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Re-entry can be hard
In 2006, Lisa Lord moved to Heidelberg, Germany, to set up a new talent-management team for software giant SAP AG.
Ms. Lord had been working in the U.S. for the German company for two years and was eager to move up the ranks. But a department reorganization split her duties, and by June 2007 she was back in the U.S. with no clear next position waiting for her at SAP.
Spending a few years overseas can vault ambitious employees into senior leadership positions. But companies aren’t always prepared when those workers return home, veteran expatriates and executive recruiters say. Often, the right domestic jobs aren’t open, or management fails to recognize and reward the skills developed during the time abroad, they say. The resulting frustrations can cause some managers to stumble, and even send some out the door.
“It’s a brain drain,” said RJ Heckman, the president of executive-recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International’s leadership and talent consulting business.
Companies take steps to prepare for returning employees, offering career planning, sponsorsand opportunities to connect with senior leadership. Yet placement experts and headhunters say few firms and returning managers are doing enough to ease the transition.
A 2012 survey by human-resources consulting firm Mercer found that 57% of 335 North American company respondents planned to increase long-term expatriate assignments—ranging from 2 to 5 years—through the end of 2014. There is no firm measure of turnover following an overseas assignment, although studies suggest between 8% to 25% of managers may leave a company after returning to the U.S.
“Nobody really cares about your experience,” says Brian Walker, who completed five overseas assignments, including stints in Indonesia and China, in operations and human-resources roles at Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Each time he returned to the retailer’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters, Mr. Walker says he missed the responsibility and authority he had abroad. Without a seat at key meetings or a voice in hiring decisions, he quickly raised his hand for another expat stint.
During his last international assignment for the company, in Hong Kong, family issues pulled the 46-year-old back to the U.S. But Wal-Mart didn’t have a domestic job open for him “that would really excite me,” he says. He took a job at Kimberly-Clark Corp.’sinternational division, where he is now vice president of human resources, in Dallas.
Wal-Mart didn’t provide a comment for this article.
Managers and executive recruiters say management in the U.S. can be slow to offer returning workers opportunities that put their new skills to the test.
“Companies send out company men and women, [and] these same people return as entrepreneurs,” says John Touey, a principal at executive search firm Salveson Stetson Group. Yet once back home, “all of a sudden the pace of decision-making is slowed down. They have to get 10 signatures to get a project off the ground.”
Even top executives can have a rough re-entry. John McCarvel lived in Asia for 18 years, eventually joining footwear company Crocs Inc. in Singapore. In 2010, he moved to company headquarters outside of Boulder, Colo., to take the chief executive post.
Mr. McCarvel, 57, says he still sometimes feels like a “foreigner” at the office, perplexed by office politics and gossip and what he sees as a lack of collaboration compared to what he witnessed abroad. He says he has thought about leaving the company and going back to Asia.
“Some days, I find…American business culture to be extremely difficult,” he says.
Losing a manager following an overseas stint can be a wasted investment. Ed Hannibal, a partner at human-resources consultancy Mercer, estimates that it costs a company nearly twice an executive’s $300,000 annual salary to send her from the U.S. to Shanghai for a year.
Executive recruiters and global business professors advise workers taking international assignments to maintain their social capital back home by making regular visits and scheduling video calls with colleagues and bosses. Newly repatriated managers should also volunteer to work on projects and share wisdom on life abroad with co-workers planning a similar move, says Mary Teagarden, a professor of global strategy at the Thunderbird School of Global Management.
At Crocs, Mr. McCarvel says he keeps tabs on workers just back from overseas, emailing and dropping by to check in. He also urges longer international assignments—workers might feel more ready to come home after three to five years, he says, whereas those on two-year assignments often spend their second year worrying about what comes next.
When Ms. Lord, the former SAP manager, returned to the U.S. from Germany, her previous job had been filled, and she was offered project work at SAP.
“I said, ‘look, this isn’t enough for me,'” and triggered a pre-negotiated severance package, she says. SAP wouldn’t comment on the specifics of her case, but in a statement the company said it retains 90% of overseas assignees.
Ms. Lord, now a vice president for talent management with global biopharmaceutical company Shire PLC, says her time in Germany was among the best experiences of her life, both personally and professionally.
“I was way more valuable to my next employer as a result of that experience,” says the 51-year-old executive who works in Shire’s in Wayne, Pa., offices.
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