French, but having just relocated from the US to Switzerland, Marketing Manager Marlène Morin tells how expatriation can lead to real inner change.
People don’t change
“People don’t change”. How many times have each one of us heard this sentence? At work, during a talk at the family table, in a romantic comedy or between friends. “People don’t change”. This sentence can be followed by “they evolve” or “only their priorities do” or even “their behavior do”. Is this true or not? My guts tell me we will never know the answer to that question. Are people able to change? I do believe that at the end, it doesn’t matter.
What does matter in a company is that you need to change and adapt the organization to answer the challenges of your competitive environment. And as far as I know, a company is made out of people, who supposedly don’t change. So how do you cope with changing your company with the people that make your company the way it is?
How to combine a company’s need for change with people’s resistance to change
One of the solution that I have seen and experienced myself so far is expatriation. Indeed, while expatriation used to be perceived as sending people abroad to fill position that would have been unfilled otherwise, the new trend is to send employees to gain experience, understand globalization, get the best “best practices” of other countries and come back with a wider open-minded vision (MacLachlan, 2016). The number of expatriates is continuously increasing over the years and over 50% of the global companies have increased the number of abroad assignments (Harrison, 2016). These expatriates, once they are moving back to their home country, are said to be more adaptable, and are more likely to develop leadership and interpersonal skills (Linton, 2017).
On a personal perspective, moving abroad was one of my biggest challenges and one of the biggest changes I have experienced in my entire life. The way to see the work, the way to work itself, the interaction with the people and the interaction with another culture were priceless in my career path. And it was not only on a personal level that it changed something. I was able to bring new tools from my former country to my new country, I was able to make processes more efficient and the network I’m building is helping the overall company to be more aware of what’s happening.
The biggest positive change for both me and my company is actually the perception of the women within the workplace. I was against the community and the network and so on, as I thought only my work, regardless of the gender, would make me successful. My experience abroad taught me otherwise. Communities and networks in USA and Canada are very strong and I saw the benefits of gathering people around one cause. So now that I’m back, I’m building it on the global level, with our Global HR, to recruit, retain and better promote women at Sika (my company). The overall change was possible due to my personal change (and the willingness of my company to listen to me and to support me), which was due to my relocation. To go back to the purpose of this paper, expatriation of one person is one way to change the company.
Is this that simple?
It would be very naïve from my side to claim that changes can be made only by sending people away and bring them back. There is much more than that in the process. And it then goes back to the theory of change management. The most critical steps of change according to me, and I’m referring to Kanter here, are the vision, the strong leader role, the communication and the institutionalisation of change (Burnes, 2017). All the other steps are important as well but without the vision and the leader to push it, it will go nowhere. And without the communication and the institutionalisation of change, it won’t last.
This is very true for expatriation. If the company doesn’t explain the “why” of expatriation and doesn’t support it strongly, it will fail as this is not an easy process to put into place. Between the different regulations, the time of adaptation of the employee and her or his family, it is sometimes easier to recruit in the local country. And if doesn’t communicate to everyone the benefits of it and doesn’t put clear long run processes, it will fail as well. As with every change, expatriation is an investment that must be managed.
Personal change can be linked to organizational change, and vice and versa. Expatriation is one great example. It is not questioned here where we need to discuss the innate and acquired ability of an individual and his or her propensity to change but rather to provide insights on how a company can lead the change in a creative way. When an organization sends abroad an employee, a change will happen, for sure. It is then the duty of the company to make it beneficial for both parties, by managing this “once in a lifetime” change.
Burnes B, 2017. Managing Change (7th edition), Harlow UK, Pearson Education Limited. P. 132
Harrison M., 2016. “The decline of the traditional expat?”. ECA International. Available at: https://www.eca-international.com/insights/articles/may-2016/the-decline-of-the-traditional-expat
Linton I., 2017. “The Importance of Expatriates in Organizations”. Bizfluent. Available at: https://bizfluent.com/info-12072421-importance-expatriates-organizations.html
MacLachlan, 2016. “The Best (and Worst) Things about an Expat Assignment”. Communicaid. Available at: https://www.communicaid.com/cross-cultural-training/blog/living-and-working-abroad-the-expatriate-experience/