Why Managers Fail in Foreign Assignments

Foreign Assignments

When an Asian manager steps into a U.S. company to lead a team, or when an American manager takes a leadership position of an Asian team the road to success is often very long and very rough. The resulting turmoil can cause irrevocable damage to thForeign Assignmentse manager, the team and the company. In this post I’ll highlight what companies and their inter-cultural teams must be on the lookout for in order to achieve high levels of performance quickly.

It Takes More than a Book

Search Amazon for “Asian business culture” and you see a selection of 8,431 books on the topic. Search Amazon for “American business culture” and you’ll see 5,978 volumes to choose from. Heading to Hong Kong to lead a team, be prepared to select from 5,853 books on the topic of “Chinese business culture” for your trans-Pacific flight reading.

A relocated executive can certainly learn much from reading a book (as an author of two books I’m not going to bash books). I personally know managers heading to China who threw a few books on Chinese business etiquette into their brief case at the last minute. But, if reading a book was the only requirement there would be far fewer failures and mis-starts than are actually experienced.

Why do the majority of relocated executives stumble when assigned? Here’s what I’ve learned over the years from Americans in China and Chinese managers here in the States.

  1. Hubris. A common human characteristic of successful executives, hubris makes one think that what worked in the home office will work fine in the other country, too. Indeed, it is success at home that most likely led to the promotion and assignment abroad. The natural tendency is to repeat the management style and techniques that led to the promotion. Few star baseball players can excel in hockey even though they bat .375. The hubris fades quickly as soon as they strap on the skates and step onto the ice.
  2. Blindness. It’s amazing how a manager can look out the door and not realize they are in different country. A little sign on their bathroom mirror should remind them that “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”. Everything is different including the people on their team. It is vitally important to understand and adopt the style of your host country for business etiquette, for conflict resolution, for consensus and leadership, for spoken and unspoken communication. Books and videos can be very helpful here.
  1. Island Mentality. When one is a stranger in a strange land it’s easy to retreat to a comfort zone. Highly successful managers and entrepreneurs are used to “figuring it out” by themselves. But the most successful people are those that know when they need a helping hand and they don’t hesitate to reach out for it.

The key is to find a mentor who can guide you and your team to form a high performance relationship from the get-go. To be of value, the mentor must have real business experience in both the home country and the host country, and of course speak fluently in both languages.

In my experience it’s not enough for the mentor to have business skills only. The person should have some credentials in counseling, team dynamics, and leadership development, too. Why? Because the best multi-cultural mentors are those who understand the complexities of human behavior, especially under stress.

If your company has Chinese managers here in the U.S., or American managers in China I invite you read more on our website about the steps you can take to boost performance in intercultural teams.

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