Any new job assignment comes with unknowns. The biggest unknown? Usually, it’s your new team. You inherit the stars, the deadweights, and the “projects” with each new leadership position.
But in an expat leadership role there are extra unknowns. And those unknowns can be invisible barriers to your assignment’s success. These can be deadly. Because of cultural differences you can unwittingly derail a superstar…complicate a “project”…or embrace the deadweight for all the wrong reasons.
To avoid any kind of assignment-killing missteps, expat executives must be proactive and deliberate during their first days on the job.
A few weeks back, I was talking to a member of our Expat Exec Network. She echoed how fast things can go really wrong.
“I was a bit nervous about taking the position in Korea but I felt fairly confident because it was somewhat of a lateral move – taking what I had done well in the UK and transplanting it to Seoul. Since I felt it was going to be a partial repeat of what I had done before, I focused on my family’s transition almost exclusively and did not contact my new team proactively. I felt confident that I could handle whatever I found on the ground. I wish I had that decision to make again,” Camille, a senior director of healthcare marketing, shared.
“I inherited a team of 8 professional marketers at different points in their careers. On paper they seemed to have all the right experiences and milestones to be a stellar team. With 30 days to go before I arrived, I focused on getting my family to Seoul. The team and I would start work on day 1, and it would be like every other new leadership role I had taken in my past. ”
When Day 1 arrived, Camille and her family had already settled into schools and found the grocery store, the cleaners, and other necessities. All was going well. She left the family with her husband and took the train to work, enthusiastic to meet her team and move forward.
“Immediately I saw a huge gap in the English ability of my team. It was really unexpected. Beforehand,I had read their resumes and a few emails and felt their English ability was really good. But when I arrived, the team offered practiced and clear introductions…after that, it unraveled.”
Their presentations were good, but the Q & A was labored and difficult. The team struggled with Camille’s cadence, complex questions and humor. A mid-level marketing manager was her savior that first day. Thanks to her English-Hangul translation skills, she was able to moderate and help the local team and Camille communicate better. Park Ha Eun’s marketing skill was unknown, but she made life so much easier for Camille that Camille naturally gravitated towards her. In the ensuing week Ha Eun became the defacto right hand woman to Camille’s efforts.
Camille immediately found comfort in Ha Eun’s ability to communicate faster and clearer than her other colleagues. What Camille didn’t know was that Ha Eun had several sub-standard performance reviews in the past 2 years. Ha Eun had been placed on a performance improvement plan a few times and had barely held on to her job. In the haste of “getting things done,” the personnel files had been put in a stack, unread. Camille had embraced, in clear sight of her team and almost exclusively, a sub-par colleague.
“Over the course of the first few weeks I noticed a definite change of tone with several of my reports. As I naturally gravitated towards Ha Eun because of her excellent English, it was unclear to me that I had neglected the relationships with much better, more prepared team members, simply because the interactions were more difficult and took more time. I would always ask Ha Eun for assistance, for her opinion and for general help. Of course, Ha Eun loved it…but the rest of the team? Not so much…” Camille lamented.
The next months bore the scars of this first week disaster. Her senior level marketing manager (a consistent ‘exceeds expectations’ leader in the team) left the company because he felt Camille had “neglected him and his contributions to the team.” In addition, some cliques amongst the team developed that Camille was never able to dissolve within her time in Seoul.
“The damage I did by strongly embracing the ‘easy’ communication team member devastated my ability to lead a very good team. Eventually the top performer left, the two other high-performers resented me and the team. Even though we were successful, we never achieved what I believed was possible.”
So what would Camille have done differently? Her response to this question was a hearty laugh and a two word answer “almost everything.”
Here are a few simple ways you can avoid similar blindspots when it comes to your team BEFORE you officially start your assignment:
- Spend time studying management of mixed culture teams. It is critical to understand the out-of-the-ordinary hurdles you will face. Power distance, hierarchy, uncertainty avoidance and many other cultural dimensions present differently in different cultures. Add your own cultural preferences and unconscious biases and there is a hearty recipe for disaster. And the hard part is…you won’t even see it happening. As new expat leaders, we are struggling with our own
- Spent a small amount of time on video calls with each critical member of the team. Don’t wait for the “day 1 surprise.” Spend time on video, showing smiles, learning names, gauging the difficulty or ease of communication and the effect of language barriers. Remember that your team is as nervous as you are. Get to know them a bit before hand, and you’ll have a much more productive first few days. Speaking of the first few days…
- Lower your first week objectives and plan accordingly. Most likely you will be sent to your new assignment with a list of things to get done courtesy of your boss or the global organization. John Wooden, the famed coach of the UCLA basketball dynasty, was famous for taking the whole first practice each year and teaching the team how to put on their socks and tie their shoes. The thinking was that if you get a blister in a big game, you hinder the team. Allowing yourself time in that first week to establish norms, observe deeply and relax just a bit will pay off in the long run. Resist the urge to start on your intensive to-do list on day one. People first, especially in a new culture.