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ARE YOU GLOBALLY MOBILE?

The latest "hot" HR topic

By Professor Maury Peiperl - March, 2007

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Today it is easier than ever for companies to operate globally. So why are so many struggling to staff their cross-border operations with the right executives? And how would a global career benefit you? Here are Professor Maury Peiperl's views on what is becoming a hot HR topic, global mobility.

It is only in the last twenty years or so that many companies have started to operate on a global basis. For at least that long, we have had the ability to move goods, money, and information anywhere in the world. But the last piece of the puzzle - people - is more difficult to put in place. Moving people across borders is still problematic.

Clearly there are legal restrictions and visa requirements. But there is also the human element. People are not always ready to pick up and move at the drop of a hat, and why should they be?

What makes a manager globally mobile?
Your attitude to global mobility depends partly on your background. If you are from a country such as Belgium, or the Netherlands - countries with a history of trading with the outside world and with multiple languages - you are probably more predisposed to such a move. You have, according to the research, a cosmopolitan outlook, “an awareness of the world and a positive attitude toward it.”

If you come from a much larger country where traditionally there is less daily contact with the rest of the world, then that attitude is harder to develop. Mindsets are formed where and when the person grows up, and are hard to change.

Personality traits play a big part too. Are you inquisitive? Do you have a natural desire to find out more about the things, people and places you don't know? Then you are more likely to be willing to make the effort to experience other cultures.

Hardiness, or stress coping can also effect mobility and particularly one's ability to live in unfamiliar surroundings for an extended period. Are you good at communicating across cultures? Are you good at sensing what other people are feeling even though they may not express it to you? These skills are essential if you are to work effectively across cultures.

A sea change in expatriation
According to my investigations, about two-thirds of the HR managers in IMD’s partner companies claim that the number of expatriates is still growing. But a third says they are reducing the number of people they send to other countries.

In my view, the overall number of company-sponsored expatriates in the world will start to decline within ten years. Cost is one reason for this trend. Some companies are trimming packages, and others are limiting expat assignments to a set number of years. Individuals who want to stay on in another country can do so, but only on local terms.

Another reason is pure demographics. Today there are fewer executives in the primary managerial age bracket of 35 to 45. Companies need to consider other sources of supply. So they are looking elsewhere for “global professionals” outside the company, including those already present in the target overseas markets, to fill these positions.

By global professionals, I mean people who are good at working across borders and integrating a global network within a company. The demand for those fitting these criteria looks set to go up for at least the next 40 years.

Local executives with a global outlook
If you look at the two big new markets, India and China, there has been a huge push in these countries in recent years to improve education and skill sets. What’s more, the local young people are aware of the world and good at global networking as this is how their economies are growing. It’s no surprise then that global companies are looking to hire local people in those markets.

Then there are the “self-propelled globally mobile professionals" or “global citizens" - people who don't necessarily come from the markets in question, but have gone there of their own accord and are on the ground where you may need them.

This group is growing as fast as the local talent pool, but the challenge is finding them. Many companies with a long-term projected need for global people at many levels are already present working with educational establishments. But it is also important to network among your employee and “alumni” base. Are you able to tap into that network to find people?

The mobility principle
Simply put, the mobility principle says that you cannot learn as much by staying in one place as you can by moving around. In many companies it is almost becoming a prerequisite to have global experience in order to reach a senior position.

So my advice is “make yourself a generalist and a global citizen, look for opportunities and move as appropriate.”

When measuring the impact such a move has had on your career, there are objective and subjective outcomes. The objective measures are obvious – tangible rewards, how much money you make, how you are promoted and whether you get the kind of jobs or responsibility and recognition that you are looking for.

On the other hand, there are subjective outcomes that determine how people view their careers and what they will do next. Foremost among these is satisfaction – how satisfied was I with this move? Do I have a sense of having accomplished something? Do I feel an increased sense of self-worth? Some people who have challenged themselves to live and work in a different environment feel a strong sense of pride for having done it.

You also build up career capital. You may have global knowledge that you didn't have before; more cultural breadth; better language skills. Interpersonal skills reach new levels. System skills improve, as does your global track record and your network.

As your career capital increases, you become a more valuable and, I have no doubt, a more sought-after employee.

Professor Peiperl teaches on the Program for Executive Development and the Orchestrating Winning Performance program.


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