In a global, interconnected world, the opportunities for people to work abroad have never been greater. A year in New York opening a new satellite office? A secondment to Germany to oversee a business-critical project? A few months in Dubai investigating opportunities to develop new markets in the Middle East?

You might think employees would jump at the chance. But many companies are finding that contrary to their expectations, staff are not necessarily enthused by the prospect of being despatched to new and unfamiliar climes. Indeed, a dearth of people who are prepared to be internationally mobile can sometimes be a real barrier to companies’ attempts to expand their presence overseas. We are not just facing a skills shortage – we are facing a global talent shortage.

This is backed up by some recent research to come out of Ashridge Business School. They found that international experience comes very low on the lists of priorities for Generation Y employees, who are often extremely reluctant to up sticks and move abroad. PwC found a similar picture when it looked into the willingness of graduates to take up overseas assignments. Only 11 per cent of those surveyed, for example, were happy to go to India and only 2 per cent to China.

Two key factors appear to be at play. The first is that the generation of employees who are entering key management roles about now, place a much bigger emphasis on work-life balance and ‘community’ than their predecessors; they often quite simply don’t want to take on highly demanding roles which force them to abandon relationships, disrupt the careers of their spouse or partner or uproot their families. Secondly, in a world where technology means we can work with people pretty much anytime, anywhere, people simply don’t see the point. They are often already working in highly multi-cultural environments and collaborating on projects with colleagues from around the world, without needing to pack their bags and move.

So if going global is a priority for your business, what can you as an employer do to ensure you get the right talent, in the right place, at the right time?

Illustration of a plane flying around a globe

Be overt at the recruitment stage

If it’s vital to have people on your team who are prepared to be internationally mobile, make sure that message comes across crystal clear at the recruitment stage. Highlight the opportunity for people to take up placements or work for significant periods overseas in your recruitment process. Make it clear that international mobility will play an important part in their career progression and that it’s an expectation of the job. Getting the messaging right at the start will attract the people you need. An applicant tracking system can help with this.

Have good quality career conversations

If you make a practice of having regular, open and honest career conversations with people, there won’t be any surprises. In a fast-changing economic environment, where new opportunities may emerge almost overnight, a chat about careers in the annual appraisal isn’t enough. Develop an on-going dialogue with employees about their aspirations and how they see their career panning out, discuss the skills and experience they will need to move to the next level, and make it easy for them to talk openly about any reservations they may have about international moves. That way you won’t be in danger of putting names on a succession plan or earmarking people for vital roles they actually have no interest in pursuing.

Don’t pigeon-hole people

Make sure you are not inadvertently ruling out people who would make great ambassadors for your business abroad.

“She won’t want to move to another country because she’s got young children.”

“He’s approaching retirement so he will be wanting to wind down.”

Just as you can’t assume that someone in the early stages of their career will the champing at the bit for an international opportunity, you also can’t assume that more mature workers or those with family responsibilities won’t be open to taking their career into new territory. People will never fail to surprise you – and if you write them off without even having the conversation, you may be missing out on the chance to exploit some great talent.

Think global but consider acting local

Don’t automatically assume that the best way to make a significant expansion into a new market overseas is to drop people in from your head office to lead the drive. Make sure you are also investigating the talent that’s available locally or making full use of employees you may already have in the region. Shipping people in from on high can sometimes cause resentment among existing employees, who may quite rightly feel that they have a better handle on the market and culture than an ‘outsider’. If you do send employees over, make sure they have had a thorough induction and understand the cultural nuances and any likely sensitivities of the environment they will be working in. Set people up for success, rather than just dropping them into an unfamiliar situation and assuming they will know the best way to go about things. That way they are also more likely to stay – and to tell others about the positive experience they have had.

Provide adequate support

An international role or assignment can be a bewildering and lonely experience for employees. Think about how you can best support people both with the ‘emotional’ aspects of uprooting themselves and settling in, as well as with the practical arrangements. Make sure they are clear about arrangements for home leave and about the level of support they can expect from you both in the day job and in their personal lives should any problems arise. It’s a good idea to also provide training on virtual working – to ensure the lines of communication stay open between geographies and the team is able to collaborate and move projects forward effectively in the virtual space.

One action to take this week: How much do you really know about your employees aspirations for their careers? Sit down with your key people over a coffee and get the dialogue going.

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