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The Expat’s Packing List: The 4 Behaviors You Need to Succeed

By Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

In my previous post, I outlined the risks involved in an expat assignment and identified some of the root causes of expat “failure.” But, while talking about the risks and failure modes is interesting, it’s not as useful as understanding the positive behaviors that will lead you to success.

Getting things done through people.

The Expat’s Packing ListSo, you’re an expat and you’ve embarked on what, for many people, is a great adventure. You’re excited about the opportunity to make a significant contribution to your company’s success and you’re laser-focused on achieving a specific set of business objectives. But, these goals can only be realized by mobilizing and equipping local resources. You’ll need to build strong relationships with peers, direct reports, and higher-level leaders before you can even hope to leverage your technical knowledge and experience.

If you’re not already an effective leader and skilled developer of talent, stop right there. Your chances of success have just dropped dramatically! You’ll need to master the following four behaviors to get the odds of success back in your favor.

Successful expats are purposeful and deliberate relationship builders.

The imperative to get work done through others isn’t unique to an expat assignment. Effective leaders build positive relationships founded on trust and mutual respect. But assessments conducted by DDI over the past 20 years reveal that a majority of leaders are “less than effective” when it comes to many essential relationship-building behaviors (High Resolution Leadership, DDI, 2016). If leaders working in their home countries struggle with these behaviors, expats are likely to be even less effective because of their unique circumstances. Expats generally don’t share a common language, culture, or background with many of their work colleagues. The absence of these relationship fundamentals means that expats must be highly adept at building relationships from the ground up.

Both of my most significant expat experiences posed this sort of challenge. My first assignment was to the Middle East where I was responsible for creating an entire HR function in a matter of weeks. My most recent experience was as the general manager of my company’s operations in China. In both cases, I found myself in a culture that was totally alien to that of my home country. I also was under tremendous pressure to achieve results. Success depended on building relationships with colleagues and customers with whom I shared little in common.

1. Express a genuine interest in others.

Building effective working relationships starts with a genuine interest in other people. Great relationship builders engage in very specific behaviors to craft connections between themselves and others, including:

  • Reaching out to others proactively to create a connection. (They don’t wait for others to come to them. They go out and seek contacts!)
  • Identifying and supporting others to achieve their personal and professional goals. (Great relationship builders prioritize others’ needs first.)
  • Treating others with respect and maintaining their self-esteem. (Respectful behaviors vary from culture to culture, but great relationship builders make it a point to learn the key behaviors and scrupulously follow them.)
  • Acting with transparency and consistency to gain trust. (This involves sharing one’s own thoughts, feelings, and rationale for taking action.)
  • Keeping commitments. (Every time, without fail!)

As a coach to many expat leaders, my advice is very clear—you must establish your willingness to help others achieve their goals before you can hope to have them support you!

2. Respect me – respect my culture.

Another way to set yourself up for expat success is by showing respect for individuals and respect for the local culture. This goes deeper than the training that many expats receive prior to mobilization telling them how to exchange business cards (Yes, there is a formalized etiquette for this in many countries), how to make dinner toasts, etc. Instead, I’d like to emphasize behaviors that demonstrate true respect, including:

  • Conveying respect for these customs and norms, even though they may be quite different from those in your home country.
  • Aligning behavior and adapting to local norms.
  • Soliciting and listening to other’s viewpoints and perspectives.
  • Seeking to understand differences instead of judging.

This latter behavior can be quite challenging for many expats, particularly where local norms differ substantially from one’s home country. Suspending judgment and learning to value differences is an essential mental framework. The mindset for success must be, “It’s not wrong, it’s just different.”

The importance of turning off the “judgment” portion of the brain was brought home to me during my expat assignment in the Middle East. One of my American colleagues had a hard time adjusting to the practice of requesting information about religion, marital status, family status, and other “personal“ details on job applications. This violated every sense of fairness and legal defensibility that he had been taught to respect as a staffing professional in the USA. Passing judgment on an ancient culture and trying to “set them straight” earned my colleague a one-way ticket home. He would have been much more effective if he tried to understand, and adapt to, the culture and history of our host country. (There were, in fact, very legitimate reasons for the HR function to request this information!)

Before I get a lot of nasty e-mails, there are some differences that are wrong (e.g., illegal acts, abusive treatment, etc.) No one should tolerate these sorts of behaviors in the name of adapting to the local culture.)

3. Demonstrate curiosity. Show interest.

These behaviors come much easier if you have a natural curiosity and genuine interest in other cultures and openness to experience. If you’re not inclined in this direction, force yourself to do it anyway! You may find that these “forced” activities are highly rewarding and they will soon become natural. Other things you can do to show interest include:

  • Exhibit curiosity and interest in the local culture, customs, and history.
  • Read about your adopted country’s history (preferably before mobilizing).
  • Get a list of the “classic” movies within your new home country and watch them. (Subtitled versions are great if you don’t know the local language. Cinema is a tremendously insightful window into culture and values.)
  • Read the local paper. (Many cities will have an English-language daily newspaper. Read this, not The International New York Times. Pay attention to the “sports” section as much as the international news–interest in sports is universal.)
  • Ask the locals what they do on the weekends and then do those same things. (Better yet, do these things with your local colleagues. Sharing experiences builds connections!)
  • Get out of your expat neighborhood and explore. (Walking tours are much better than riding in cars or buses. You experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the home country. Cautionary note—be sure that where you’re headed is safe before setting out. This is good advice in your home country, as well.)
  • Eschew the home country eateries and opt for local cuisine. (Many relationships are cemented over meals. Respecting food shows respect for the culture.)

Recalling my Middle East assignment, it quickly became apparent to me that I knew more about the country’s history than many of my colleagues. One day I asked for directions to visit an historical site during the upcoming weekend only to be greeted with blank stares. When I explained the significance of the site, one of my colleagues noted that, “We learned about that way back in school, but nobody has ever bothered to visit the place.” I’m sure I gained some goodwill points as they marveled at my knowledge of (and genuine interest in) their history and heritage.

4. Acknowledge the need to “go slow to go fast.”

As an expat, you’ll undoubtedly feel great pressure to achieve results and accomplish business objectives. (I certainly did in both of my most significant expat stints.) They are the primary reason you were mobilized in the first place! But time invested in building and maintaining relationships will dramatically increase the chances that your leadership and coaching skills will gain traction. And, ultimately, it’s your ability to get your local colleagues mobilized and equipped to deliver these results that will determine whether you’ve had a successful assignment.

My experiences in the Middle East and China drove this point home to me. My patience and early investments in relationships not only helped me achieve my objectives, but they also made the expat experience all the richer for me and my family.

At the end of the day, you need to take responsibility for your own success as an expat. You need to actively cultivate the attitudes and behaviors that will allow you to achieve your personal and professional objectives. That said, there are also things that organizations can (and should) do to prepare and support expats. I’ll discuss the talent management practices that organizations can adopt to give their expats a greater chance at success in an upcoming posting.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D., is DDI Vice President, Global Consulting & Partnerships.

This is Part 2 of a series on Expat Leadership. Read others in the series:
Part 1: The Dirty Little Secret about Expat Failure

Part 3: Are You Being Set Up for Expat Success?

Posted: 27 Jan, 2017,

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