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Expatriates staying ahead

Posted on April 13, 2015

There are three types of people – those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what happened.

Expatriates are often skilled at making things happen. More often than not they are recruited because of competences (attitudes, skills and knowledge) that are not readily available locally. They arrive and get straight on with the job. At the same time, they undergo a rapid enculturalisation process – acquiring the organisational and socio-cultural competences that enable effectiveness in a foreign market.

The new attitudes, skills and knowledge that cultural adaptation gives to individuals are profoundly valuable not only in enabling expatriates to operate within the workplace but also in terms of developing the ability to shift individual perception, self-assess, handle change, communicate effectively with different cultures and so on.

However, even in today's global village, these intrinsic competences can be difficult to articulate and measure. Their value can be underrated by both local and head office employers – locally, because most successful expatriates have them and therefore the skills are widely available, and at head office because their importance is not always appreciated.

The process of acquiring these competences can take a considerable amount of time; research shows that it can take two or more years. From the time expatriates arrive to the point where they feel comfortable enough to be truly productive, years can have passed. By then, the technical competences for which they were hired for in the first place could be out of date.

This means that expatriates can then slip into the 'those who watch things happen' or even 'those who wonder what happened' categories.

The wise expatriates (those in the 'make things happen' category) recognise that they must be proactive in their continuing professional development (CPD) and allocate time, effort and money to it.

More often than not, CPD is not provided for expatriates and at best might include an occasional two-day course, but there are very few companies here with the in-house expertise needed to guide effective career development.

The good news is that companies don't have to be large MNCs with in-house resources to be able to offer expatriates effective CPD. There are a handful of specialist consultancies in Abu Dhabi who can design and implement even the smallest of CPD programmes. And the return on investment is often far better than bringing in replacement expats with up to date competences.

There are three types of people – those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what happened.

Expatriates are often skilled at making things happen. More often than not they are recruited because of competences (attitudes, skills and knowledge) that are not readily available locally. They arrive and get straight on with the job. At the same time, they undergo a rapid enculturalisation process – acquiring the organisational and socio-cultural competences that enable effectiveness in a foreign market.

The new attitudes, skills and knowledge that cultural adaptation gives to individuals are profoundly valuable not only in enabling expatriates to operate within the workplace but also in terms of developing the ability to shift individual perception, self-assess, handle change, communicate effectively with different cultures and so on.

However, even in today’s global village, these intrinsic competences can be difficult to articulate and measure. Their value can be underrated by both local and head office employers – locally, because most successful expatriates have them and therefore the skills are widely available, and at head office because their importance is not always appreciated.

The process of acquiring these competences can take a considerable amount of time; research shows that it can take two or more years. From the time expatriates arrive to the point where they feel comfortable enough to be truly productive, years can have passed. By then, the technical competences for which they were hired for in the first place could be out of date.

This means that expatriates can then slip into the ‘those who watch things happen’ or even ‘those who wonder what happened’ categories.

The wise expatriates (those in the ‘make things happen’ category) recognise that they must be proactive in their continuing professional development (CPD) and allocate time, effort and money to it.

More often than not, CPD is not provided for expatriates and at best might include an occasional two-day course, but there are very few companies here with the in-house expertise needed to guide effective career development.

A good executive coach (preferably one with a solid business background and coaching qualifications) is a good starting point. Just like top sports people around the world (think Roger Federer), business people at the top of their game use a coach to help them to see where they are, where they want to be, and how they can get there. A few sessions with an executive coach will not be cheap, but will be of great value. Use a consultancy to help you to quantify the value to your organisation, or if needs be, go it alone.

Acquiring a mentor in their home country – someone who is still active in their profession – can also be enormously beneficial. A mentor can keep the expatriate up to date with best practice, current thinking, new trends and changing professional requirements.

The traditional route of acquiring a professional or academic qualification has been made much easier in the last few years with e-learning, m-learning and distance learning. Most universities and business schools in their home country offer a wide range of modular courses where assignments can be submitted by email and topped up with occasional weekend lectures. Entry requirements recognise experience too, so it may not be necessary to have previous qualifications in a particular field.

Professional bodies and institutes (of which there are hundreds) offer e-learning and online testing or paper-based exams invigilated by the British Council. Some of them now have accredited learning centres in the region where expert tutors are available. Many of their professional qualifications start at a low level and go all the way through to the equivalent of a Masters degree. Some offer a management entry route, with exemptions for proven professional experience.

At the very least, expatriates can stay ahead by subscribing to professional journals and by reading widely. Aim for two or three business books each year.

Continuing professional development in ways which are quantifiable and of recognised value in a competitive market place puts expatriates firmly in the ‘those who make things happen’ bracket. And it’s never too late to start.

The good news is that companies don’t have to be large MNCs with in-house resources to be able to offer expatriates effective CPD. There are a handful of specialist consultancies in Abu Dhabi who can design and implement even the smallest of CPD programmes. And the return on investment is often far better than bringing in replacement expats with up to date competences.

A good executive coach (preferably one with a solid business background and coaching qualifications) is a good starting point. Just like top sports people around the world (think Roger Federer), business people at the top of their game use a coach to help them to see where they are, where they want to be, and how they can get there. A few sessions with an executive coach will not be cheap, but will be of great value. Use a consultancy to help you to quantify the value to your organisation, or if needs be, go it alone.

Acquiring a mentor in their home country – someone who is still active in their profession – can also be enormously beneficial. A mentor can keep the expatriate up to date with best practice, current thinking, new trends and changing professional requirements.

The traditional route of acquiring a professional or academic qualification has been made much easier in the last few years with e-learning, m-learning and distance learning. Most universities and business schools in their home country offer a wide range of modular courses where assignments can be submitted by email and topped up with occasional weekend lectures. Entry requirements recognise experience too, so it may not be necessary to have previous qualifications in a particular field.

Professional bodies and institutes (of which there are hundreds) offer e-learning and online testing or paper-based exams invigilated by the British Council. Some of them now have accredited learning centres in the region where expert tutors are available. Many of their professional qualifications start at a low level and go all the way through to the equivalent of a Masters degree. Some offer a management entry route, with exemptions for proven professional experience.

At the very least, expatriates can stay ahead by subscribing to professional journals and by reading widely. Aim for two or three business books each year.

Continuing professional development in ways which are quantifiable and of recognised value in a competitive market place puts expatriates firmly in the ‘those who make things happen’ bracket. And it’s never too late to start.

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