Returning home can be the hard part. John Menadue

Aug 26, 2013

In my August 1 blog I referred to the failure of many Australian companies to integrate their business and human resource strategies. Too many send executives overseas on an ad hoc basis without planning how that experience gained overseas can be used when they return as a catalyst to change the business culture of the Australian organisation.

Every individual has personality. Every organisation has a culture. The grip of that culture – the way we do things without thinking – is remarkably powerful. It entrenches status, power, attitudes and values. It is hard to change.

My experience is that overseas experience is the best way to challenge and change individuals and organisational culture. Cultural difference needs to be experienced rather than learned. It is visceral rather than cerebral. That is why overseas experience, living and working in a different culture, can be the best catalyst for change in individuals and organisations. It can’t really be learned in a classroom.

Yet few Australian organisations are really serious about overseas experience being the catalyst for changing the organisational culture at home. The Business Alliance for Asian Literacy, representing over 400,000 businesses in Australia, recently found that ‘More than half of Australian businesses operating in Asia had little board and senior management experience of Asia and/or Asian skills or languages’. It is proving very hard to changes insular cultures. Asia is an ad hoc add on and little more.

My contention is that sending promising staff to overseas appointments is the best way to drive cultural change provided the process is well organised, including the return home. That wise planning also involves support for spouse/partner and children. If they are unsuited or unhappy it will greatly impair the success of the overseas posting.

But too often those executives returning from overseas are not supported and they often leave the organisation. They have changed their outlook and world view but on return, they find the organisation is still as insular as ever.

I have seen figures from the US suggesting   that 70% of executives returning from overseas assignments leave their organisations within 3 years. The Ernst & Young survey of 2012 that I mentioned in my earlier blog of August 1 pointed to the very high cost to organisations of executives sent overseas and then leaving soon after return to the organisation at home.

It is eight years old, but the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Reform Committee report, ‘Enquiry into Australian Expatriates’ said

‘The committee is surprised at the level of disappointment of many repatriates concerning the job opportunities available to them on their return to Australia. Many of them left Australia precisely because of the greater employment opportunities on the world stage, the higher incomes, the greater job satisfaction or the enhanced career opportunities. Even if they have returned to Australia, as many undoubtedly have, with more experience, enhanced skills, better contacts and greater cross-cultural understanding, this does not necessarily mean that openings will have developed in Australia in their absence.’

That Senate report, and my own reading and experience, confirms in my mind the difficulties of expatriates returning from an overseas assignment. Many have told me that they feel unwelcome and their organisation quite unsympathetic. There was often resentment that they had had the benefit of an overseas trip whilst executives at home really kept the business going and did the hard work!.

So many Australian companies do not understand that if they want to change their organisational culture to make it more sensitive and understanding of the countries in our region, they must take greater care on the returning home process. It is just as important as the selection of executives to go overseas and supports them when they are overseas.

If we want to adapt and change organisational culture in Australia to fit better with our Asian geography, we need to effectively integrate business and human resource strategy at every stage. So often we waste the opportunity .Business strategy and human resource management so often work in parallel and not together.

Overseas experience in Asia can be the catalyst for organisational change in Australia provided it is done carefully and over a long period. If developed well, overseas experience can progressively build a change team. At the moment we are just not building those change teams.

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