If you are considering an expat assignment, often the lifestyle advantages are the first things that come to mind. But there is a distinct career advantage to an expat assignment. Doing business in different places around the world present a wealth of challenges that business in the 50 states do not present. Your ability to meet these challenges and understand the differences around the world will enrich your management style, broaden your business experience and make you a valuable asset to companies with whom you may seek new opportunities. It will truly make you an international manager and citizen of the world.
Adopting to the Local Market
When we took over the Europe/Middle East/Africa (EMEA) operations for our company, one of the first things we did was visit the existing distributors in each country. And without fail, one of the first things every distributor told us was that things were done differently in their country. That set the stage for an education on the art of localization. Localization means far more than translating your information and manuals into different languages; that’s just the beginning! Localization includes things like what colors play well in each country for marketing materials and trade shows. It also requires a sensitivity to customs and how business is done. For example, in the US, food and drinks are never found in an exhibit stand. In most of Europe, having coffee, cookies, and a place to sit and discuss applications, is the norm.
Understanding Communications and Cultural Differences
Communications is also more than being able to state your case. You learn quickly that a person’s ability to speak your language does not always mean they totally understand what you have to say. Since you are spending most of your time talking with people in their second language, slowing down your conversation so they can stay with you is essential. Each culture communicates a little differently. Early on, we found that pulling our team of people together from the various countries for strategy and tactic sessions didn’t always play the same for each person. Some Country Managers could clearly understand the objective and inherently knew what they needed to do to get there. Others would not be able to act until the tactics were clearly outlined for them. Both groups were equally intelligent, but the culture of some countries is to await specific orders to get started. And the way our partners communicated varied as well. In some countries it was considered courteous to always tell you what you wanted to hear, while others told it like it was. Being able to sort through their expectations to get to the reality of the situation can become an art.
Acknowledging Historical Influence
Using your resources effectively can be another challenge. Many individuals on your team may be multilingual but that doesn’t mean that a particular person will play well in a country other then their own. History plays a role in how countries play from one to the other. We found out early that we could not, for example, use all our tech support people in every country. Some clearly, did not want people from particular countries supporting their efforts, as their customers would not perceive it well.
Addressing Legal and Monetary Concerns
In addition to cultural issues there are legal and monetary issues to address when doing business in a country. For example, our products had to have a new special CE certification before they could be sold in most of Europe. When we arrived we found our products did not have this certification, nor were they in the process of being certified, therefore we could not reach our revenue target unless something was done very quickly to make the certification happen. We also found that doing business in some of the countries in which we were now interested in doing business, required either a financial investment in the country or a joint venture. Pricing your product correctly, taking into account exchange rates for currencies, also throws a new light on how successful your products will sell in each country.
These are just a sample of some of the many issues that will broaden your business horizon and make you a more valuable asset to your current employer, and companies with future opportunities. Living through these challenges and solving the problems that arise will give you a priceless education and forever change the way you view foreign people and cultures.