Keep Overseas Staff Focused on the Right Goals

What's the best way for an American manager to track the quality of work done thousands of miles away from headquarters?

Keeping track of what expatriates do while working in foreign countries can sometimes present big challenges to U.S.-based managers. Given the expense of sending employees overseas, the issue of expatriate accountability is being raised more frequently within U.S. companies.

One way to address this concern is to ensure that expatriates receive clear instructions and understand the goals they’re expected to achieve during their foreign stints. The second is to manage them effectively, say mobility experts.

Bill Maxwell, an executive vice president and managing director with Cendant Mobility in Danbury, Conn., counsels U.S. companies on how to manage expatriate staff. He also is in charge of the consulting firm’s own 12 expatriates. When managing these overseas employees, “I believe in the three Cs,” he says. “Communicate, communicate, communicate… I don’t know any company or corporation that ‘over-communicates’ with its people.”

Mr. Maxwell, 50, connects with his team abroad through frequent e-mails, one-on-one phone calls, and conference calls. Keeping tabs on overseas staffers using these high-tech methods is easy and relatively inexpensive. For Mr. Maxwell, though, there’s no substitute for face-to-face talks. He regularly jumps on a plane and visits Cendant’s employees abroad. “Our CEO and I firmly believe that it’s better to have us continually cycling through our facilities globally,” he says. “You get a better sense of what’s going on.”

Set Goals Before They Leave

Still, the most important issue is an expatriate’s ability to achieve the desired results for the parent company while living and working overseas. U.S.-based managers must be accountable for the results of their employees, while the expats themselves should be held responsible for reaching their goals. So what’s the best way for an American manager to track the quality of work done thousands of miles away from headquarters?

The first step is to set the expatriates’ expectations and goals before they leave the U.S., says Brenda Fender, an Atlanta-based director of global initiatives for Worldwide ERC, an association for relocation professionals headquartered in Washington, D.C. She advises U.S. managers to write “assignment letters” defining an expat’s mission abroad explicitly. The letter should say, “here’s what it [your assignment] means to you, here’s what your cash will look like, here’s the system in which you’ll go for merit reviews,” she explains.

Once the expat is settled overseas, making sure that U.S.-based managers’ instructions are crystal clear is what counts, says Priscilla Wisner, a professor of global business at Thunderbird’s Garvin School of International Management in Glendale, Ariz. “The looser you are, the fuzzier you are, the more room for interpretation [and] for misinterpretation,” says Dr. Wisner, who specializes in “organizational control” issues confronting global corporations. If objectives and expectations are well-established from the outset, managers at headquarters can more easily assess progress toward those goals during the assignment without constantly checking up on the employee. What’s more, have the expat review his or her job description on an annual basis, say mobility experts.


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