It is observed that the lifespan of most expatriate assignments is about 3 to 4 years.

During this time, a senior level expatriate would be expected to contribute significantly to the business and/or institutional development. Yet, this drive for success could derail the expatriate from making a sustainable impact. It could well be the biggest pitfall in an expatriate’s career.

My early forays as a senior level expatriate to set up a Corporate Leadership Institution were filled with an adrenaline rush to prove that I was the right choice among competing candidates.

As a quality hire, I had to demonstrate Return on Investment (ROI) quickly. It didn’t help that I was sensitive to such reactions during my first week on the job:

  • Interesting they hired a Chinese Singaporean as Westerners who are known for doing this type of work.
  • How is it that you are so young (actually I was already 38 then) and doing culture transformation?
  • We are here to learn from you as we were told you can bring global best practices.

The above reactions only created self-doubt and anxiety. It didn’t help when some new colleagues were awed that my first career foray was in policing! Did they send someone to police what we were doing?

My first misstep was with my initial attempt to recast the strategy of the local country teams. My mandate was to consolidate and develop a global strategy for talent acceleration. This would enable organization-wide synergies in terms of aligning human capital development with the corporate growth agenda. More importantly, it would drive efficiency costs.

When I joined the organization, each local team had full autonomy for driving in-country requirements. They had little if any incentive to change the way they worked.

With much haste, I pulled together all senior management of the local teams. I communicated the key strategic initiatives we should drive across the whole organization. They were requested to drive implementation of the strategy in-country. There were a few questions which I parried easily. At least I thought I did!  I finished the meeting with a sense of achievement.

However, it didn’t take long for the real resistance to surface. A few weeks had passed and there was little progress seen in each of the markets on our (ahem, mine) agreed strategy. So I sent multiple emails. They replied that they needed to consult their local management. Some of the replies required me to repeat the details of the strategic roadmap. The passive-aggressiveness became obvious each time.

It became most obvious when the local lead of our biggest market responded that they had competing demands from their local stakeholders. Our corporate agenda was a distant secondary priority given the lack of local resources.

This was indeed an awakening call!

It then dawned upon me that my approach to formulating and rolling out the strategy had daunted the local leaders and their teams. In my haste to drive change, I had excluded them as collaborative partners and just treated them as extra pairs of hands

One insight from Gestalt psychology is that individuals do not resist change. They only resist change imposed on them.

With this in mind, I began to engage the local leaders and their teams differently. We spent more time upfront to uncover what would be possible in each market, what capabilities could be leveraged on and extended to others, and how things could be done differently yet aligned to the overall strategy requirements.

In this process, I began to appreciate the diversity of talents across the local teams. In fact, they were committed to lifting the game in our human capital development agenda. What was different was the expression of their commitment. Some wanted hands-on support while others preferred to have a sounding board.

In time, we learned to synchronize our regional-local strategy formulation and implementation.

It took about 18 months for us to set up the Corporate Leadership Institute with tailored regional programs and local adaptations. In the midst of all this, the distinctive characteristic of what we had established- synergy- emerged.

In summary, these were the few lessons I learned:

  • Shaping strategy is an engagement process to mobilize minds and create a commitment to the desired objective.
  • Making change happen requires adapting implementation approaches to context – business environments, geographical cultures and internal capabilities.
  • Leveraging on talent is an abundance mindset to know that the teams we work with possess composite strengths that can be uncovered for synergies.

Most of all we need to be sincere in our actions to serve the need of others and not as a by-product of serving our own needs. Our colleagues will sense if our actions are selfless and react accordingly in response.

As an expatriate hire, my entry into the organization was as an expert who had done it and was there to show the way. In the end, I learned that value is a collective alignment of interests in service of institutional purpose.