Choosing Managers for Your Overseas Operations

Hiring From Home

Bonham's first attempt, transferring a manager from her U.S. office to the new U.K. operation, is the most common response, says Joel Koblentz, managing partner in the Atlanta office of executive search firm Egon Zehnder International Inc. "Generally, when an American company opens a foreign office, it tends to send one of its own to the foreign soil," Koblentz says.

This strategy offers entrepreneurs the advantage of installing someone who knows the goals, strengths and culture of the company. The new manager is already familiar to the entrepreneur, who understands his or her strengths and weaknesses. It's also likely to be easy to select a candidate since the search is limited to current employees. Finally, there's a good chance the candidate will take the job in order to gain interesting and potentially valuable international business experience, adds Koblentz.

There can be problems with transplanted U.S. managers, however. The big one is that he or she likely won't know how business is done in the foreign country. "The individual may arrive with the best intentions but find out there are vast cultural differences," says Koblentz. "And even if they speak the language, they may not have spoken it in a business setting before."

Another problem is what to do with transfers when they return. "Eventually, that individual will want to come home, no matter how successful," says Koblentz. "You must have a [job] for them to come back to."

Unfortunately, such a job often doesn't exist. "People come back from these overseas experiences filled with talent and benefit to their company," says Dean Foster, director of the worldwide cross-cultural division at Berlitz International Inc., a New York City firm specializing in corporate cultural sensitivity training and language instruction. "Often the company doesn't know what to do with these folks."

It's common for managers requesting a return to be told that there isn't a job for them back home. Other businesses place the international manager in a job that doesn't use any of the new skills he or she has learned. Either way is likely to result in the loss of a valuable employee.

For Bonham, the first answer worked--for a while. Her U.S. manager ran the U.K. office smoothly, helped by the fact that language was not an issue. But when this manager was killed after a short time on the job, Bonham again had to face the management question.

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This article was originally published in the October 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: From A Distance.

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