Itchy to go abroad? Put your motivations and constraints in the light!

Catherine Gayda & Bérénice Kimpe - International office

Jean-Michel Romann is Head of The Group Mobility Department at EDF. Twenty five people are working in this department to manage the different international mobility steps for 650 expatriates. Mr Romann will adress the challenges of an international mobility for all the stakeholders: the employee, his family  and the company.
Catherine Gayda/Bérénice Kimpe: Good afternoon, Mr Romann. The word “international mobility” can be understood very broadly and can be implemented in different ways: euro-commuting, expatriation, short assignments abroad… What does it mean for a company like EDF?

Jean-Michel Romann: It means having a professional activity outside of your own country. Thus we have bidirectional flows: from the headquarters to the subsidiaries and the other way round. Another characteristic is its time limits because it is necessarily linked to a specific mission, specific needs for the company. Beyond the simple definition, we can’t separate the mobility from the context in which it takes place: within a project, like the kick-off of a new site abroad, or within a career development to learn new skills.

As a consequence, there are two ways of identifying candidates for expatriation. If an expatriate is needed for a project, the search for candidates is initiated by EDF. According to the execution timetable of the project and especially according to the availability of local human resources, we identify our needs for personal resources and then write the job description: it will be displayed on the intranet and forwarded by all concerned business units.

In parallel, any employee who is interested in going abroad can take the initiative and express his wishes during the annual review. That’s the moment where we talk about the key achievements of the past year and about the future: goals and professional perspectives. Once this has been expressed, the employee joins the pool of candidates for expatriation: he will get a foreign assignment only if his profile fits with the needs of our subsidiaries and if he is “expatriation-friendly”.

CG/BK: This notion of “expatriation-readiness” is very interesting. It does mean that not everyone can be an expatriate. How do you check it?

JMR: Don’t forget that an expatriation is a real investment for a company. The risk of failure is real: to minimize the risk, we have to select the best candidate. To do so, we will check his skills and determine if the mobility project is aligned with the personal factors such as the professional goals, the family situation… Beyond the professional and technical skills, we also check his ability to adapt to a completely different environment, to a new country culture, to a new business culture.

We use specific assessment and self-assessment tools to evaluate the following abilities: the way people express their thoughts and ideas, the ability to adapt their communication style according to the audience they’re facing, their open-mindedness, their ability to modify their behaviour if necessary…

Of course these abilities are assessed in relation to the host country: indeed, a profile that is adapted for the US is not necessarily adapted for China. The international mobility is the only part of the HR activities where the employee’s personal and family situation is taken into account. We need to ensure as many success and security factors as possible for the employee and his family (partner and/or children). In some countries, the matrimonial situation or the sexual orientation can be a source of difficulties against which we warn them.

We make our employees aware that it’s important to exchange about their mobility project with their partner and family because it’s not only a professional choice, it’s a family one too. We have the partner ask the good questions regarding this mobility, especially if he is the one following his partner: how will it impact his own career? Which added value will it have for his own professional goals? How does he imagine living the fact that he is going to put his professional life on hold? We noticed that many of them use this opportunity to change their professional goals.

CG/BK: Can we say that the ability to be an expatriate is in our DNA?

JMR: Absolutely not! We assess this ability at one particular time. The employee will go through a professional and personal development that will change his ability to be an expatriate. We can be “expatriation-ready” at some point in time and not at another, and the other way round.

CG/BK: Once the employee is selected to go abroad, how do you help her/him prepare the expatriation?

JMR: The preparation is split into two parts. The first is related to the logistic and financial elements: exploration trip with the partner in the host country, mobility compensation, conservation of life standards, no gain/no loss rule, relocation support including the search for a flat, schooling, flight back.

We prepare then the employee and her/his partner for the specificities of the host country: language course, one or two-day intercultural workshop, health and security. For the latter, we involve our department of security: in some countries, the expatriate’s house and car must fill specific rules like armor protection or tracking system to geolocalise in real time our people.

CG/BK: By focusing on the expatriate’s safety, you remind us how important it is to think clearly about our own mobility criteria, especially the geographic ones. International mobility is not only a matter of crossing borders, it’s also a matter of psychological and emotional flexibility. Can you tell us about cross-cultural training and explain us why they are useful?

JMR: We have the future expatriates work on three main dimensions: culture mechanisms, impact reduction of culture shock, mobility steps and the related emotional states. We have them react on the host country culture and the stereotypes they may have.

However, the biggest part of the training consists in an individual analysis of the own reference frameworks, both cultural and professional, of their values, of their behavioural skills… We can only change our behaviour if we get some self-awareness and an understanding of the reasons underlying our behaviour. We need to adapt ourselves if we want to work efficiently with people from a different culture but the question is: what are our boundaries? That’s why some people are “expatriation-ready” for some countries and not for some other. We caution against any value judgement they may have towards the foreign culture: it’s neither better nor worse, it’s simply different. Beware of a potential arrogance from the expatriate who could feel empowered because he is sent abroad to transfer experience and skills: it can be detrimental to the team spirit!

Intercultural training is not a magic formula for a successful integration but it offers at least a first glimpse at the difficulties, mostly emotional, that future expatriates will face.

CG/BK: Cultural adaptation is a real challenge and expatriates are facing it a second time, when they come back home. They can feel like foreigners in their own country (see article).  It seems to be a critical period for them. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

JMR: It’s not easy for sure, but it’s normal. Actually, the word “return” is quite tricky because it feels like we come back to where we were before leaving. That’s not exactly true: we have changed a lot, so has the environment we left. We can’t really say that we come back to the starting point, it’s a misunderstanding. Here lies the difficulty. That’s why I’d rather talk about a new start than a comeback. Expatriates come back to the department of EDF they left but with many new achievements if their foreign assignment was successful. The difficulty is on two levels: when they go back in an environment they consider as trivial because not international, and when they need to market their international experience.

I would like to focus on the latter. I am frequently asked if an international experience has a real impact on the career. Honestly, it is very difficult to measure its impact on the professional and personal development, even it is true and represents a real enrichment. For sure, having successfully achieved a foreign assignment is seen by managers as a credible sign from the employee to realise a professional change. Indeed, he dared to go to an unknown environment and was able to adapt to it: if he did it once, he can do it again. Because of this projection based on a past behaviour, the manager will be confident in the ability of the employee to succeed in his new professional challenges. Many of them may be frustrated because they don’t see the direct “worthiness” of an international experience. But what they tend to forget is that it’s a great opportunity to deepen one’s self-awareness and to better understand one’s relations to others.

Career development can’t be step by step and must be envisioned on a long-term basis. An international mobility enables employees to step back from what they experienced: analysis of what they have achieved so far, the skills they developed, emphasis on some aspects of their path…

Let’s compare career planning with Lego: the international experience is like a brick with a different colour and form. It will be clipped on what has been already built and will modify the rest of the building.

CG/BK: We have just talked about how the employee should market his skills as a former expatriate. Is an international experience recognised by the company, on a more collective level?

JMR: Yes, of course. A company that aims at an international development has a real interest in recognising this kind of experience. It’s a treasurable asset for the kick-off or the development of new international projects.

At EDF, we are building a network of former expatriates: thus, we can call them up when a project starts abroad. Thanks to their expertise and their knowledge of the country in which the project takes place, they help generate ideas, they give some advice and contacts that are useful for the project success. Building this network of alumni also helps us map the international resources and skills: it’s a way of bringing them to light and confirming the middle- and long-term value of an experience abroad.

CG/BK: We are now at the end of our interview. What would be your last advice?

JMR: If you want to go abroad, ask yourself as many questions as possible and write them down. Don’t go before getting the answers to your questions or some advice: leave only when you know what awaits you! If well prepared, an international experience is always a very meaningful project.

CG/BK: Mr Romann, thank you for your time and good luck in your new functions as the Head of HR Department for R&D at EDF.

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