New skills for the International Assignee – Is CQ more important than before?

Published on January 28th, 2021

The new world, post-COVID19, is beginning to form even before we are clear of the virus.  New geopolitical relationships are forming as nations try to solidify their place in the new pecking order that is emerging.  Entire economies are looking for high impact stimuli to fund the healthcare costs of the past six months and build a sustainable future that is less dependent on international travel.  In the past, international growth has been the go-to strategy for recovery.  International growth traditionally means an increased number of international moves.

Is this the end of global mobility?

Has coronavirus brought us to the end of global mobility?  Can we stop worrying about intercultural competency and cultural intelligence and just get on with business?

Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, some people will argue that we have managed for six months without  international travel – CNN estimates that international flights have dropped by 96% on pre-pandemic levels.  Nine in ten seats on internal flights within the US are empty.  And the world hasn’t stopped – big business has survived.  Outside retail and travel and hospitality, we are yet to see the huge casualties that we saw in the financial crash of 2008.  If we can manage six months without new international assignments, surely, we can manage longer?

These people will argue that assignees are superfluous and expensive.

Experts will counter that we need to move our talent around globally to ensure we hire and retain the best people.  This argument may also be flawed: the economic turndown has seen one of the biggest talent reversals ever.  2019 saw companies unable to fill positions, but, with the US economy shrinking by more than 30% in April, unemployment is rising, and talent is cheaper and more available than it has been for 20 years.  More importantly, the skills organisations need have changed: digital agility, flexibility, working with ambiguity – these are not skills that are geographically restricted.

Not gone, but changed

The end of assignments has been predicted ever since the first expat packed bags and set off for new markets.  More recently 9/11 and 2008 have already seen major reviews of mobility policies and despite dire predictions, company surveys show that the number of international assignments is quite steady – they are generally shorter and more focussed than 10 years ago.  However, despite the high cost of transporting employees around the world, globalised businesses are not losing their appetite for international assignments.

The reasons are still valid: cultural differences are much easier to handle face to face; leaders need the experience of leading diverse cultures in person; corporate culture travels much easier in person; change can only be managed in person.  Sending an assignee to a local office is good for the individual and good for the company – and often there is no other way to achieve the same aims.

Cost vs. benefit

What has not changed, and in fact has intensified, is the scrutiny on cost and risk mitigation.  There may be increased relocation costs as networks restart; insurance, tax, social insurance, and hardship allowances are all likely to increase.  But despite this upward pressure on cost, we must resist the urge to cut further into the budgets for language and intercultural training.

One of the biggest learnings from 2020 is that most contracts, agreements and deals could not withstand the pressure of viral interference.  Mediators, lawyers and government officials will spend years untangling the consequences of missed deadlines, broken promises, early termination of contracts and breach of service level agreements.  The companies that will thrive are those where there is a high level of cross-border trust, which leads to mutual flexibility in enforcing contract terms for mutual benefit.

If your international staff have developed a high level of cultural intelligence, those relationships with international partners will be stronger, closer and more adaptable.  Negotiations will be informed by a culturally-informed relationship between both sides – a much easier place to start looking for a compromise.  If you have skimped on intercultural training, your option is to engage a legal team to ensure that any agreement is watertight.

Put bluntly, five or six hours of intercultural coaching is a fraction of the cost of five or six hours of your legal counsel’s time.

Risk mitigation

Even if you have reduced your budget for the assignment package, intercultural training is a key risk mitigation factor.  Research from US health insurers has shown a positive link between cultural intelligence training and assignee health, assignment success and job effectiveness.  If you have to spend money sending someone and their family abroad, you need to make sure that the investment brings a return.  Sending assignees without training is like putting a learner driver behind the wheel of the latest Ferrari!

As assignments become shorter, it is more important than ever that assignees settle into work more quickly than ever.  You can’t afford three or four months on a honeymoon period while settling in.  That additional pressure to achieve quickly can lead to shortcuts in building up a reserve of trust and forging effective relationships.  It can cause senior executives to overlook the impact of culturally ambiguous communication and result in serious misunderstandings.

What is the cost of a demotivated, disengaged workforce?  What is the penalty of disillusioned partners, disappointed customers and confused leaders?

The right tool for the job

Cultural intelligence is the tool that every leader, and not just assignees, should have that helps them to see a bit more clearly, listen a bit more carefully and respond with a bit more insight.  It enhances their natural abilities – after all, they are leaders for a reason – and helps shape them in a culturally appropriate way.

This is even more important as we begin to see “hybrid assignments” – a leader who combines short visits with virtual working from their “home” country.  Intercultural skills are the filter we need to upgrade communication skills to the international or virtual environment.  How do we ensure that people speak up, give us the answers we need or engage with initiatives?  We need to understand the cultural drivers and inhibitors and allow that understanding to inform strategy implementation.

The lesson of the pandemic is that we are all international assignees.  Virtual communication tools mean that each of us work in several cultural locations every day.  That richness of experience is a chance to develop ourselves, but it is also a dangerous place if we don’t enter it with the right tools.  Building cultural intelligence through effective intercultural coaching is equipping yourself with the best tool for the job.


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

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