choosing international executives

How to choose right executive for overseas work

The Denver Business Journal – May 25, 2007
by Bill Decker

In organizations, doing international business often is considered a perk.
It’s perceived as exciting and even sexy to go to meetings in Paris, check out suppliers in India, negotiate with partners in Brussels and source talent in Milan. Many times, young employees enter a firm hoping to get into international business.
For those of us who actually engage in these activities, we know it can be laborious, destructive to personal and family life, time-consuming, tiring and often a health risk.

But when a company needs its executives to engage in international businesses dealings, how do they pick that employee? What criteria should be used to assess executives before asking them to conquer a market or engage a supplier?

The corporate practices of yesteryear are no longer valid.

Historically, corporations have staffed incorrectly, which helps to explain why the United States’ failure rate overseas is the world’s highest.
Selections used to focus largely on technical criteria. Firms used to think that technical success here would guarantee it abroad. It’s the typical thinking: If it worked here, it will work anywhere. This simply isn’t true.

International posts often are staffed in response to an immediate need: “We’re buying a firm in China; who will staff it?” The proper way to handle that situation would be to constantly garner and train international staff, so that when an acquisition or market entry is finalized, the firm has the personnel to deal with it.

Because international business has the caché, executives often were picked for political reasons. Bob may be the CEO’s golf buddy, but that doesn’t mean Bob can deal with Bulgaria.

Once companies chose their executives, they often compounded the error by pressuring the executive to accept, or “bribing” the executive with even more perks, such as “hardship pay” — large expense accounts or promises of future raises and promotions. The possibility for failure increases because these decisions were made in a vacuum, without expert advice, and they’re coupled with inexperienced assessors.
In looking for an international business executive, it helps to take the following into account:

First, there must be a high trust factor. We’re speaking of two types of trust: integrity and competence.
The executive serves as the eyes and ears of the corporation abroad, and could place the firm in very delicate situations, such as revealing corporate secrets, taking bribes or using the business to further his own career.

The second type of trust refers to competence. Just as the employee is the firm’s eyes and ears, they’re also the market’s eyes and ears back at headquarters.

When she imparts market intelligence, it must be acknowledged and acted on.
 Language ability always helps. Can your executive speak the language? If he can’t, can he learn? Does he possess any language skills?
 Cultural insight is essential, whether they already have it or are willing to learn it.

If Charlie is busy in operations back home, and you add Budapest, then you aren’t taking the new responsibilities seriously. Charlie must be ready to face the new challenges of the task at hand, and can’t be overcommitted.

 Hunger for the new assignment goes a long way. Once you’re trying to persuade an executive to deal with India, you’ve already lost the battle. Passion for the new challenges, desire to analyze and succeed in new opportunities, and a willingness to work hard go a long way toward getting the job done.

 Commitment to the new work also is essential. When you hear an executive building fall-back strategies and demanding guarantees about what happens to their career when they return from the assignment, then move to another candidate. For once an individual gets into the international circuit, there’s no turning back. The adventure is just beginning.

Tolerance, flexibility and acceptance are qualities the successful international executive possesses. Tolerance in religious, political, personal and cultural beliefs and rituals must be exercised. Tolerance for different business techniques, foreign foods and unusual demands placed by the host country must be ingrained in anyone who wishes to succeed abroad.

When we do business, we make assumptions: what a win is, how to communicate, ethics, society and more. When we travel, we find that many of our assumptions don’t hold true abroad. When an executive is being trained, they should discuss their assumptions, and be willing to examine and embrace other ways of thinking.

When international expatriates were interviewed, the No. 1 response they gave for success abroad was the ability to fail. Once we allow ourselves to fail, we allow ourselves to realize we can’t control everything.

The right gut feeling is key. International executives should feel at peace with the assignment, and the firm should feel at peace with the person.

Remember: If you feel that sending them is a risk in any way, it probably is.