Leadership and expatriates. Factors for successful assignments abroad

Essay, 2014

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0




In a rapidly expanding business world, driven by the outcomes of ongoing globalization, the number of international operating firms increases and enterprises heavily rely on the expatriation of their employees to enforce their organizational goals even far away from its home country. (Holopainen & Björkmann, 2005)

Being confronted with many changes in their work as well as in their private life, expatriates face the challenges of persistence and success during their assignment (Black, Mendenhall & Oddou, 1991). These challenges are even bigger obstacles for success when the expatriate is assigned to a leading position. This means he or she not only has to deal with the personal performance and adjustment to the new environment but is expected to take over responsibility for a group of people and their task performance as well. The respective leadership tasks in expatriation additionally imply cross-cultural leadership in most cases. This takes leadership in an expatriate assignment to a whole new level.


Expatriates are defined as:

“…employees of business and government organizations who are sent by their organization to a related unit in a country which is different from their own, to accomplish a job or organization-related goal for a pre-designated temporary time period of usually more than six months and less than five years in one term.” (Aycan & Kanungo: 1997)

Globalisation and the permanent connection of international markets triggered a significant expansion of business relationships across cultures (Black, Mendenhall & Oddou, 1991). To reach strategic goals, enterprises require employees who possess the abilities to assure tactful conduction of international business operations (Lovvorn & Chen, 2011). Hence, the number of expatriates living abroad while fulfilling organizational objectives increased significantly (Black et al., 1991). This comprises expatriates ordered abroad by their company and self-initiated expatriates (Howe-Walsh & Schyns: 2010).

Expatriation is an important source for assignees for the acquisition of important work experiences as well as for the company to develop competencies of its future executives and improve their human capital. Also, enterprises that are unable to equip their executives with crucial international experiences are likely to lose the ability to enforce the company´s strategic interests abroad. Postings abroad can provide managers with unique knowledge and individual insights of foreign cultures. (Lovvorn & Chen, 2011)

This is especially true for employees that are responsible for the performance of a group of people, since their experience will likely trigger new approaches on how to lead effectively.

Performance abroad

An enterprise that decides to send an employee abroad in the role as a leading manager, presents certain challenges. First, the employee is expected to perform his individual tasks while also ensuring that operations are executed by the local subsidiaries as expected in the company´s home country.

It can be more difficult for expatriates to meet their requirements abroad because cultural values also affect and determine role expectations and the recognition of performance in the job (Ang et al., 2007: 1).

The expatriates general job performance is depended on his individual set of behaviours and capabilities that the company relies on to pursue its own goals. Expatriate performance can therefore be summarized as “the extent to which the expatriates job performance reflects behaviours that are relevant to the organisations goals” (Malek & Budwhar, 2013). The actual job performance of an expatriate is reflected by the effectiveness of his actions and accomplishments. Besides the accomplishment of everyday work tasks, performing leadership tasks and constituting a credible and reliable leader makes up a different and more difficult task for any expatriate in a leading position. Expectations on an expatriate´s performance and role behaviour most likely also differ between cultural settings. Therefore, expatriate leaders do not only face a new unknown group of subordinates but also their cultural baggage and coined personalities.

He is not only responsible for his own performance but also for the effectiveness of other people. The expatriate leader likely doesn´t know those people, their working methods and motivations as well as their individual and cultural background. Additionally to the personal factor of expatriation, the organizational structure might also be different from the one the expat is used to in his home country. This presents various challenges.

Leadership in cultural diverse settings

Being a successful leader in a global operating company requires the ability to adjust to different environments and the influences of different cultures and employees from foreign countries. This becomes even more evident when the leader does not stay in his home office and directs a virtual team but is send abroad to enforce the company’s goals on-site in a foreign country.

This situation presents various and more difficult challenges to the leader himself and his personal attitudes and abilities but also to the foreign subsidiaries and work colleagues. Research acknowledges that employees who are successful leaders in their home country are not necessarily as effective in a different country and work environment.

The cultural setting plays a major role here and is one of the main reasons for premature repatriation. Culture does not only influence the individual behaviour, attitudes and stereotypes that are relevant for an expatriate in the work place, but also the general constitution of e.g. a foreign subsidiary, customs and habits on the inherent business environment.


The challenges that expatriate leaders face arise on the one hand from their own personality and capabilities and on the other hand from the environment they face and the subordinates they are responsible for. The notion of what a good leader should be like differs across countries and cultures. They are seldom the same, and it is necessary for an expatriate leader to recognize the different perceptions and expectations and to adjust accordingly. The perception of the subordinates is highly influenced by their cultural background and the assumptions, stereotypes and beliefs it creates (Implicit leadership theory). This means, that good leadership in the case of expatriation is not only achievable by assigning a generally good leader to the job but also depends on the group of subordinates.

Culture plays a major role when it comes to cross-cultural leadership. Using Hofstede’s dimensions, there are two who likely are the most important ones to be considered by a leader on an expatriate assignment. Power distance - which describes the acceptance of unequal power distribution - is closely connected to hierarchy, the dealing with levels of hierarchy and the distribution of work. To know how to act and behave within a specific hierarchical system is crucial to perform the expected role as a leader and to establish oneself as role model and visionary that people follow.

This dimension is connected the dimension of individualism; which concerns the right of the individual compared to the group. This is important to the role of the leader and its power in this position. Individualism describes if a person defines itself by a group or individually, so this affects the social order of the work place. Therefore, a leader might traditionally not be appointed because of his achievements but because of his seniority and experience. This can be a serious obstacle for an external leader and influence his status and position. Individualism and power distance are highly depended on cultural rules and customs and should always be carefully observed by an expatriate leader.

Another important issue is the leadership style that is applied by the expatriate. Not every style might be applicable to the respective culture and work environment. Any expatriate leader has to carefully choose an appropriate leadership style.


Taking into account the challenges for an expatriate leader, we propose the following requirements for a successful posting abroad in a leading position.

The person that is chosen for the assignment should be cultural as well as emotional intelligent. This will affect the behaviour, motivation and knowledge creation. By fostering these abilities prior to the expats departure it might be easier for him to recognize differences and adjust successfully. This can be achieved by cross-cultural training and education and by generally creating cultural awareness. A leader that is sensitive to those issues and possesses the communication skills to convey his vision most likely achieves his goals easier.

By motivating the leader himself to succeed in the assignment, his behaviour can be influenced in the way that cognitive abilities to create knowledge and experience are enhanced.

Also, proper adjustment of the expat to the new circumstances of life is paramount to enable success in the first place and to keep up motivation.


Excerpt out of 7 pages


Leadership and expatriates. Factors for successful assignments abroad
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ISBN (eBook)
Leadership, Strategy, Human Ressources, Personalmanagement, Expatriates, International
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Anonymous, 2014, Leadership and expatriates. Factors for successful assignments abroad, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1036999


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