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CASE STUDY 115 Should an entrepreneur return to her old company and take over her boss’s job?

RECOMMENDED 120 When marketers compete on metrics, they produce a lot of uninspiring sameness.

LIFE’S WORK 124 Primatologist Jane Goodall on persuading people to change by telling stories

Experience
Managing Your Professional Growth hbr.org

MANAGING YOURSELF

Making It Overseas

Developing the skills you need to succeed as an international leader by Mansour Javidan, Mary Teagarden, and David Bowen

W
ILLUSTRATION: PIETARI POSTI

hen Alan, a rising star at a U.S.based manufacturer, arrived in Beijing to take a position as the general manager for consumer products in China, he was energized and excited. He’d been charged with leading the firm’s expansion in what his bosses kept telling him was the fastest-growing market in the world. Though his predecessor had warned him that some internal tensions were interfering with the company’s

growth efforts in the country—in particular, that marketing and sales were making promises that the operations and distribution groups couldn’t meet—it seemed like a relatively easy problem to resolve. All Alan had to do, he figured, was to better integrate the different parts of the organization in China. He’d read that the Chinese tended to be collectivist in their thinking, inclined to prioritize group interests. So he

decided to urge his direct reports to focus more closely on the overall good of the company and tackle problems together. In his first meeting with his function heads, he emphasized the need for better cooperation and established a cross-functional team to get marketing and operations on the same page. The new team expressed hearty support for its mandate, which was to identify the reasons for the lack of coordination and develop recommendations for how to remedy it. The members met at least once a week and made all the right noises about their plans for change. But 60 days into the effort, coordination remained poor. The team members had agreed on some general goals but had never committed to any specific action or target or held one another accountable for improvements. Instead, in respectful exchanges, they constantly reminded one another that while cross-functional coordination was important, each function also had to deliver against its own objectives. To Alan’s chagrin, turf protection in China was stronger than anything he had ever seen back home. And before long his enthusiasm began to give way to frustration. Alan essentially withdrew, both in the office and at home. He lost interest in the Chinese culture. He took a dislike to the local food and preferred to frequent Western restaurants and clubs. Even though he’d far exceeded expectations in his previous roles back home, he started to question his competence. He was failing at a highly coveted assignment—one that was fairly April 2010 Harvard Business Review 109

EXPERIENCE

Plenty of smart, talented executives fail spectacularly in expatriate roles. straightforward and was supposed to do so much for his development. Sure enough, Alan was soon called back to the States, and he has since given up his global ambitions for good. As it turns out, Alan’s employers had sent him to Beijing for the wrong reason. They’d assumed—as is typical—that a good track record at home is a predictor of success in the global arena, and that exposing high performers to new cultures will set them on the path to becoming effective multinational leaders. To a point, those things are true. We agree that moving people around the world is vital to developing global leadership capabilities. But it is seldom enough. Plenty of smart, talented executives like Alan fail spectacularly in expatriate assignments, even when they try their best to understand local cultures and fit in. Assigning an important overseas post to the wrong executive—one who doesn’t have the propensity to learn and succeed in a new and different...
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