Hearing the Truth: “I don’t think it’s going well…at all…”

7 Chaotic Hurdles that Create Tension for New Expat Leaders

Looking back on my 10+ years as an expat living and working abroad, I feel comfortable saying that it was a success.  But not initially.  Not by a longshot. Eventually…and painfully…it all came around. In that time I achieved:

  • 5 Separate Positions involving increased scope of responsibility including serving on global, regional and local Leadership Teams.
  • 3 P&L gigs of increased ownership, with the final position gaining the trust of my company to lead a US$700mio enterprise.
  • Managing groups of smart talented colleagues in teams from 4 members to over 200.
  • Bringing solutions to patients with severe chronic disease who often lacked hope of improvement.
  • Most importantly (and the most fun): being a mentor and guide for a big handful of colleagues who are now in greater roles than before.  My favorite gig.

Failure…before success

But before all that happened, I almost didn’t make it past/beyond 120 of my first assignment…

It was on day 120 of my first assignment overseas that I was confronted with the fact that I was failing.  It was not expected.  It was not pleasant.  It was personal.  It was shameful. 

Long story short, my boss, a European expat to Asia with much more experience than I, took me out for a beer and asked me how I thought it was going.  

“GREAT!” I replied.  “Fantastic even.”  I went on to describe some of the victories of the past 4 months.

He looked at me with a bit of a pained, gentle smile…as if to say “I disagree.”  I asked him what HE thought.

“I don’t think it’s going well…at all…” he said.

That was the most frightening moment of my career. Things weren’t going well. And the worst part was that I had been unaware of it. I knew I was nearing career death if I didn’t figure things out and make some changes. And those changes started with me.

What I have since discovered is that my story is not uncommon. In fact, every expat executive we have interviewed has had a similar flash of panic and surprise. “What do you mean it’s not working? What do you mean the team isn’t happy? What do you mean we’re not making headway?”

Look, leading a team in a foreign culture is much more complex than most people realize. It’s so much more than understanding the language and daily pleasantries. Culture is everywhere, unseen and unspoken. See The Science Behind Cranberry Leadership here.

As a new expat leader, you have many aspects of culture working against one another.  Your home culture. Your host culture.  Your company culture.  Your company’s HQ home culture.  All the unknowns.

Seven Chaotic Hurdles for Every New Expat Leader:

Why do we get caught off guard and deceived into thinking it’s all going well?  The answer to this is complex and deserves some introspection.  Here are the reasons in my own journal: 

  1. It all happens so damned fast.  It’s typical for the consideration, decision, and move for a foreign assignment to happen in a blink of an eye. Companies tend to want to move fast. And you have to jump on the bandwagon or someone else might get this career and life changing opportunity. It begins with a wide-eyed discussion about experience, excitement, and adventure. And next thing you know, you’re in the thick of it. For me, from the time the offer was made to my first day on the job it was 6 weeks. A month in a half to change your life, your family’s life, and alter your career forever. So, if you’ve been slammed by the realization that you’re not as prepared as you thought you were, it’s understandable.  You probably haven’t been given any real time to think through the implications, the process, the hurdles.  Schools?  Quickly pick one!  Apartments?  Fast!! Will this one do?  The kids?  Will they thrive?  Are we doing the right thing?  No time for that…just MOVE.  And next thing you know, you’re leading a meeting with people who you don’t (and can’t be expected to) understand. And they certainly don’t understand you. This is most expat executives TRUE starting point. 
  1. Intoxicated by the ADVENTURE of it all.  After the look-sees and the discussions you find yourself endlessly googling the new country.  You see the temples, the buildings, the mountains, the history, the people, the delightful weirdness of it all through the eyes of websites designed to create wonder and fancy and desire.  The people seem so friendly!  The transportation system is so futuristic!  The flowers are exotic!  The streets so clean!  It is totally intoxicating and you drink as much of it in as you can.
  1. The new position and the work intensify the buzz.  The expats you meet and get to talk to have unbelievable stories and sparkling resumes.  You are in a new club that includes some very bright and engaging people.  In addition, the stories you read about your heroes often include overseas time.  (Jack Welch was overseas, wasn’t he?  Steve Jobs stayed in a Shinto retreat 40km from where we will live?!  All of our senior execs have lived and worked overseas!)  This must be the golden ticket!  At this point…you are drunk…with expectations and the promise of something great.  It is delightful.  It is short-lived.
  1. Then…the move.  Holy shit it was hard.  Every single aspect of your life has to be spun up either into suspended animation at home or on a plane/boat to your new land.  This isn’t a move, it’s a transformation.  You have to process forms you don’t understand and discuss intricate details of your health and life with people from your new country.  You don’t understand why they are asking questions about your relatives and your history.  Your precious belongings are going onto…a boat?  And it’ll take how long?  3 months?   Your kids are crying at all the goodbyes and your relatives don’t understand why you are taking their family so far away.  It feels like everything you have known is being violently uprooted and riskily transplanted…because it is.
  1. The expectations and pressure. Of course, you don’t have time to process all of this change because you have to show up and start performing, day one. I had worked in high pressure jobs for years. No issue.  But suddenly it became apparent that the company wanted a list of deliverables from me that I could not quite comprehend.  Change: Everything.  Timeline: Now.  Excuses: Not allowed.  Plus you are reminded from time to time that the biggest expenditure a company makes on any one employee other than the CEO is the expat and her family.  It took about a million bucks a year to keep us in Asia between salary, tax, tax equalization, healthcare, car, home, cost of living adjustments.  I had not felt that kind of pressure.  And I hadn’t stepped off the plane yet.
  1. Just when you settle in, everything starts to sink in.   The kids are doing well…we think.  Your spouse seems to be adjusting well…you believe.  The one thing you KNOW is that your job is going well because, after all, you’re “Hitting your goals! Moving the ball! Making change happen!”  Then you have that beer with your boss and the world crashes down.  I found out the hard way that my vision was obstructed by cultural realities that I didn’t know were there.  
  1. The hard irony of how alone you feel.  I was surrounded by new colleagues.  I was working in a huge busy city.  I had my family around me.  Yet I felt very much alone.  This is a common feeling amongst the expat execs we have interviewed.

This is the experience of many expat leaders as they struggle with the internal and external pressure.  In my case, it became clear that my team was not aligned, my boss was seeing sub-par results, my family was dealing with their own transition emotions and I was alone to process all this change with myself.  I made the mistake of turning inwards to find the answers instead of reaching out for help.

What would I have done differently?

With perfect hindsight: 

  • Be more deliberate: I would have invested in a fresh new legal pad and spent consistent time writing the experience every morning to gain insight. 
  • Seek the Bigger Picture: There is clarity and power in slowing down and zooming out to see the bigger picture of what is unfolding with teams, family and yourself.  I would have asked myself to see my own direction from the POV of my team members. 
  • Look for the success stories.  I would have spent less time studying the host country and more time meeting and talking to other professionals who had made the transition successfully.  
  • Get a coach, earlier:  I would have reached out to get insight and help sooner.  Ideally, when the assignment was pitched. I finally had a fantastic coach that helped me achieve most of my goals.  But I started a bit later than optimal..and it hurt me in the long run. See the Science Behind Cranberry Leadership here.

Reaching out to get help is not a sign of failure…indeed, it is a sign of good self-awareness and a good plan.  Reach out to us today at www.cranberryleadership.com for a free consult. 

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