• Saturday, April 13, 2024
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The bridge builders for globalisation – the expatriate managers

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The bridge builders for globalisation – the expatriate managers

The rise of multinational firms has created a global workforce called the expatriate global manager. Commonly defined as ‘a highly skilled worker with unique expertise who is sent to work in another unit of the same company located in a foreign country, generally on a temporary basis’, such managers are increasingly visible in India in recent times.

Expatriate population is the hallmark of any colonial rule, and history tells us that there have been many societies where such an overseas group lived a cocooned existence, in a bubble, often wrapped cosily in luxuries away from the locals or ‘natives’. That was the past and now the post-industrial world has seen a newer version where the expatriate managers’ tribe consists of honchos on a mission to establish business supremacy in markets that have competition from all over the world.

Yet, in the words of the late Sumantra Ghoshal and his colleague, Christopher Bartlett, there is no such entity called the universal global manager. Surveying the landscape of the global professionals, they spoke instead of four kinds of managers: Business Managers, Country Managers, Functional Managers, and the Corporate Manager, those who are tasked with nurturing the specialists and coordinate their efforts. Either way, the phenomenon of these skilled professionals is here to stay. Such managers are assigned for multiple reasons: be it for their functional knowledge, leadership skills, subject matter expertise, or in some cases as the vanguard force to establish a new business built on market entry strategies designed at home.

Another set of managers are those who form part of the global workforce today, who travel in search of better earnings opportunities into geographies where the local workforce lacks the requisite skills. This category includes the migrant managerial workforce in places like the Middle East (UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, etc) and parts of East and West Africa.

What are the typical challenges faced by them? Shorn of the glamour, the reality is that leading an expatriate life has multiple challenges, even without including issues at the workplace (and these can be very difficult too). This includes social and cultural shocks that are often encountered on a daily basis – be it the obstacles of language, food and physical comfort (apartments, leisure, etc). However, the real taxing matters are those arising from emotional discomfort, issues of loneliness and alienation from the local setting.

What is not often acknowledged is that the maximum brunt is borne by the spouse and children of expatriate managers. Often described as the ultimate nuclear family, away from grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, and the familiar faces of neighbours and friends, the family has to begin afresh and make new relationships in an alien setting. This can lead them to getting really close to each other as they truly have to support one another, or the pressures can come to a boil, causing not just domestic strife but also showing up through displacement behaviour of the expatriate manager at the office.

The final straw in some cases is that sometimes when the expatriate finally returns home (technically called ‘repatriation’) – particularly after a long overseas innings – he feels reverse cultural shock. Re-entry difficulties are once again societal and, in some cases, organisational, where the overseas manager finds that he was forgotten in an insignificant corner of the world, at a minor outpost of the firm.

In the final analysis, is it worth transporting such managers across the globe, disrupting their social and family life? The answer in today’s context is a resounding ‘yes’. If done right, and structured with careful planning, the pay-off is immense, both to the firm and the manager. Potentially, the knowledge brought by the manager can jumpstart business in market entry situations and in running firms, can contribute to raising the bar to new operating levels of excellence. For the manager today, a stint in the emerging markets may become a trial by fire but success here is generally a recipe for fast-track growth in the firm’s echelons. Ghoshal and Bartlett’s corporate managers are today carefully knitting together a game plan for grooming all-rounders who can be the crack commando forces ready to be deployed into geographies that need assistance, and who in turn receive a substantial compensation package that make it attractive for them to bear the itinerant life. This exclusive band of global nomads seek new tests in foreign shores to test their professional capability, knowing that spurring the earning there raises the chances of corporate glory, irrespective of the price paid by them at the domestic front.

Such a hardy bunch of managers are equipped with a positive attitude of curiosity, eager to explore new avenues with alacrity and with a flexible style of operation. Assimilating with the local environment with rapid ease, they are the modern Captain Kirks chalking victories for their business in new worlds, and ever eager to share their coping strategies and learning with new rookies of this global world. They are the bridge builders to a modern world where national borders mean little and where the ties that bind are one of seeing similarities across societies rather than superficial differences. They are the ones that are ushering in the brave new world of transnational enterprises, and provide the currency of excellence that corporate boards are now seeking.

 

K. JAYSHANKAR

 

• First published in Empowering Times, India.

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