Breaking down the modern-day expat executive experience

Many executives travel for business, but some go a step further, relocating to a new country for months or even years. Employers eager to give these professionals every chance to succeed supply them with a range of resources intended to help them not only assimilate, but flourish. However, in the end, it’s executives themselves who determine whether they succeed or fail in their expatriate roles.

What do modern-day expat executives look like?

In 2013, Cigna Global Health updated its 2001 independent research study of expat trends to gain insight into the modern-day efforts, expectations and issues related to expat executives and their employers. The 2013 iteration of the study presented a demographic profile of expat executives, revealing that men outnumber women 4 to 1 and nearly two-thirds of female expat executives are under 25 years of age, while males tend to be older. In terms of marital status, 61 percent have spouses or partners who accompany them on assignments. Of the 70 percent of expats with children, there was a fairly even split between those who brought their children with them on assignment and those who did not.

Employers recognize that providing certain services to smooth expats’ transitions is crucial.”

The expat experience

In a bid to determine the priorities and concerns of expat executives, Cigna measured seven factors – benefits packages, family life, financial impact, health care, how a move will affect an executive’s family, professional development and quality of life – and made a number of observations, including the following:

  • Employers recognize that providing certain services to smooth expats’ transitions is crucial. Among the more than 1,500 expats surveyed by Cigna, 80 percent said their employers provided general relocation services. Other common offerings included medical preparedness (65 percent), settling in (62 percent) and advanced financial and tax consultations (57 percent).
  • Employer-provided services differ in order of importance to expats based on country of assignment. For instance, executives relocating to the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa were especially concerned about medical preparedness, while those moving to Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa placed a high emphasis on assistance with schools, according to Cigna.
  • Male and female respondents’ experiences were much more similar in Cigna’s 2013 study than the 2001 study, which suggests employers have made significant progress in closing the gender gap. However, female respondents reported being less likely to pursue an overseas assignment, and many expressed concern about the treatment of women in foreign countries. Citing a recent survey by Brookfield Global Relocation Services, Forbes contributor Noch Noch Li noted that only 18 percent of international executives are female. The Cigna study yielded similar results, noting an 80-20 split between male and female businesspeople on assignment.
  • Executives are taking shorter assignments: 13 percent of respondents to the 2013 study said they anticipated being on assignment for a year or less, compared to 6 percent in 2001.
The resources provided by employers can make all the difference in an expat executive's experience.The resources provided by employers can make all the difference in an expat executive’s experience.

A personal touch

Although employers can – and should – offer assistance to expat executives, they can only do so much. Ultimately, an executive’s success doing business in a foreign country depends on how the individual approaches the challenge. In her article for Forbes, Li listed some of the things she’s learned over the years to make the most of being an expat executive. She emphasized the importance of respecting local culture and existing corporate processes, rather than viewing the current status quo as something that needs to be improved upon.

“I acknowledge that sometimes, executives are sent from headquarters to a country to expand the business, instill the corporate culture or to improve operations,” Li wrote. “There is nothing wrong with that. It’s how it’s done that makes all the difference. If you respect [members of your new team], they will respect you, and come to trust you. Any changes you need to implement afterwards become natural. Your authority is implicitly recognized.”

Expat executives’ experiences have changed in many ways over the past decade.”

Li noted that although making an effort to adjust to an unfamiliar culture is important, so too is becoming part of a community that understands this sense of culture shock. In this regard, associating with other expats is crucial.

“You need people who can understand your frustrations, and that means you need people with similar experience to talk to,” she asserted. “Other expats can keep you sane.”

She also recommended finding a mentor to provide guidance as needed, whether that be in terms of acclimating to the country as a whole or understanding any corporate processes and policies that may differ from those in the executive’s home country.

Expat executives’ experiences have changed in many ways over the past decade or so, but one core truth has stood the test of time: Although executives are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of their overseas assignments, employers can affect this outcome based on the quality of the resources and other assistance they provide.

About Caldwell Partners

Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 40 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America, Latin America and in London, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.

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