Choosing Managers for Your Overseas Operations

The right local manager for your overseas office can boost international business.
Magazine Contributor
11 min read

This story appears in the October 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Before Mary Bonham opened a branch of her Sulphur Springs, Texas, plastics manufacturing company near London, she faced a slew of decisions. One of the toughest was who should run the new United Kingdom operation.

"You definitely need to have somebody who knows the [British] culture," says Bonham, owner and CEO of 20-person J-B Weld Co. "Going from America over there is quite different."

At the same time, previous stints selling overseas made Bonham wary of hiring someone from the U.K. "It's hard for them to become oriented to the American side [of the business]," she explains.

The answer to Bonham's dilemma? A bicultural manager--someone who understands the culture of both the home office and the foreign country, someone who is able to change hats depending on who they're dealing with.

Envisioning a bicultural manager is easier than hiring one. "They're hard to find," says Bonham. There are many places to look, from the home office to the country in which you're expanding, as well as executive search firms and other multinational companies.

Wherever you look, it's critical to the success of any overseas entrepreneurial venture that the search be made, and made successfully. "To be really effective," says Adrian Slywotzky, founding partner in Boston international management consulting firm Corporate Decisions Inc., "[global businesses] need people who operate in two languages and two cultures."

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.

Help For Hire

For her second hire, Bonham resolved to obtain a U.K.-born businessperson. Unsure where to look, she hired an executive recruiter with worldwide offices to find her London manager.

Executive recruiters are valuable sources for bicultural managers for several reasons. They may have offices both in your home city and in the overseas location. As a basic business practice, these headhunters maintain files of bicultural managers who are willing to move. Some even specialize in recruiting the culturally ambidextrous.

Hiring a headhunter relieves you of the time-consuming distraction of sifting through candidates, often at a considerable distance, while other work goes begging. It also gives you a contact who knows the local market. As Bonham puts it, "How am I going to know who to pick from in a foreign country?"

Headhunters are not without problems, however; cost is the main one. Some work on a retainer basis, charging a fixed fee in advance for filling the position; others are paid a contingency fee when a successful hire is made. Depending on the location, type of manager and time required, a successful search may cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, says Koblentz.

Another problem: If you're used to working with headhunters in the United States, you may be disappointed with the results of an international search. It's important to hook up with a headhunter who has good connections in the foreign country, stresses Slywotzky: "Most of [the headhunting industry] is still focused on the traditional U.S. market."

Bonham's headhunter eventually found her an English businessman who had the U.K. experience she was looking for and was willing to consider taking a job with her company because, among other reasons, it meant a shorter drive to work. That manager is working out fine, she reports.

All things considered, Bonham says next time she needs to hire biculturally, she'll go back to a headhunter. "It was expensive," she says, "but worth it."

Raiding Rivals

If you're conducting your own search for a bicultural manager, the best place to look is probably among the U.S. ranks of companies that have already been overseas. "[You'll find] a staggering number of repatriates who are looking for work after coming back to the United States with a lot of international experience," says Foster.

Finding a suitable candidate may be as simple as contacting the outplacement offices of large multinational corporations. These offices help find new jobs for departing employees, including former overseas managers who have come home and haven't reintegrated with their U.S. companies. You can also find management talent by reading and advertising in trade journals and networking at industry gatherings.

However you find them, these former international managers will likely be more numerous and more motivated than either managers in your home office, who may be satisfied in their current positions, or candidates in a foreign country, who probably have never heard of your firm.

School Ties

If you've used all these tactics and have been unable to find a suitable candidate, it may be time to go back to school. Many U.S. universities have large enrollments of students from around the world. And many of these students, after spending several years here pursuing their studies, are ready to return home, bringing with them both business acumen and an understanding of U.S. business culture.

Recent graduates may carry advantages such as reasonable salary demands and familiarity with current business theories and technology. But experts note they are likely to be short on practical experience and, after a spell back in their home country, may want to return to the United States.

Be careful, too, about hiring foreign students who are too Americanized. People who came here when they were very young may have no better understanding of foreign cultures than you do.

In some cultures, adds Foster, locals who have become Americanized are misunderstood or even resented. "You may have more luck if you don't send a Japanese-American to Japan," he says. "The Japanese will assume [these people are] Japanese, not American. And when it's revealed that they're American, the Japanese often have a problem dealing with that."

An increasing number of U.S. business schools offer international business management degrees; hiring one of these graduates may sound like the perfect solution. But many of these students want to work for and are heavily recruited by high-profile multinational corporations.

You may find, however, that even a student with a diploma certifying international business expertise isn't quite what you need, says Jacqueline Wasilewski, Tokyo-based president of Sietar International, a cultural education association. Some graduates have culturally generic skills that are a poor fit for an entrepreneur who needs skills specific to a single country.

After The Hire

Hiring a bicultural manager is usually only part of the solution. It's what you do after the job is offered and accepted that frequently determines the employee's long-term success.

"I'm convinced that even if you hire the right person, that's only the beginning," says Larry Rosenfeld, co-founder of Concentra Corp., a Burlington, Massachusetts, software company with offices in several European and Asian countries. "It's really [about] bringing that person up to speed on what [your company is] all about."

For managers transferred from the home office, the key may be for the business owner to set up in advance a way for the overseas manager to come home. Ask yourself before you even offer the job: What can I do with this employee in the home office in three or four years? Try to develop a useful, challenging position that will require the specific skills your employee has acquired overseas, advises Foster.

A company that doesn't find a good job for an employee who is returning home may not be able to recruit a U.S. manager to follow him overseas, Foster warns. To solve this problem, some firms ask expatriates to hire their replacements from the local population before returning.

Hiring locally creates another problem, however: how to integrate the new foreign employee into the culture of the U.S.-based firm. The most common response is to bring the new hire stateside for a stint of education and exposure.

"Although it takes a reasonable amount of time, it's very effective," says Slywotzky. "And you have somebody who's tricultural--they know their home country, they know the United States and they know the company culture."

That's the approach Bonham is taking with her latest hire. "The manager I have right now is really good," she says, "but I'm going to bring him to America this year and let him get to know the work habits of Americans vs. the work habits of the English."

If you can't find the perfect bicultural manager, don't despair. Two managers, each providing half the solution, may work as well, if not better.

Rosenfeld prefers to transfer one manager from the home office and hire another locally. The local hire provides the immediate cultural expertise. The transfer not only brings experience with the corporate culture but, as an outsider who isn't expected to understand local mores, can get away with things a local couldn't.

In Japan, for instance, Rosenfeld finds American transplants can sometimes circumvent the time-consuming Japanese relationship-building exercise. "Straight talk isn't appreciated from a Japanese," he notes, "but from an American, they'll often accept it."

Beyond Bicultural

Even if you succeed in hiring a bicultural manager, your search may be just beginning. That's because, increasingly, having expertise in two cultures isn't enough.

"The concept of the bicultural manager is outdated," says Wasilewski. "Organizations that are going to be effective in the 21st century are going to be global organizations. People in top management are going to have to have multicultural skills, not just bicultural skills."

A global manager is both less and more than a bicultural executive. Global managers have a smattering of knowledge specific to many cultures, rather than in-depth experience in a few. They may speak only one language fluently, but what they do have is an understanding of how to appraise and adjust to the requirements of doing business in a culture different from the one they're used to.

Global managers are needed because cultures themselves are becoming less distinct. "A Japanese manager coming into the U.S. to run a factory is probably managing a work force with a lot of Hispanics," notes Wasilewski. "It's not enough for that manager to be bicultural."

Going global may seem like a tall order, but more and more, it's what's required to succeed in today's competitive world.

On The Hunt

Butler International Inc.

110 Summit Ave.

Montvale, NJ 07645

(201) 573-8000, fax: (201) 573-8838

Egon Zehnder International Inc.

55 E. 59th St., 14th Fl.

New York, NY 10022-1185

(212) 838-9199

Korn/Ferry International

1800 Century Park E., #900

Los Angeles, CA 90067

(310) 552-1834, fax: (310) 553-6452

Robert Half International Inc.

2884 Sand Hill Rd., #200

Menlo Park, CA 94025

(415) 854-9700, fax: (415) 234-6999

Contact Sources

Berlitz International Inc., 257 Park Ave. S., New York, NY 10010, (212) 598-2556

Concentra Corp., 21 North Ave., Burlington, MA 01803, (617) 229-4600

Corporate Decisions Inc., 1 International Pl., Boston, MA 02110-2600, (617) 330-6890

Egon Zehnder International Inc., fax: (404) 876-4578

J-B Weld Co., P.O. Box 483, Sulphur Spings, TX 75483, (903) 885-7696

Sietar International, 1505 22nd St. N.W., Washington, DC 20037, (202) 466-7883.


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