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Explore, engage, empower: The flight to expatriation

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From making the big leap to Asia, responding to emerging trends, and returning to home soil, leaders from Motorola Solutions, Grundfos and Bank Rakyat Malaysia, recount their personal mobility adventures to Wani Azahar in this feature.

Expat assignments can be exciting for the individual and can be hugely beneficial for the organisation when driven by a business need. However, according to INSEAD, the proportion of expat assignment failures can be as high as 50% – partly owing to cultural adaptability, experience of the accompanying family and even one’s core values.

In this personal recollection on cultural immersion, staying current with policies, and reverse expatriation, leaders from Motorola Solutions, Grundfos and Bank Rakyat Malaysia provide their experiences of crossing borders and breaking boundaries to give Human Resources the full-circle of expatriation.

The adventure that awaits

Motorola Solutions began a new journey in May 2017 having recently set up its new APAC regional headquarters in Singapore. Home to more than 200 employees from more than 15 nationalities, including Australians, Americans, Koreans and Malaysians, Motorola Solutions is at the forefront of cultural integration. In fact, the new regional HQ was designed with a similar open concept to its corporate headquarters in Chicago, but with a pinch of local flavour.

Shamik Mukherjee, vice-president of solutions and services for APAC at Motorola Solutions, shared his experience of moving from the US to Asia and how Motorola Solutions had encouraged cultural immersion throughout his transition. Mukherjee moved to Singapore in 2013 when he was presented with the opportunity to take up the role of VP of regional marketing for Asia Pacific and the Middle East. Three years into the role, he was appointed his current position of VP of solutions and services for APAC for the company.

Speaking on the initial transition, he said: “While I was always open to new opportunities, this was a specific type of adventure to me. It was very exciting for me professionally and the family. It has always been on my agenda to live outside the US, so this was a great way to achieve that.” Through the company’s “immersion programme”, the relocation started when Mukherjee and his wife were given the opportunity to have a taste of life in Singapore via a short trip.

While he had had frequent trips to Singapore, it was a first for his wife. During the look-see trip, he said: “Even though I’ve been here (in Singapore) before and have developed quite the affection towards the city, it was important that we could come and visit before we made that decision (to move). It was important to see the homes, the schools, the way of life and experience how it would be like to live in Singapore.”

In fact, he was offered the guidance of a cultural ambassador to help navigate these experiences. “It really helped set our minds and prepare for the transition. It allowed for a much more seamless integration into the way of life here.”

It was important to see the homes, the schools, the way of life and experience how it would be like to live in Singapore.
- Shamik Mukherjee, vice-president of solutions and services for APAC at Motorola Solutions

However, his previous travels to Singapore had immensely helped with the transition. Having been familiar with the city, he highlighted how he found Singapore to be a nation that holds such a strong commitment in encouraging diversity – be it language, cultures, identities or traditions. All of which are so celebrated and have defined the Singaporean experience. Relating back to the culture at Motorola Solutions’ regional HQ, he said how it was a mirror of the city.

With such a diverse workforce, the office embraces the various cultures, identities, work styles and ways of communications. On that note, Motorola Solutions prides itself on creating events and opportunities to interact and work together.

He said: “Whenever you have an environment with such a diverse workforce, you may have challenges in communication and work styles. I think we put such a strong emphasis on reaching that diversity – to have that emotional connection and share a common purpose among colleagues.”

Through such events, it not only continues to build trust and common understanding, but also really engenders that very positive and productive teamwork that allows staff to achieve the great outcomes they need to. Also holding the position of country manager of Singapore, Mukherjee takes the lead with the company’s CSR events – one of which is the Yellow Ribbon Prison Run which sees 100 participants from the Singapore office. Each year, employees are given the opportunity to extend the invitation to family and friends to expand the Motorola community.

Beyond that, it provides employees a platform to interact in a less formal setting. “It gives enough time for people to get to know each other after working hours – and that creates the bond. Th at’s the other thing that’s important here, it’s not only just about professional communication, but the personal connections that help with the daily operations at work.”

Leading by example, he promotes openness, acceptance, diff erences and challenges within his team. With diversity in the workplace being a huge part of the culture at Motorola Solutions, work styles and communications are something that have become increasingly practised.

In fact, as a global company, Motorola Solutions has a strong commitment towards embracing and valuing the diversity of individuals. “We believe that when you can harness all of these unique perspectives and experiences across the staff , the mix is what allows us to uncover the unique insights and drive that innovation path.”

The journey forward

As one of the world’s largest manufacturers of circulators, Grundfos has a global staff strength of 20,000 with offi ces in Singapore, China, and more. Closer to home, its Singapore offi ce has nearly 190 employees with about 20 of them under its expat package. Gary Lee, chief HR specialist, global talent development, at Grundfos, shared three core business needs behind expatriation: certain skills that are missing in the local market; the need for the transfer of knowledge; and the importance of infusing the HQ culture into the local market.

Talking about certain skill gaps, Lee also highlighted that technical expertise is highly in demand with the water-pump industry being very unique. Elaborating, he said: “For example, even when it comes to the sales department, we look for people with technical expertise such as engineers. In fact, those who studied engineering might not even be the perfect fit because we don’t learn about water pumps in school. This comes with experience and international work.Not forgetting to mention, organisation acumen is also important.”

Implemented nearly 20 years ago, the current policy mandate sees a three-year period, which is renewable for the next two years. After which, expat assignees will need to relocate or head home. However, Lee mentioned the group is reviewing its mobility package to meet the evolving landscape and demands of expatriation. Lee commented: “The challenge with expatriation is that it can be a very expensive exercise. We need it to be beneficial to both the employee and organisation.”

In alignment with changing mobility needs, Grundfos saw a trend of expat assignments becoming more expensive. According to Lee, the challenge with expatriation also lies within the legality of paperwork. For instance, some expats can’t be away from their home country if they would like to keep their social security.

The challenge with expatriation is that it can be a very expensive exercise. We need it to be beneficial to both the employee and organisation.
Gary Lee, chief HR specialist, global talent development, at Grundfos

Other examples include expats needing to pay taxes in the host country, with pension and savings unable to be transferred back to the home country – making it a huge consideration for the expats. Not only that, many employees are less willing to commit to long-term expatriation and would rather engage in short-term assignments. For Grundfos, its assignment period varies according to the needs so as to be more costeff ective. Lee explained: “If it’s only just for a skill transfer over a period of six months – sure! However, if it’s about building an emerging market or leadership market, we do acknowledge that it’s a longer process and that’s when we’re more willing to invest.” Explaining the current expatriate package only caters to a certain demographic, he said: “As we grew to realise that even if some employees would like to relocate themselves, they might have family members who are opposing.”

“On the other hand, our expat package may benefit staff ’s family members and spouses, but what about single expats? How do we balance the ones that are single? ”

Another consideration for its new policy includes the time-horizon. With the current three-year period, Lee questions: “Will this still be relevant in the future?”

Of course, the review comes with its own set of challenges. Even with a revised modular framework, Grundfos might face legacy issues such as transitioning staff on the current plan to the new policy. In response to this, Grundfos aims to bring clearer KPIs for expats to measure the success of the assignments. Being on frequent short-term international assignments himself, Lee brought forward two other factors that play a huge part in ensuring a successful assignment – sensible policies and being clear on who is accountable for the assignment.

On sensible policies, he said: “Taking this as an example, if an employee is relocating to Singapore and asking for a hardship compensation, that simply does not make sense.” He added HR needs to stop “owning the expat”. “We need be aware that it’s the business that’s held accountable for the assignment – we are just merely facilitating the process. It is not another HR-led initiative as the business needs to see the value behind it.” When asked on the most common things that expats miss out on, Lee advised on having a very honest and constructive conversation with HR.

“Expats need to be clear on the KPIs and ask the right questions. Don’t be blind-sighted when you’re on the assignment. Have you prepared an exit strategy and next cause of action should you not be satisfi ed with it?”

Understanding that some expats worry on their career development, Grundfos makes it a point to work in tandem with its staff on next steps forward through recruitment search, and more.

Coming back home

Established in 1954 under the Cooperative Ordinance 1948, Bank Rakyat Malaysia is one of the biggest Islamic cooperative banks in Malaysia. In fact, the transformation in 2002 of the bank from a conventional banking system to a banking system based on Syariah has enabled the bank to record encouraging profits year after year.

As chief human capital officer of Bank Rakyat Malaysia, Farid Basir has extensive experience of international and local work. In fact, he only relocated back to Malaysia in 2014 after having worked in various countries such as the Philippines and South Africa between 2009 to 2014. He off ers a diff erent view on mobility with his reverse expatriation experience.

Commenting that he found repatriation to be a much more challenging transition, he said: “Upon repatriation, not only is home different from what we were now used to, but it is also different from what it was when we left, and defi nitely different from what we expect it to be like.” Noting how many might experience a reverse culture shock owing to these differences, he explained it could be more diffi cult to deal with than the typical culture shock because of many different reasons. “When it comes to work, you might expect certain roles for when you return.

However, the roles might not fi t with your aspirations – and that’s when it gets difficult. People should come back with an open mind, rather than a set of expectations.”

For Farid, Malaysia had changed significantly from when he left the country nearly nine years ago. He noted how people were now speaking faster and were more tech-savvy. While this could benefit the workplace, he offered a different perspective.

“We tend not to recognise the priorities immediately with such a fast pace of life. You need to take a step back to reflect on priorities – and this is something that can relate back to work too. “It’s important to priorities things. With so many people wanting to be so many things, they multi-task and tend to forget the reason of being. It might feel like you’re just going through the motions. At work, this might mean you don’t pause to reflect how things can be done differently if you face a challenge.”

On the topic of challenges, he drew special attention to what he termed as “host-sickness” – in which a returnee begins to miss things about their host country. For Farid and his family, they changed in ways that affected their core identity and values, as well as the way of perceiving and doing things when they were in South Africa.

With so many people wanting to be so many things, they multi-task and tend to forget the reason of being.
Farid Basir, chief human capital officer of Bank Rakyat Malaysia

He said: “Over time we made South Africa our home, and now that we are back, we do miss South Africa. We miss the weather, the rugby matches, the weekend camping and the hospitality of South Africa. Upon returning, we were surprised that we actually had to re-assimilate back into our home country as Malaysia had changed significantly since we left. The advancement in technology and economy growth has warped Malaysians to be technologically connected and accelerated in the pace of daily life.”

Apart from that, Farid observed the difference in work cultures across the different countries. Giving South Africa as an example, he mentioned how the locals focused heavily on equity when it came to business decisions. On that note, he said: “Don’t expect Johannesburg in Kuala Lumpur. This means, do not look for the same familiar customs, routines and communications as cues to direct our behaviour.

“The good thing about expatriation is change agility. I’ve acquired that through expatriation, and with mobility at an all-time high in the workforce today, that’s a skill we all need in the future.”

Photo / 123RF

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