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Assignee Home Country Mentor Programs: Great Concept, Flawed Execution?

Published: Feb 6, 2015

Though international assignments today are perhaps more “tour of duty” than “relocation for fun or profit” compared to years ago, the high price tag is still the same. Yet the sticker shock doesn’t typically register until an employee repatriates—and then leaves for a competitor. It’s like losing your smartphone—there’s a steep replacement cost.

An often overlooked strategy to help counter this problem is creating an assignee home country mentor program (AHCMP). But if it’s so effective, why is it underutilized? More importantly, how can you use one to your company’s advantage?

INADVERTENTLY HELPING YOUR COMPETITION

As studies continue to show that a high proportion of assignees leave their employers within two years of repatriating, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. to see what this does to return on investment (ROI). Consider the following hypothetical, but common, experience:

A year after repatriating from Asia, “Steve” jumped ship. His firm’s management team knew he had acquired new skills and expertise, but Steve felt his attempts to make an impact were going unnoticed and that there was no real career path. He believed his colleagues saw him as “just back from his paid vacation in Asia” versus someone ready and eager to give back to the company that invested so much in him. An industry competitor is now benefiting from the experience Steve’s company paid for.

“This kind of turnover rate kills a firm,” says David Harrison, Penn State University Smeal College of Business professor of organizational behavior and HR management. “When they quit, they go to competitors in the same industry who value their overseas experience as helpful to their organization.”

So not only did the assignees’ companies subsidize their overseas engagements, they then have to work even harder to compete against them later.

GREAT STRATEGY IN NAME ONLY?

So your company’s on board with a “repatriation strategies for success” mindset. You’ve read all the articles you can get your hands on.  You’ve consulted experts; you've lobbied new ideas internally and got them approved. You’re fully on board with wise repatriation strategies such as:

  • Providing assistance to counter reverse culture shock, boredom, and readjustment difficulties
  • Planning and discussing expectations of post assignment career possibilities
  • Establishing a formal selection process to meet organization/individual goals
  • Maintaining strong, regular communication to remain connected to the corporate office/team
  • Requiring home leave visits to the main office to stay connected—rather than unrestricted leave allowances that can be used for vacations anywhere
  • Conducting post-assignment career planning with the repatriates at least six months before their repatriation
  • And, of course, establishing an assignee home country mentoring program … right?

A well-designed mentoring program may dramatically stem the tide of assignee attrition if done correctly. This low-cost, high-value effort needs only to tweak a few key elements for company success and improved return on investment protection. But why haven’t more taken the plunge for so powerful a program?

I’M IN CHARGE OF … WHAT?

Despite the benefits of AHCMPs, why all the talk and little action? Some reasons are pretty old news. One is time—most people already juggle too many priorities and work too many hours. Therefore, AHCMPs may look smashing on the drawing board, but lack of planning, execution, and oversight often keeps them right there.

What’s even more interesting is why these programs tend to flounder when attempted. Jan Rose, a principal of Capital H Group, told Chief Learning Officer magazine, “People lose interest. They don’t sustain relationships. People lose track of what the program is supposed to do, and it’s just not successful. There are obvious and not so obvious reasons for that. Often people get too busy, but people get too busy for any initiative. Mentoring program failure might occur because the program’s goals are either fuzzy or they’re all over the place.”

As every corporate culture is unique, so are the obstacles to AHCMP success. For instance:

Psychology. Mentors are trusted counselor/teachers—emphasis on trusted. According to Rose, addressing motivation and trust factors in the design stage of a mentoring program “can increase success rates as well as impact.”

If a corporate culture is very competitive, mentors may not wish to see their freshly minted assignee colleagues succeed or give them a leg up, especially if their own project or promotional opportunities are limited. Mentors may only half-heartedly assist with networking, opening doors, or communicating effectively—especially if the boss “volunteered” them.

An organization that addresses these factors can get much better results. Committed mentors who feel a sense of ownership—and whose performance in this role can be measured as part of their performance evaluation—can make a measurable contribution to the ROI bottom line.

Lack of Ownership/Oversight. A company stakeholder needs to have the time to not only design a program, but also monitor, track, and evaluate the AHCMP and assignee retention success. Improvements in retention can then be translated into bottom-line savings.

Generational Divides. Often HR will ask older baby boomers to mentor Gen-X and Gen-Y colleagues, who have very different priorities and hot buttons. If they see things or approach career paths differently, the mentor-mentee working relationship may be frustrating or dysfunctional.

Home-Country Attrition. Even if the repatriated employee stays with the company, who says their mentor plans to stick around? A common obstacle from which it is difficult to recover is the departure of one’s mentor. Assignees have even been known to cut assignments short and return home to secure a fulltime company position upon receiving a news flash that their “job prospect lifeline” has given two weeks’ notice. A solution to this, though it is more work, is assigning backup or dual mentors—of different generations, if possible—to counter mentor turnover in the ranks during or after an assignment.

Employee Self-Sabotage. An assignee may unwittingly sabotage him- or her by trying to be self-sufficient or independent of others’ guidance upon return. Post-assignment hubris could also be a factor, along with a lack of recognition of post repatriation challenges. Their attention may be so focused on their job that they neglect planning.

A successful AHCMP design can help the home country mentors address and counter such issues.

THE FEW, THE PROUD … THE MENTORS

Some experts say the difference between employees who repatriate well and those who do not is how they address “reverse culture shock.” Others confess it may really come down to just how well that individual can network. This is mission No. 1 for mentors.

A successful program needs to go beyond assigning a home-country mentor just prior to repatriation. An effective mentoring relationship is the main goal in any mentoring platform. It cannot simply be the random leader with the random assignee. Matching mentor with mentee must be done with a clear set of guidelines.

Of course, the best mentors are those who have volunteered for the role, who get a feeling of satisfaction from helping colleagues, and who have themselves returned from an assignment. Sometimes it can be helpful if more than one mentor works with an assignee, especially if one of the mentors is more experienced than the other.

Companies also need to address a mentor’s main question: “What’s in it for me?” AHCMPs can be tied directly to corporate leadership training. Benefits might also include:

  • Raising the mentor’s visibility within the organization
  • Expanding the mentor’s personal network of contacts through their assignee mentees
  • Practicing/refining listening, networking, coaching, feedback, and leadership skills

Practicing personal development—growing by growing others and growing the company. Adding mentoring achievements to regular performance evaluations clearly communicates that this is part of one’s job and not just an extra “nice to have.”

The best home country mentors communicate regularly, establish a friendship or bond, and keep the relationship’s business goals in mind at all times. They meet their assignee colleague during each home office visit to apprise them of changes within the organization, identify home country positions, and arrange discussions with the mentor’s contacts in the organization. This helps repatriates hit the ground running.

AHCMPs demand time, planning, resources, stakeholder commitment, training, oversight, and volunteers. It is easy to see why they rarely make it past the whiteboard!

To be fair, getting a successful program off the ground isn’t so intimidating, but there isn’t one template or generic blueprint you can follow either. The key is, you need to grow it only a little bit at a time. Here’s how:

STEP 1. DEFINE YOUR PROGRAM OBJECTIVE(S)

Avoid unrealistic goals. Make goals obtainable, so they are met and produce real changes in business operations. There can be many, so be prepared to adjust on the fly and reprioritize. Use too much formality, and you risk being seen as “HR pushing another feel-good directive;” use too little, and there’s no control. It quickly fizzles out.

STEP 2: KEEP IT SIMPLE

Most people try taking on too much too soon—or are under orders to do so. A successful AHCMP needs to start small with a pilot program encompassing a handful of assignees and mentors. The program population can grow after gaining more experience and working out any unforeseen challenges. Programs that have taken a proper amount of time to gather the appropriate volunteers and budget, and have piloted a small-scale effort will succeed more often before engaging in larger, companywide AHCMPs.

STEP 3: IDENTIFY AND PAIR YOUR MENTOR CADRE

Formal, informal, or a hybrid approach—what partnering may work best in your company culture?

Sometimes this is the greatest challenge and where mentor programs are most at risk of bogging down. Opinions diverge on the best approach to forming each individual connection. Some firms use an application and interview process with senior manager input. Others let employees choose from a pool of approved names; some pull names from a hat; still others purchase online matchmaking–style software to help match potential pairs.

A broad view is that a mentor program works best when the assignee has input. If the pair gets along and there’s no conflict of interest, the relationship will be secure. If it turns out they do not, then a switch should be made without feelings being hurt. When a relationship dynamic or energy is missing, partnerships tend to dissolve.

STEP 4: RESEARCH YOUR PREFERRED TRAINING OPTIONS

This process can take different forms according to culture, budget, and style. Options include discussing informally over lunch, formal classroom-style meetings, and hiring outside mentor consultants. Explain to each pair or team what “mentoring” in “AHCMP” means first, your senior leaders’ vision for the program, and why it matters. Also cover program goals, timing, boundaries, confidentiality, task identification, and setting expectations. Assignees might assume this person’s role is “to get to know me and get me a job when I return.” It’s critical to clarify with participants what the objectives are or are not and what to expect.

CHEAPER AND MORE REWARDING THAN FINDING GOOD REPLACEMENTS

There are no signs of a global mobility slowdown. A Towers Watson/Worldwide ERC® “Global Talent Mobility Study” found that 45 percent of global multinationals expect traditional expatriate assignments to increase through 2014, while only 18 percent expect them to decrease.

According to Penn State’s David Harrison, “It’s essential employers recognize and validate repatriating assignees’ international identity by involving them in international operations, giving them the chance to utilize their skills learned abroad while contributing to the organization.”

The big takeaway? AHCMPs are not essential, but they are part of several vital strategies in the overall repatriation/ROI effort. Absolutely, one can continue without an AHCMP. But alternatively, one can harness the potential of a progressive concept that

  • costs little,
  • can make a lasting, positive impact,
  • uses resources you may already have, and
  • needs only small steps internally to make it a reality.

As a last thought, consider the words of novelist, professor, and writer Junot Díaz: “Colleagues are a wonderful thing—but mentors … that’s where the real work gets done.”


The above article was published in Mobility by Tom Paton, a writer at NEI Global Relocation, in January 2015.

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