.

Shell has 5,600 staff in more than 120 countries. Two of the last three bosses of BP earned their spurs in America, and the present CEO of Reuters and his predecessor made their mark in Asia and the US, respectively.

But more and more firms that were once content to regard overseas operations in the nature of a branch that just happened to be thousands of miles away are now realising the value of becoming truly global in their management and staffing as well as their activities. 'Our global human capital may be as important a resource as - if not more important than - our financial capital,' as John Reed, the former chairman of Citicorp, has said.

Once that may have applied only to big companies, but now the need for global managers reaches down to smaller firms: a survey last year by Cendant International Assignment Services found that the biggest growth in sending staff abroad was in companies with fewer than 1,000 employees.

The main reason for foreign postings remains the transfer of skills which, as in the case of British managers posted to the US or Europe, can be very much a two-way process. But in recent years there has been a growing traffic as a result of international start-ups and mergers and acquisitions. If Vodafone's takeover of Mannesmann is an indicator of things to come, the European opportunities can only blossom.

Further afield, although global companies will increasingly want to run their businesses with local managers, training them will continue to involve a lot of westerners. The Canadian telecommunications company, Nortel, sends executives abroad with the sole object of developing local talent.

IBM sent 50 engineers from Italy, Japan and the US to train staff at its joint-venture factory in the Chinese boom city of Shenzhen. After the team left, it continued to offer help and advice by e-mail.

The trend towards a greater recognition of the value of foreign experience is, naturally, not uniform. In companies that still take the branch-office approach to the rest of the world, the danger is that people returning from foreign postings will find themselves back where they were when they left. 'You may be remembered for what you were, rather than for what you have become,' says Kenneth MacLennan, head of financial services at Korn/Ferry International, the executive recruitment group. 'But if certain criteria are met, working abroad is extremely beneficial. To make it a good thing, you have to do it with a recognised name. There is more and more of a global marketplace, but only a limited number of global players. If you have experience with a global player, that is very valuable and transferable.

It has to be more than simply geographical experience: your international role has to make sense.'

Increasingly, the firms that have developed globally - or want to do so - see the need for a solid corps of internationally minded big firms, and recognise that this means disregarding nationality. One big American headhunter suggests that, since there is a higher failure rate among Americans posted abroad than among Europeans, US firms may regard English-speaking candidates from the Old Continent with particular favour.

The Cendant survey of 100 leading companies and organisations showed 59% expecting expatriate employment to grow in the next five years. (The figure for smaller companies was 71%.) The biggest growth area for foreign assignments is in IT and telecommunications, with expanding opportunities for middle managers in particular. But although demand is high, two-thirds of companies rated finding suitable candidates for international assignments as a 'high' problem, though only a fifth listed candidates' reluctance to relocate as a difficulty.

Sometimes shifting abroad means simply doing what you had been doing at home, but in a different climate. But at some big firms a foreign assignment may offer the opportunity for a significant career switch and the acquisition of a whole new set of skills and knowledge. Nowadays, American companies are placing a lot less emphasis on functional experience and much more on picking the kind of people who look as though they are capable of running an international business.

Overseas experience certainly appears to be valued by many companies: a survey by ECA International, the overseas employment specialist, found that 88% of firms regarded a spell abroad as useful and helpful to career prospects. Almost as many saw an international assignment as essential or at least desirable for a future managing director and for board members.

Sixty per cent of directors of companies with between 10,000 and 30,000 staff are reckoned to have worked abroad at some point in their careers - and about 40% gained promotion after their assignments. An international posting 'undoubtedly makes you more marketable for the future', notes Gill Carrick of headhunters GKR. And Jane Crawford, who heads 3i's operation in Asia and the Pacific, says: 'A career with 3i will involve moving around to gain experience. Anyone who wants to stay put in one place just wouldn't be considered.'

The rotation of potential corporate leaders through different functions is increasingly seen as vital in developing senior managers, and what could be more logical than taking them through a period overseas facing the challenge either of keeping up with the cutting edge of American business or dealing with crony capitalism in south-east Asia? A study by Korn/Ferry International and the Economist Intelligence Unit, based on interviews with 50 top managers of leading companies, singled out job rotation and fast-tracking as the two best ways of building up executive strength, and specifically listed international assignments as an important element in achieving this. Alex Trotman, the former head of Ford, said in an interview with Sunday Business: 'Think global, be prepared to work in several different cultures. You'll never get on staying in one place. Speak more than one language; get used to the idea of intensive competition. Be nimble, be courageous and always expect the unexpected.'

In a sense, this might be seen as a return to the high days of the British Empire, when promising young men set off to make their mark in the colonies and returned covered in riches. But back then the fruits to be harvested from Hong Kong or the Transvaal were primarily material - the traders and gold tycoons sailed home to build mansions in Mayfair and buy castles in Scotland. Today, although the remuneration and allowance packages may be good and the taxes low, the corporate benefits are more firmly rooted in the knowledge economy.

'You go to America or Asia and you simply learn a whole lot of things you would only read about if you stayed here,' says a woman in her early thirties who returned to London this spring after four years working for big retailers in New York and Singapore. 'We like to think we are at the centre of the universe in Britain, but we aren't. I find a lot of my colleagues here way behind in their thinking. The trouble is that they don't realise it.'

Says Alison Clarke, head of Asia Pacific for Shandwick, the PR group: 'People in Asia have a much broader global view than people in the UK.

There is this perspective from an earlier stage in each person's business career. Even junior staff have much more of an interest and knowledge of what's going on outside of the box. It's an attitude that I'll definitely bring back to the UK with me.'

For some, family ties, children's education or the simple difficulty of adapting to a new country and culture act as a natural deterrent. But, on the other hand, take an archetypal internationalist, South African-born Lorna Davis, who worked in New Zealand before coming to Europe to manage the Jacobs Biscuit Group operations in Britain and Ireland - for the French owner, Danone.

'I find that moving around clears the gunk out of your life and is very invigorating,' she says. 'I've lived in half a dozen different countries now and consider myself an international citizen.'

Not surprisingly, the US is the main worldwide destination for managers who work outside their national boundaries, ahead of Britain, Germany and France. Britain may have stayed out of the euro, but there is no shortage of work in Brussels with its army of national representatives, lobbyists and lawyers. Among developing economies, China appeared in first place for expatriates in the ECA survey, followed by Poland and Russia, which was rated as the most difficult country in which to work.

Apart from its position as the home to some of the most successful globalised giants, America is a natural magnet for anybody wanting to tune into the new economy and the fast edge of business at its source - be it in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street or in the great print/internet/film media empires on each coast. For those on the way up, it has another great attraction.

'If you're bright, you get rewarded quickly,' says Damian Gilbert, a one-time Royal Marine who ran venture capital funds in North America before returning to London to set up a European internet business. 'They're used to people being successful young in a way that the UK isn't. Nobody in New York is surprised to meet a CEO who's 30. And the British economy just isn't as conducive to building a company.'

Another incentive for managers who are thinking of following Horace Greeley's exhortation to go west is an increasing awareness by US companies of the growing shortage of home-grown talent. Why else would headhunters' revenue have been rising twice as fast as GDP? Research by McKinsey shows a recognition that, so long as this remains true, the ability of American companies to maximise the opportunities opened up by globalisation will fall short of their geographical reach.

Although a strong global talent pool has become a strategic asset and a source of sustainable competitive advantage, three-quarters of US corporate officers questioned by McKinsey on the subject said their companies either sometimes had insufficient talent or were 'chronically talent-short across the board'. What makes the US problem - and the opportunities for foreigners - all the greater is that although the demand for managers and executives is rising, the age group from which they have traditionally been drawn is falling. The number of 35 to 44-year-olds in the US will decline by 15% between 2000 and 2015.

Still, those who head west but expect to continue to work European hours may be in for a shock. As Gilbert notes: 'There is a completely different work ethic in America. People in their twenties work ridiculously long hours, but that brings them better opportunities than here, where people like to go home early.'

But then who goes to work abroad to count the hours? The world's too big for that.

Jonathan Fenby is editor of BusinessEurope, an internet service launching later this year, and associate editor of Sunday Business. From 1995-99 he edited the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, and earlier worked for 14 years in France and Germany.

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