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“Gretchen am Spinnrade”

I’ve never seen Goethe’s “Faust” used to describe expat training, but this says a lot about Germany. It’s a description for expat and/or multicultural team training that refers to the “Gretchen question” in Goethe’s “Faust”. For those of you who have forgotten your college lit courses (or perhaps used one too many Cliff Notes instead of doing the required reading), the charachter Gretchen asks Faust if he believes in God and he does not know how to answer the question satisfactorily. The Gretchen Question (“Gretchenfrage”) is used ideomatically in modern German to refer to a question of great importance with a difficult answer.

But that’s not the point of this blog post. The point is: Germany has a great wealth of cultural heritage that they are justifiably proud of. In just about every art that you can think of, the greats that Germany produced throughout the centuries make one realize that there must have been something in the water, so to speak, that led to genius. This is not at all taken lightly by present-day Germans and, when doing business in Germany, is something to be respected, even revered.

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A video compilation of the event held on 9.09.2009 at Amsterdam Bright City, in Amsterdam the Netherlands. Sponsored by De Baak, it was a look at Dutch leadership and society from various perspectives, Dutch and non-Dutch, about what we could learn from each other.

To exploit overseas opportunities, multinational corporations must usually transfer executives into them. Yet these expatriates—a scarce and very dear resource—often fail, and many leave their employers even after they succeed overseas. What can multinationals do to protect their investment (which, according to data provided in the article, can run upwards to $500,000 per year)? Some solutions proposed in this article are:

  • Unlocking talent by having clear partner-family policies for expatriates, such as adequate and in-depth preparation, rewards for local interaction during the assignment, and easy access to housing, schooling and feedback mechanisms as an ongoing policy.
  • Sourcing creatively such as finding talented expatriate managers in previously run joint ventures, sourcing outside of the corporate home market, and having permanent on-site teams to help facilitate operations.
  • Considering that 70 percent of failed assignments result directly from personal and family difficulties rather than incompetence on the job, having an early assessment program in place is essential.
  • Keeping the expatriates and their families well connected with corporate home base by facilitating a two-way transfer of knowledge.
  • Clear evaluations by involved senior management with visible and well-explained metrics for performance are essential.
  • Retaining the talent within the company: according to one survey, a stunning 91 percent of returning expatriates felt that their companies didn’t value their international experience. The result of this is repatriated managers in the US leave their companies at twice the rate of managers with purely domestic experience, usually within one year of returning.

The article has a great deal of data to substantiate both the problem as well as the proposed solutions. Even though it was published in the McKinsey Quarterly over 10 years ago, the lessons are now more valuable than ever. Considering the increased trend towards globalization and the even scarcer resources because of the economic downturn, it is ever more important to make the small investments necessary to protect the larger business equation.

The article can be found online here

“Are you taking your expatriate talent seriously?” by Tsun-yan Hsieh, Johanne Lavoie, and Robert A. P. Samek, The McKinsey Quarterly, 1999 NUMBER 3, p. 71 – 83.

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