How International Expansions Solve HR Problems

No matter the industry, your company’s presence on the international market is an increasingly essential tool for employee recruitment, motivation, development, and retention. This need is driven by the younger generations, who view an international career as a given in a globalised economy. But this expectation cannot be met by mere technicalities; true internationality is a status that has to be backed up by real content.

Section 1: What Companies Should Avoid

Technically right yet totally wrong

My very first job was at a multinational was a summer internship with Big Oil super-major when I was 19 years old. I was pursuing a degree in petroleum engineering and was offered a position on an ‘offshore’ platform off the coast of Louisiana. Offshore platforms are engineering marvels built to extract oil from some of the hardest-to-reach places on earth, so, naturally, this company marketed them heavily and included them in their recruitment materials. Suffice it to say I felt very lucky to have the opportunity, and even though I never expected to work deep in the Gulf of Mexico, I was promised a special experience. My training even included helicopter readiness, which involved a simulation in a swimming pool where I had to swim out of crashed, capsized helicopter. 19-year-old me loved it.

My dreams came crashing down on my first day of work when I realised just how broadly the company defined ‘offshore’. To arrive to my workplace, a small boat navigated narrow channels among endless fields of reeds poking out of murky waters. Larger boats could not navigate the shallow waters, which were no more than one-metre deep. We arrived at a small house on top of a metal platform about three metres above the water. That house would end up being my home that summer, which I shared with six others, nine if you include the small family of racoons that would show up from time to time. But I was ‘offshore’!

Expectations versus Reality

As disappointed as I was, I was determined to turn lemons into lemonade. But there was just not much work to do on the platform. Our job was simply to monitor existing machinery to make sure that the oil kept pumping out of the ground and going through the separation process. In effect, that mean taking a small boat to different platforms with large tanks, looking at their gauges, and writing down the numbers. It did not help that we had to wear heavy, fire-retardant gear in the 32-degree heat, but the real enemy was boredom. I did everything that was asked of me and more, but the lack of real tasks meant nothing I did affected the company in any meaningful way. I felt adrift during that ‘offshore’ summer.

My engineering career ended that summer. Even though I never expected to ride a helicopter to work, I did let my expectations fly too high, but the company repeatedly pushed them higher than they should have been. I learned nothing about engineering, and even though I could view the experience as a rite of passage, I gained little practical industry or ‘offshore’ knowledge. What I did learn, however, is how companies can drive away talent (I officially changed my major that September). Like ‘offshore’ platforms, ‘international’ projects can attract talent, motivate the workforce, and retain employees. But in order to reap the benefits of being on the international market, a company must first understand the younger generations and their expectations.

Section 2: Defining the Expectations of the Younger Generations

Who are they and what do they want?

The two youngest generations in today’s workforce were either raised by the internet (the Social Generation, born between 1997 and 2008) or spent their formative years around it (the Ambitionist Generation, born between 1985 and 1996).

The Social Generation is only now arriving to the workforce, and among their primary concerns are caring for the community, community formation, and the wish to belong, often at all costs. But their definition of ‘community’ is far broader than previous generations because they only know a globalised world. I recently spoke with a colleague’s nephew who is 17 years old. His English was quite strong, so I complimented him and asked him how he spoke so well. It turns out that he enjoys playing video games, and the games he prefers are online multiplayer ones that require wearing a headset and strategising with a team, and his team comes from more than four countries. This young man will enter the workforce with much higher expectations of himself and of his company regarding the international nature of his position.

The Ambitionists flummox businesses around the world. Their dominance, strong will, and aggression bears little resemblance to the generations before it. They are talented, quick learners, but they need to be this way due to their impatience. They are not impressed by large multinational corporations, they value a prospering local firm with a good image much more, because they want to own their own business and they cannot learn the relevant skills at a multinational company. ‘We employ 60,000 people in 30 countries around the world’ means nothing to them unless they are gaining skills that will improve their own marketability or help them start their own company. Thus, working at an ‘international’ company is not sacred to them unless it can improve their image or career prospects.

Section 3: Using International Expansions for Recruitment, Motivation, Development, and Retention of Talent

Keeping it Real during Recruitment

I understand why companies like to embellish the international nature of any position: it gets people through the door. 3B performs a lot of headhunting for its business partners because our personality-based solutions have no true peer on the market. During this time, we have noticed a lot of trends when it comes to international positions. My practice group’s projects, in particular, often require hiring someone for a position with ‘international’ or a ‘country director’ in its title. When we advertise a position that promises international experience, the number of submitted résumés goes way up. But we are very selective with the use of the term and only use it when the roles and responsibilities justify it. When companies embellish the ‘international’ nature of a certain position, it is like an applicant lying on their résumé.

The younger generations are wise to this trick that many companies attempt. They are, after all, very familiar with Instagram filters and Photoshop, so they have a healthy scepticism toward everything. To separate the wheat from the chaff, the top talent will always have a litany of specific questions about the position’s international components, such as language requirements, training, and travel time. There are, for example, countless ‘international’ jobs advertised in Hungary these days, but those are often call centre positions at shared services centres that cannot survive this type of questioning. If your company cannot fulfil its international promises, then you will exacerbate morale and turnover issues. But if your company is going through a real international expansion process, you will notice increased interest from quality candidates.

Motivating the Different Personality Types

Initiating an international expansion effort within a company will cause mixed reactions, so communication is paramount. If not handled correctly, some may even view the expansion as a threat. The four main personality types will each have a default reaction to an international expansion announcement:

  • Rulers can see the big picture will be well aware of the advantages of learning valuable skills surrounding international business. Many would prefer to be the big fish in a small pond, but if it comes down to it, they will not balk at the opportunity to improve their employability on the job market or their ability to start their own company.
  • Individuals will find the project to be new, unique, and exciting, so they will likely need the least amount of hand-holding among the bunch.
  • Supporters may be fearful of all the changes that come with an international expansion project. That is because supporters generally fear change and going from a local company to an international one brings about all kinds of changes. That said, it is possible to motivate Supporters by showing them that this communal process will bring about company improvements and career security for their colleagues, whom they care about.
  • Experts like systems, and therefore are also averse to change, but there are ways around this. An Expert can understand that an international project can be away to improve an increasingly crucial skill set. Moreover, they may also see it as a way to become more important to the company.

Again, careful communication surrounding the expansion is essential. Of course, how carefully depends on the personality type distribution of the people working at the company. That is why we conduct a company analysis during the screening phase: not only do we want to know if a company has the personnel to perform work needed for the expansion; we want to make sure that they are psychologically capable of staying with a company during the expansion process. If there are large gaps, we fill them via recruitment or development.

Development: A Rising Tides Lifts All Boats

They say that a rising tide lifts all boats, and just because it is a cliché does not make it any less true. In the case of an international expansion, it is imperative that owners invest in developing their team. Most relish the opportunity to learn the skills to conduct business at an international level. But like any valuable business skill, it cannot be learned in university. The only real way for employees to improve in this way by being tossed into the deep end. They will either sink or swim, but we always suggest development workshops so that employees feel prepared to navigate new waters.

A rising tide will also reveal which boats have leaks. If a company owner is investing in the development of their employees, they will see which employees are also invested in the company’s development. We have seen many examples of employees — even upper management! —who simply refused to develop their skillsets during this process. They opposed the international expansion at every turn. Although they all had their own unique reasons, they all had one thing in common: they did not want to move from their safe harbours to deeper waters.

Retaining Young Talent

While it is true that people will desert a sinking ship, the converse is also true: people will not abandon an accelerating one. If employees can see the company’s development, and in turn, their own development, they have very little incentive to jump ship. For the younger generations, this personal development is especially paramount, but the Social Generation and the Ambitionist Generation have very different reasons for staying onboard.

The Social Generation is a group that is relatively easily influenced.  They want to be part of something bigger than themselves due to their team focus. With the right messaging, we can also demonstrate to them that their need for stability is being satisfied in the long-run (for without the expansion, the company will surely die). Moreover, their willingness to follow the crowd can overcome any reservations, which lets their general trait of loyalty shine through, resulting in greater retention. Not surprisingly, it is their parents’ generation, the Diplomat Generation (born between 1974 and 1985), and the decision-making of that generation that Social Generation is against. They will mostly follow the lead of the Ambitionists, which means that for those who plan to retain their employees, it is critical to address the Ambitionists.

The Ambitionists, on the other hand, want to be part of something truly international because it is a massive boost to their image. Moreover, it also drastically improves their career prospects and gives them a chance to flex their natural leadership muscles. It is absolutely critical to get the Ambitionists onboard for an international expansion, as they have the most influence over the Social Generation. Since Ambitionists focus on profit, they know that an international expansion is a tremendous opportunity for massive increases in the company’s bottom line. To wit, the prospects that come with an international expansion may even cause an otherwise disloyal Ambitionist to stick around at the company for longer than they would have otherwise. We have seen this time and time again: an Ambitionist salesperson resisting their urge to leave because they know that the international market is the fastest path to a bigger commission.

No matter their motivations, the end result is the same: a company that starts a real international expansion can expect greater retention among its employees.

Conclusion

True internationality is not a technicality, it is a status. If you want the benefits of the international market, you have to do much more than pick up a client from Vienna or an employee from Texas. If you do not, your employees will see right through your ‘international’ façade, especially the younger generations who value authenticity very highly. Unlike multinationals, SMEs with strong international expansion plans are much better situated to combat this issue. With the right communication, they can make their employees feel invested in the project and the company’s success, thus solving various critical HR issues.

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