In a Utopian world, every group of people would reflect the proportionality of the diversity of humanity. A Board of Directors would be 51% female, 14% Asian and approximately 20% would have a disability. The world of global mobility is a long way short of reflecting these figures and, in fact, falls very short indeed. The future assignee will, we hope, look very different than today’s.
One of the key trends of the modern era is that gene pools are increasingly mixed, and it seems likely that the number of people able to claim a simple ethnicity will eventually reach zero. Gender flexibility and a better understanding of disability will also make it harder to record this kind of statistical data in the near future.
There have been several attempts to define what the “average”, or “most normal”, human being is. Although the research methodology is questionable, generally speaking, the “average” human being is a Chinese man in his late 20’s. He is straight and has a high school education. The National Geographic Magazine also predicts that by 2050, the “average” person will be an Indian woman.
The Average Assignee
Assignees are a company’s ambassadors as well as having a very important job to do – whether an immediate task in the local office or as part of their preparation for a future leadership role.
When we compare this average person with the average assignee, there is still a long way to go before we can say that the global assignee population is representative of human diversity. Middle-aged white straight men dominate, as they have done since the big European colonial powers first started sending representatives abroad.
If we want to balance up the assignee population, we need to identify what the ideal assignee is. The problem is not going to disappear soon, so we need a future-proof ideal to work towards.
We know that there is a diversity gap in global mobility. We also know that this must change, not only to respond to the ethical “rightness” of equality, but also to maintain organizational credibility in a globalized world.
Assignees are a company’s ambassadors as well as having a very important job to do – whether an immediate task in the local office or as part of their preparation for a future leadership role. So we must assume that they will have prominent roles that will be under scrutiny.
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1. Technical Skills
First and foremost, the future assignee must be able to do the job they were appointed to do. The decision to send someone to a different country has extensive financial, social, professional and personal implications, so the organization must be able to rely on the assignee’s technical skills.
The decision to send someone to a different country has extensive financial, social, professional and personal implications, so the organization must be able to rely on the assignee’s technical skills.
However, expats are always perceived as being slightly different and special. In a group of peers that contains an expat from HQ, it is more than likely that the assignee will get the role of leader. This means that the assignee cannot have merely “average” technical ability. They must be able to be a role model for others.
And they must be able to lead. Whether or not assignees have a formal leadership position, they must be ready to create vision and direction. Teams will naturally form around them, so they must be able to motivate and bring out individuals’ strengths. A creative rebel is not the ideal future assignee – even where creativity is required.
Frequently, assignees take on informal mentoring roles. They must have the ability to transfer skills to others and support the learning process. Knowledge of basic teaching skills is a real bonus.
2. Soft Skills
This is why it is often stated that only 20% of job success is down to technical skills – 80% comes from soft skills. Although this figure often surprises people, it is self-evident. Every business process involves communication. So how we communicate must be important.
Even someone working for themselves does not work in isolation. If we are to isolate what the assignee of the future looks like, we would be remiss to overlook soft skills.
3. Leading Culturally
We have put forward the argument many times that assignees need intercultural skills, so will not repeat the arguments here; save to say, soft skills without intercultural understanding are more likely to harm than help.
Communication is culture, and culture is communication, so without the ability to judge how to adjust your style, you will damage relationships, disrupt projects and destroy reputations.
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4. Giving Feedback
Assignees, more than anyone, must have a rich range of communication styles to meet the changing needs of international business.
Assignees, more than anyone, must have a rich range of communication styles to meet the changing needs of international business. They must have a well-developed understanding of how to give feedback that produces improvement.
This is a refinement that new managers often forget – feedback must bring about improvement. Without that element, it is destructive, demotivating and often a personal attack.
Learning how to motivate, build trust and collaboration is achieved through effective communication. The future assignee must influence and negotiate. Moreover, all this must be done in a culturally sensitive way.
5. Agile Thought Processes
The future assignee needs to be agile and decisive. The cost of the assignment and the cultural differences assignees experience create pressure and stress. As a result, it can be hard to make decisions or to think through the consequences of decisions.
An assignee who avoids making decisions before the assignment will find themselves paralyzed during the assignment. Giving them tools to help with decision-making will help them to navigate the pressure points, overcome the cultural nuances and increase their effectiveness in their roles.
Effective decision-making in an intercultural situation requires flexibility of thought. The future assignee who struggles to weigh up alternatives, or who finds it hard to see an alternative perspective may be able to make decisions. However, those decisions may have unexpected consequences, particularly allowing for cultural differences.