International Business – Can Americans Cope

The world may be flat and international companies may believe that they know all there is to know about business overseas. Nonetheless, the recent “lead paint” problems with China would suggest otherwise. Mattel may be saying “sorry” to the Chinese, but the real question is “where was the on-site management in the first place?” Most likely enjoying their “perks” instead of minding the store.

Establishing an international operation or assigning personnel to an existing one requires planning and development that is generally overlooked. Having spent the past 25 years watching American companies fumble overseas, I’ve been fascinated with the trials and tribulations of expatriate living. International assignments require both savvy business acumen coupled with the knowledge and understanding necessary to live and function successfully in a foreign environment. A compensation system based on performance rather than greed might also be useful.

There are several reasons for this:

1. American companies continue to think of themselves as American, not multinational, thus assignments overseas are not viewed in a strategic totality, but rather as a nuisance that must be dealt with from time to time.

2. The majority of the literature on the subject appears in personnel and/or training development magazines, thus the key decision makers in a company are not exposed to the problem on a regular basis.

3. The cost of establishing an in house development program is a visible budget item and considered high, relative to the numbers transferred each year. Thus picking consultants (one from column A, one from column B) to present a less than integrated approach is seen as a quick and cheap fix.

4. Then there is the attitude displayed by company and individual alike that” no one tells me how to act overseas, I’m an American, I’m great, I know all there is to know, they need me and if they don’t like it they can lump it.”

5. Lastly, compensation programs not tied to performance but linked to in country costs and keeping up with the “Jones”, defeats any real incentive to produce.

Succeeding in the international marketplace is not as difficult as the statistics would make it appear. American companies need to look at expatriate assignments in terms of a strategic long term focus – not as an extended vacation.