Bubbling Up Your Top Talent

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Donal Conn

Okay. We get it. Our world is shrinking quickly.

Even the most staunchly reactive of HR professionals now understand that successful business leaders of tomorrow will need to be more than a little savvy to the many nuances of managing a multicultural workforce. Companies around the world will continue to have an ever-increasing population of employees who were raised in vastly different corners of our planet. The ‘Global Village’ that Marshal McLuhan theorized about in the early 1960s to great skepticism is now understood as a universal reality. From this point forward, a global mindset should be considered a ‘must-have’ competency before one can be promoted into the ranks of senior leadership.

So with this state-of-tomorrow so widely apparent, why have so many global companies neglected to add some sort of short-term international assignment programto their talent development toolbox? While there often exists global mobility programs for long-term international assignments and relocations (complete with all the expatriate visa and payroll issue that come along with them), surprisingly few multinationals are currently utilizing short-term international assignments as a development tool for their top-talent listed in their succession plans.

The concept of assigning a high-potential employee overseas for a 2-6 month global assignment (commonly referred to as a "bubble assignment") to help develop a cross-cultural mindset is not a new one. Numerous long-established companies with a global workforce have implemented this model for decades now with success. However, for the leagues of mid-to-large companies around the world who were not born global and have only recently expanded operations around the world, bubble assignments usually take the limited form of project work derived out of an operational need. Based on multiple recent surveys, it would appear that bubble assignments designed as a talent management tool still seem to be the primary domain ofthe 100+ year old blue chips. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the idea of developmental bubble assignments is starting to catch on with the nouveau global, albeit slowly. And given that many companies such as GE, Cisco, Honeywell and many others have been using bubble assignments to help develop their top talent for a while now, there are examples out there to be found as to what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s a few key learnings to consider before designing a short-term international development assignment (IDA) program:
Bubbles aren’t for everyone

Perhaps the most commonly overlooked component of a successful international development assignment program is the candidate selection process. Given the costs involved, most employers reserve short-term IDAs for only the most promising of rising stars. But it takes more than simply being a top-performer with a strong work ethic to succeed overseas. Many other personality traits such as humility, flexibility to routine, openness to new ideas, plus an intuitive and well-developed level of social intelligence are all pre-requisites for a successful bubble assignment.

Be sure to create a screening and interview process to cull out the less adaptive candidates from your top-talent pool. At a minimum, be sure to incorporate behavior-based interviews into the process, preferably from managers from the proposed host-country as well and graduates from previous IDAs. Also consider using one of the psychological profile tools or multicultural awareness questionnaires designed for this purpose as a pre-screening tool.

Bubbles can burst

While the idea of a short-term assignment to an exotic location may sound enticing at first, some employees find the reality very different after a few months. Employees are highly driven and productive in the first weeks of the assignment; a phase commonly called "the honeymoon period." At this time, everything in the host country is exciting and new. After this initial period, culture shock will set in as the employee begins to recognize and feel overwhelmed by the differences between the host and home cultures.

To ease this culture shock, it’s vital to provide some basic cultural training prior to the assignment around professional etiquette, communication and social norms, local cuisine, public transportation tips, etc. so the employee has some cultural literacy before traveling. Employees who experience culture shock for an extended period of time can go into a "brownout" where he/she feels isolated, homesick and becomes entirely unproductive at work.

Bubbles are not extended holidays

Sending an employee on an international assignment is often a costly investment for an organization, so returns should be expected. It’s crucial to structure the assignment with defined work duties, goals and expected outcomes. Many employers ask for weekly productivity logs or a final report at the end of the assignment regarding their key learnings. Employees are also often asked to be trainers, both on assignment and after their return to the home country. While you don’t want the assignment to be so rigid that there is little flexibility for social learning and local adventures, a bubble assignment without defined goals and structure will likely lead to a negative overall experience.

Bubbles need friends

Even for a short-term assignment, it can be very difficult to be alone in a new country and away from family and friends. If the employee doesn’t know where to turn to ask the simplest of questions (eg. "Where is the nearest metro station from the office?" "How do I dial an international number from this office phone?" etc.) Many organizational assign host-country mentors to help guide visiting employee for this purpose. Other companies choose to send small groups of two to three employees together on a bubble assignment as a support group. In any case, be sure to help create a support network for the employee on assignment.

Bubbles don’t last forever

The duration of bubble assignments vary greatly across companies and host countries. As a rule, bubble assignments generally last a minimum of two months and a maximum of six. Be sure to understand clearly the tax laws, visa policies and labor laws of both the host and home countries before setting the exact duration. Based on the feedback of many bubble veterans and cultural behaviorists, the optimal length of a bubble assignment is between three and four months. If the assignment is too short (less that 2 months), the employee tends to only stay in the ‘honeymoon’ phase and doesn’t begin to acculturate. Conversely, an assignment that takes the employee deep into the culture shock phase but not long enough to get past it (six to nine months) commonly leads to failed assignments and brownouts. This length can also wrongfully cull out top-talent employees with families or who do not have flexible housing situations. If you want an employee to fully understand another culture, consider a long-term assignment of one to three years instead of a bubble assignment.