Expatriate support – when mentoring matters most

Sue Shortland explains how mentor and sponsor arrangements can provide a crucial element within expatriate support initiatives.

Sue Shortland explains how mentor and sponsor arrangements can provide a crucial element within expatriate support initiatives.Employers selecting assignees to live and work abroad are increasingly coming to recognise the importance of seeing the posting as a cycle one that requires attention to competency identification and development, underpinned by training, from selection stage through to repatriation. However, being away from home often prompts expatriates to feel that they are suffering from out of sight, out of mind` syndrome. Efforts to select and train assignees appropriately can be undermined if support is not provided throughout the posting. The aim here should be to enhance productivity, develop individuals and improve their career prospects within the sending organisation upon return home.Academic research has indicated that an&#x;international assignment&#x;is no guarantee of career advancement or success. In today`s turbulent world, careers are less likely to be bounded within the sending organisation; rather, they have become boundaryless` international talents are highly portable. Expatriates are concerned as to whether or not there will be a future for them on repatriation either within their own organisation or another that values their newly-acquired or developed international competencies. For the sending organisation, the preferred option is surely to retain their expensively deployed international human resources. Expatriates who feel that they have been out of sight, out of mind` are more likely to look elsewhere for career advancement on return home an expensive loss to any sending organisation.&#x;&#x;&#x;Mentoring` is frequently talked about as a means of support and of retaining employees, but it is not always instituted effectively. Mentoring arrangements are often undertaken as voluntary partnerships between individuals, whereby senior practitioners take under their wing` more junior colleagues in an informal and mutually rewarding developmental relationship. For example, such arrangements may develop naturally within organisations between colleagues, or there may be arrangements via professional bodies whereby willing individuals may contact likely partners. In this way, networking opportunities can be exploited usefully by individuals within and across organisations and institutions. But is this enough to retain international assignees on repatriation?Mentors versus sponsorsTo evaluate the role that mentoring plays within international assignments, the starting point is perhaps to consider drawing a distinction between mentoring and sponsoring, as the terms are frequently interchanged, but mean different things. A sponsor may be defined as one who vouches for or who is responsible for a person, whereas a mentor is a wise and trusted counsellor. In the international assignment cycle, where support is crucial to maintaining links, communications and successful repatriation, the voluntary nature of mentoring may be thought to leave support rather to chance. As such, more formal sponsorship may be required. Of course, a mentor and a sponsor may turn out to be one and the same but if organisations wish to be sure that links are maintained, a more formal and measured approach may be required to underpin any form of voluntarism.Sponsors who are appointed to maintain links with expatriates (and their families) must be willing to serve in this role. Sponsors should be at a senior level within the organisation as this enables them to have knowledge and understanding of career opportunities both in the home and host locations and advise on them accordingly. They should therefore be involved in the career management process and be sure to follow organisational communications guidelines. To ensure that they take their role seriously, their performance appraisal should also encompass their sponsoring duties and performance in executing these. Ideally, the sponsor will be in the home location and, in addition, the employee will have a local mentor who can guide them through the cultural issues within the receiving country and organisational unit.Sponsors (and/or mentors) need to be involved throughout the expatriate cycle i.e. from selection through to repatriation or next assignment this raises issues of continuity should the sponsor leave the organisation or change jobs within it. Arrangements must be in place to ensure continuity with alternative personnel. However, employees too must understand that they have a part to play in their own career management they cannot expect sponsors/mentors to do it all for them; good communications between the parties is essential in developing this understanding.A strategic approach is required in supporting employees and their families, with the issue being promoted from the very top of the organisation. Support initiatives are crucial to success, whether expatriation is frequent, infrequent or simply takes place occasionally within organisations. Sponsoring and/or mentoring arrangements need to be integrated within global career management systems, written within assignment policy documents, and need to be specifically highlighted within repatriation procedures, with all of these actions underpinned by strong communications.The benefitsSponsorship and mentoring support should help to improve the retention rate of returned assignees and also attract new assignees to undertake an international assignment. The communications element of the mentoring/sponsoring arrangement can help to promote knowledge sharing and thereby lead to the efficient and effective use of international competencies reflecting in the bottom line of the organisation. For the assignees themselves, the support delivered via sponsorship and/or mentoring can help the employee to step back from the experience to assess the fit between their new-found skills and corporate requirements.They can also be supported in developing strategies for using personal and business experiences and in reconnecting with people on return. The support should also help them to identify new and enhanced skills and provide suggestions as to their proper application.Family issuesThe spouse and family have a major impact on assignment success, and any sponsorship or mentoring arrangements should take this into account. Although it is not common practice, ideally mentors and/or sponsors should be linked to the spouse so that s/he can also benefit from career advice. Locally based networks of contacts can also prove immensely valuable in this regard. Spouses may view the international assignment as a career interruption, a career shift or launch pad to a new career. The value of both mentoring and sponsoring arrangements lies in helping spouses to have a positive career orientation and therefore to help manage career change, rather than any career interruption acting as a drag and a negative influence on the assignee and thus jeopardising the assignment.In conclusionCareers comprise a sequence of work-related activities to address both personal and organisational goals. Some of these are under an assignee`s control or the control of the spouse; others are not. Although very few people today can expect their employment to remain with one employer throughout their working life, they can and do expect to take ownership of their careers and to receive support from their employer in managing them effectively. International mobility provides an opportunity to enhance competencies and use them to both organisational and personal benefit. Organisations that support their employees and their accompanying partners are likely to reap the benefits in terms of enhanced productivity flowing from career satisfaction and the effective deployment of skills and talents. Mentoring and sponsorship arrangements, as part of a strategic support initiative, underpinned by communications, can provide the key to expatriate success.&#x;&#x; 2007. Article taken from pages 8-10 of the summer 2006 edition of&#x;Re:locate&#x;magazine, published by Profile Locations, Spray Hill, Hastings Road, Lamberhurst, Kent TN3 8JB. All rights reserved. This publication (or any part thereof) may not be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of Profile Locations. Profile Locations accepts no liability for the accuracy of the contents or any opinions expressed herein.