I am writing a course on International Management and that allows me to research and reflect on who a global manager is (and, indeed, how to prepare one). I think many people embark on global assignments with little preparation, which happened to me in the past, and only learn as they go along. Reflecting on my own experience, I think companies can get a lot more out of their staff if they prepare them ahead for such assignments: The problem indeed remains that this is still a fuzzy field and it is hard to agree what one needs to prepare on.
The most usual preparation is indeed to talk to someone who had a similar posting before. So, if you are being posted to China, you talk to an old China hand, soaking up as much as you can. This is useful, but if this is the only thing you do, which often is the case, such preparation can be counter-productive. Usually, this means that the presumptions of that mentor gets passed on to you, and unless you are lucky to have a mentor who learnt and reflected well, which is a rarity in the action-focused world of business, that's a very bad place to be.
The other thing to do is to read about the country, which, again, is very useful, but not sufficient on its own. This is because more you read that a particular nation is like something, for example, Indians have a different conception of time, it seems to stand out as a national idiosyncrasy. It is in fact useful to explore culture in general, and know that even one's own conception of time may appear peculiar to others, and that different people have different conceptions of time - and that Indian concepts of time (and space, and everything else) is one of those.
In a way, the best preparation for a global assignment is to learn see oneself with an outside-in perspective, and this is the most difficult bit. Whatever we do - talk to other people who had been in the 'post' before, or read about the country - it only reaffirms our inside-out view. If an Indian ever written a book about an expatriate manager living in his country - I am not aware of any such book but just using it as an example - that would, from the vantage point of the expat's own culture, seem chauvinistic, and it won't be widely available, at least not in the expat's own country and language.
I am aware of this problem as I have lived an expat manager's life: I have been posted in different countries and had my best years professionally during the time. However, I started with exceptionally bad advice, and have seen other colleagues suffer as they took that advice literally and behaved accordingly. Indeed, people who imparted that advice were smart, experienced and successful, but they let their own world view affect their advice. I also know how difficult it is to get to know a country without learning to read materials in its own language. I was lucky that my first outstation posting was in Bangladesh and I spoke the language: So I could read Bengali books and know about the country as it sees itself (and loved it). This is always difficult when an expat is trying to understand the country through his own language, as most people who would write in his language either share his own presumptions and experiences, or trying to write 'for them'.
I think it is important for all the global managers to remember that they are not just an ambassador for their own country or culture, which is an exceptionally challenging responsibility by itself, but are also lucky to belong to that very small group of people who are connecting the world. This is an exciting, very special, opportunity, and often you get this once in a lifetime. However, it is exceptionally hard: Going to live in another country and working there is nothing like being out there as a tourist or a conference delegate. Particularly in countries where relationships are everything - most of Asia, Latin America, Middle East and Southern Europe may fall into this bracket - holding a mirror to oneself and preparing for such assignments is extremely important. I am aware that this does not happen ever so often. This is exactly what is making me burn midnight oil and come up with something that may prepare these global ambassadors better.
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