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Understanding The Differences; Acting On The Commonalities By Patrick O. Courtois

The common practice, when looking at the prospects of selecting the right individual for an overseas assignment, is usually to focus on the individual’s technical/functional skills, with the assumption that it will be sufficient to operate successfully across borders. I recently collaborated with Brian Sun, Managing Partner from Orion China, on a presentation to visiting US EMBA students, from Purdue University (Chicago), aimed at highlighting the characteristics of leaders who can seamlessly navigate across borders. It was interesting to compare the challenges a manager is facing at “home” and overseas.


There is no place like home… On the path to delivering results, a local manager is faced with a set of challenges usually expressed in 2 dimensions. The internal environment, on one hand, requires an individual to decode, adapt and manage communications and interactions patterns with peer employees and business partners, as well as adjust to the headquarters “way of doing things”.

On the other hand, the external environment poses the challenges of day-to-day management of the competitive environment, the clients/customers element, as well as complying with the local regulatory environment.

In the local context, assuming we are referring to western economies, such as Western Europe or the US, with consistent and clearly-defined regulatory systems in place and the added value of operating in a “native” environment, where cultural and language barriers do not exist, the challenges are minimal and coping with it is down to an individual’s ability to fit or find his/her place within the system. A “system” within which one has grown up and been educated, where communication patterns and general value basis are shared or, at least, understood.

Apart from the language aspect, a candidate bound to a US expatriation from France or a UK manager on his/her way to Italy for 3 years, will face little challenges adapting to an environment articulated around similar values and common cultural anchors: the commonality of the alphabet or social “landmarks” like a Tesco, Carrefour or Wall-mart, around the corner, for example... In this perspective, the transposition of an individual’s performance and efficiency from a posting location to another can be a smooth and rapid process, yet, with a little effort from the candidate.

Reality check … Things start to get complicated when an individual is assigned to operate within a completely foreign environment. Foreign in all aspects from value system, culture, to language and where one finds him/herself immerse in what can be referred to as an alien setting. The process of adaptation to life and work in a foreign culture, like China, can be difficult. It can roughly be divided into four phases, of very variable lengths: honey moon, cultural shock, reconciliation, adaptation. During the honey moon phase, everything appears fascinating and new, the individual feels somewhat similar to a tourist. He/she discovers, with curiosity and excitement, a new country and the new lifestyle that can led.

After a short while, however, the more an individual immerses him/herself in day-to-day life, the more differences become apparent: differences with one’s own references, the person’s way of thinking and doing things, in contrast with the ways of the local people. Everyone reacts differently to this situation: anxiety, doubt, frustration … An individual can be tempted by isolation or be prone to adopting a defensive or rejective attitude toward the host country and its inhabitants. This is the phase of “cultural Shock”; a difficult, however important, experience, part of the adaptation process to life and work in a foreign setting. For most expatriates, the cultural shock comes to an end with the individual’s familiarization to the language and culture: this is the reconciliation phase.

Day by day, the adaptation process goes on. The individual becomes more confident, more sensitive to positive aspects of the new environment. Events and people’s reactions are no longer a surprise, the expatriate has re-established his/her marks, and has gained enough awareness to navigate local codes of conducts and lead a more comfortable life.

The rapidity of the adaptation and integration process in the host country is not bound to any fixed rule. The country, the personality of the individual, the availability of expat communities, his/her marital situation, prior expatriation experiences, …are all elements influencing this, where one’s expatriation experience can be different from another one and where each phases of the adaptation process can sustain its own agenda.

You have just crossed over into the Third Dimension… While operating in a country like China, a third dimensions needs to be taken into consideration, in terms of the challenges facing a manager. The issues an individual faced in his/her home country, are accentuated by cultural differences, language barriers, differing value systems and, in some cases, obscure regulatory systems. Reactivity of the headquarters is impacted by distance, business ethic takes an entirely different shape, communicating with peers redefines the meaning of lost in translation, and simply trying to settle down, living a comfortable day-to-day life can, as aforementioned, be a frustrating experience. The risks of not managing properly these 3 dimensions are obvious for both the employer and the individual. Selecting the right candidate for expatriation should therefore be done through the careful examination of 3 essential elements.


The essential mix…There is no magic formula to a successful cross border assignment, still, professional qualities, that is, the technical and functional as well as managerial expertise, are key. If an individual does not have this foundation, there is no added value for an employer to “risk” or even justify an expatriation. Having some sort of international experience through language study, travel, and such also helps in forming the necessary aptitudes for an overseas assignment. A second important ingredient is somewhat linked to an individual’s “Global” qualities.

The knowledge and understanding that many routes lead to the same destination, but most importantly, that in different places, people do things in a different way, is an essential part of what can be defined as a multicultural mindset. There is no universal way to do things: trying to introduce a new or foreign perspective when looking at problems is good, attempting to impose a foreign way can lead to poor and even dramatic consequences in some places. Empathy, a strong commitment toward learning, the ability to reassess and realign constantly one’s ways in order to make the most out of the systems and culture in place, are among the few additional signs of sound “Global” qualities.

Lastly, country-specific cultural qualities are also an important element to take into consideration when considering expatriation. Some can be developed on-site, others have to be deeply embedded in an individual’s personality. In China, humility, patience, reactivity, an open-mind, flexibility and guanxi-building talents are among the essential traits an individual must have in order to smoothly settle down, professionally as well as personally.

Times have changed since the opening of China 30 years ago… The era of the “missionary” expat manager is long gone, with a local managerial workforce now having solid and up-to-date technical skills (I am not going, willingly into the Leadership in China debate, in this article). An employer aiming at filling a managerial / leadership role in China needs to look at a much broader picture while considering the necessary requirements for the appointment, of a foreign professional, in order to properly assess the real added value of the foreign appointee, on the long run, as well as minimize the impact on productivity generated by the appointee’s potential cultural shock and length of the adaptation process. Behavioral interviews, peer feedback, or personality assessment, could all be a good start…

Contributed By: Patrick O. Courtois is a Principal Consultant at Orion China, a dedicated executive search boutique, based in the heart of Shanghai, China. ( Orion China is part of an international executive search network, Glasford International, which is rated as one of the world’s top 20 executive search groups ( Patrick has extensive management consulting experience in Asia, as well as European markets. With a current focus in executive talent sourcing in Greater China, Patrick engages with multinational clients in professional services, hi-tech communications and industrial manufacturing. Visit Patrick’s HR blog at [email protected]

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