Managing Expat Transitions: Three Best Practices

A botched Expat executive transition can have a wide array of negative consequences. Develop a comprehensive plan that embraces these three key best practices.

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An Expat assignment is, for both individual and organization, a crucial business event.

For the individual executive, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to move far away from the home office and prove themselves in a high-stakes, high-pressure situation. 

For the organization, it’s a calculated gamble, a huge investment in an individual executive to go forth and grow the business across boundaries and commercial frontiers.

Given the shared risk involved, one would think that most companies would plan these assignments with surgical precision. From candidate selection, through the move abroad and—ultimately—to the moment when the assignment comes to an end, it makes sense that there would be a definitive blueprint to ensure that neither individual nor organization suffers any adverse consequences.

Unfortunately, Expat assignments are sometimes not that well coordinated and frequently do not go according to plan. Particularly at the end of the assignment, many companies handle terminations or repatriations in an awkward fashion, almost like a bad divorce.

The reasons behind the termination of Expat assignments are varied: completion of a time-based project; illness or injury; malfeasance; public scandal; local political situations; or performance issues.

Regardless of the reason for ending the assignment, Expat executives are often left with little more than a promise of return airfare and moving expenses for themselves and their families. Upon return, the repatriated executives find their new roles are well below the level of their foreign assignments. In other instances, the executive does not have a role to return to and has to transition out of the organization.

In these situations, it’s easy to see how Expats develop hard feelings and anger as they discover that the assignment they thought would help galvanize their leadership track has evolved instead into a career setback.

Why should this concern the company that moved the Expat in the first place? A botched termination can have a wide array of negative consequences. It can spook remaining employees, shake the confidence of clients, spark legal battles or, in some instances, trigger public relations challenges.

This situation is complicated by the fact that most career transition partners do not have the expertise to meet the unique needs of executive Expats. Thus, at the moment when it is most important to deliver a smooth and amicable exit, CHROs and other senior company leaders are unsure about whom to turn to for advice and support.

Thankfully, the antidote to those worst-case scenarios is simple: organizations need to plan ahead for both success and failure.

It is impossible to precisely anticipate every Expat executive transition scenario. As noted, the triggers for transition are varied. However, there are a few core principles companies must respect whenever an Expat executive transition is imminent. 

The well-prepared approach requires involvement from the very top of the organization, frequently starting with the board of directors and reaching all the way through the executive team and down to middle management. And, perhaps most importantly, it requires a transition partner to help support the company leaders who are managing the exit, as well as the individual Expat executive who may be departing. Objective, dispassionate advice from an expert third party can be essential in the execution of a seamless, stable executive transition.

After recognizing the need to prepare, one may still be wondering about what exactly goes into a comprehensive Expat executive transition plan. In broad terms, it should fully embrace three key best practices.
Transparency describes the need to be as clear as possible about why the Expat departure is happening and to share the information with key stakeholders sooner rather than later, if at all possible. Remarkably, many organizations shy away from making the reasons for a termination explicit, assuming that the individuals involved have a clear idea of why they are leaving. That is not a safe assumption. Leaving someone in the dark about the underlying causes of the termination can lay the groundwork for anger and resentment.
Collaboration outlines the process of working with the individual Expat involved, as well as their spouse/partner and family. It is absolutely critical for internal team members to create an initial talk track for the Expat exit, which will ultimately be refined in real time when the transition is about to occur. It will also be important to appoint a responsible employee to oversee the third-party services to ensure they are provided as expected and to intervene in any way necessary to avoid performance failures. These steps will also help determine the timing for what gets said and when.
Support can take many forms, but close association with an external transition partner is an absolute necessity. This can be particularly important when the transition is accompanied by emotionally charged conditions, which is often the case. In these scenarios, trusted outside counsel for departing executives can help manage the story line for the termination. Support is also about offering the departing executive references and relevant contacts where appropriate, both in the industry and with executive recruiters. The accompanying spouse/partner and family also need to be provided with appropriate support to both enable their smooth transition out as well as into whatever is next. 

Although the reasons for an Expat termination or transition can vary, one thing is patently clear: avoiding the issue will not make it go away. 

In that context, an Expat executive transition plan is an essential component of talent management. It’s just as important as, say, recruitment and retention, and possibly more so in certain situations given the damage that an awkward termination can inflict upon an employer’s brand.

The best Expat executive transition plan will probably look a little bit different depending on the size and nature of the organization. However, the key best practices—transparency, collaboration and support—will remain constant.

Organizations must engage with the Expat executives in transition in an open and honest context. They must display a willingness to work together to come up with a transition plan that is fair to both the individual and the organization. 

Expat departures can be disruptive events in the evolution of any organization. A thoughtful, well-planned approach will not only demonstrate fairness and generosity towards the individual involved, it will ensure that the next generation of Expats is ready and willing to embark on their own adventures. 
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