Global Mobility in Succession Planning Part 1: Using Expatriate Assignments to Develop Global Leaders

By: Daniel Russell

Welcome to the first installment of our three-part series on developing global leaders. In this post, we discuss how to use expatriate assignments to develop global leaders. Part two will address individual development planning. Part three will discuss handling cross-cultural adjustment in managing global assignments.


Developing global leaders is a key challenge for organizations today. In fact, many of our clients say that the lack of global leadership capacity hinders their ability to capitalize on international business opportunities such as entering new markets. However, simply working in a global firm isn’t enough to develop legitimate global leadership ability. Even in large global firms, the vast majority of activity (e.g., R&D, production, and management) is domestic and takes place in the “home” country. Therefore, most interactions are local.

Most senior business leaders of multinational corporations value global experience as necessary to developing leaders. In fact, many of our global clients say that an expatriate assignment is a requirement for being promoted into enterprise leadership positions. Decision makers in organizations recognize that the knowledge gained living and working abroad provides invaluable experience that can’t be attained in other ways. Moreover, research and practice tell us that global leadership is best developed through experiential learning. We also know that it takes at least three months of fully living in a new geography to genuinely appreciate the nuances of values, politics, and history of a new culture—and how those affect the business. Living abroad also improves creativity and abstract thinking broadly. Merely travelling extensively doesn’t produce nearly the same benefits.

While many HR and talent leaders often struggle to manage global mobility as an executive development tool within organizations, there are some who are doing it well. This was addressed last month at the 32nd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology. In a discussion titled “More Than Taxes: Managing Expatriate Talent,” panelists addressed how to better leverage global assignments for purposeful senior executive development. Below are the key take-aways:

  1. Clarify global development goals. We have heard many leaders say things like “She’s not ready yet. We need someone with experience in Asia.” By having geographically specific yet developmentally vague experiences in mind, companies may be creating bottlenecks in the talent pipeline. This problematic perspective results in a failure to develop the global leadership capabilities needed for the future. Companies leading in this area are careful to first define the developmental goals specifically related to the role—and then to think creatively about the various global experiences where these goals can be met. For example, one organization delineates specific development goals, then asks growing leaders to practice them in four different types of businesses and markets—emerging versus mature and turnaround versus growth.
  2. Track leadership talent. While most organizations keep track of their top talent, the best companies ensure that information related to mobility and developmental needs of leaders is kept current. Employee mobility preferences can change quickly. It’s important to work with leaders to help them understand what global assignments are available, as well as offer coaching about how various opportunities can work with different personal and family constraints. Likewise, talent management professionals can work with developing executives to maximize the match between the individual’s developmental needs, career preferences, and available global developmental assignments.
  3. Track global opportunities. Many organizations view the global mobility function as an administrative exercise, in areas such as taxation, compensation, and global benefits. Therefore, most of the talent professionals we talked with said they didn’t know about expatriate assignments until the person was already in the field. One talent professional shared that the global mobility group actually reached out to him to ask that he become more involved in preparing expatriates for deployment. While talent professionals often have access to the list of high potentials or top talent, they rarely have advance knowledge of global roles available for developmental assignments. However, one executive development leader shared that she works closely with the HR business unit to get lists of global development assignments to use during talent review meetings.

Keeping these three factors in mind, organizations will be well positioned in their efforts to develop global leaders.


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