Going Overseas for a Job? Coming Home Is the Hard Part

 For a successful return, expatriates need to plan in advance and maintain strong networks with colleagues back home

By Joann S. Lublin

Taking an overseas assignment can vault your management career into the next level and test your skills in unfamiliar territory. But coming home can be the hardest part.

Companies typically provide expatriates with local housing subsidies, cross-cultural training and other perks. Few employers, though, address what happens when that
expat is ready to return—a fact that partly explains why one-quarter of returning executives jump ship within two years, recruiters and researchers estimate.

People who have successfully made the return trip credit advance planning, disciplined networking and sponsors back home. To better manage the transition, some companies work to plan managers’ return roles even before they leave. But some experts warn it’s still largely up to the individual.

“So much depends on the executive in question taking ownership for their repatriation,” says Daniel R. Smith, a managing director of recruiters Raines International Inc.

Cosmetics giant L’Oréal SA invites repatriated U.S. staffers to go through orientation and integration programs as if they were brand-new hires. The idea is “to
feel reintegrated into the company,” says Jacob Bonk, a human-resources executive for its U.S. unit in New York.

Upon returning from four years in China, Mr. Bonk went through the first-day orientation last year alongside about 25 new staffers. Joining the new hires felt “a bit
funny,” Mr. Bonk recalls, but after living outside the U.S. for so long, “you’re basically a new employee again.”

Mr. Bonk’s new boss also urged him to spend time rebuilding his U.S. network; in his first month back, he met face-to-face with 50 colleagues.

Both companies and individuals are advised to give extra thought to their return roles before they fly overseas.

“Begin with the end in mind,” says Stewart Black, a professor of management practice at Insead business school and veteran expatriate researcher.

For instance, Mr. Black suggests finding out which leadership skills your employer wants you to develop during a foreign stint. “If your company does not know how they will utilize you or your hard-won international experience before you leave, the odds they will miraculously discover the answer just before your return are not good,” he says.

To ensure that Monsanto Co. will benefit from skills developed abroad, the seed and pesticide maker identifies potential return positions before people move overseas, according to Bridget Walsh, a global talent mobility manager.

Monsanto says its approach has lowered attrition; some 7% of repatriates leave within two years, down from approximately 13.5% a decade ago, according to the company.

Ernst & Young LLP gives departing expats a 10-page survival guide and a mobility adviser to help keep their careers on track while abroad.

Despite such assistance, the company doesn’t guarantee specific jobs following international assignments, says Andrew Walker, Ernst & Young’s global mobility leader.

When British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline PLC hired Marc Speichert in January as global chief digital officer, working in Warren, N.J., interviewers told him to expect a
three-year foreign assignment and described possible opportunities after his subsequent return to the U.S. He will relocate to the U.K. in 2018.

Sanket Akerkar, a Microsoft Corp. vice president and onetime expatriate, says he worked hard to keep his U.S. network strong while running its India unit for nearly three years. During his business trips to the U.S., Mr. Akerkar stayed an extra day to meet with important colleagues and discuss what he was learning abroad. He returned to the U.S. in 2013.

Other U.S. executives dispatched abroad get assigned a high-level colleague to champion their careers back at headquarters. Otherwise, “assimilating into the assignment country is easier than repatriating to the home country,” says Peter Clarke, a global managing partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP who has sponsored some of its expats.

Mr. Clarke advocated for Felix Mwamba when the U.S. expatriate wanted to leave Paris for PwC’s Boston office in 2013. “He made sure there was support from the leadership to take another partner in this market,” recalls Mr. Mwamba.

A pair of home-country sponsors boosted prospects for Amit Sood, now head of product and technology for a unit of Asurion LLC, a provider of insurance and support for 300 million phones, electronics and appliances.

Mr. Sood says he worried about repatriation when Tennessee-based Asurion asked the California middle manager to relocate to Hong Kong in 2013. Before his departure, a prior boss and a senior vice president promised to try to find him a suitable Asurion role upon his return.

The sponsors arranged video chats with executives, kept an eye out for relevant openings ahead of official announcements and “gave personal recommendations on my behalf,” Mr. Sood recollects. “They really wanted to make expatriate assignments work.”

Asurion brought Mr. Sood back to the U.S. in 2015—and promoted him into his first executive role.

This article was supplied by The Wall Street Journal and was originally published on 5 September 2017.

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