Global Mobility Professional’s Lessons Learned
By Benjamin D. Ivory
My wife and I relocated to Prague in December 2012. I am what I call a late-bloomer expatriate. Over my 40-year career in the relocation industry, I have traveled extensively, but this was my first experience living and working outside of the United States. When the opportunity to lead our growing EMEA center as its managing director in Prague arose, I raised my hand to volunteer.
I started in the relocation business at a very young age. In the early days, I personally moved families across the country in the U.S. Later, I managed corporate accounts, developed global provider networks and helped write industry standards. I have been the doctor for clients relocating, but more recently, I have also been the patient. I have tried to use my most recent experience in Europe to learn more about what makes a successful assignment, including identifying a few critical elements for individuals and their employers that contribute to the success of the assignment. I would call these my top “aha” moments.
I believe the employee and the employer have unique objectives with an international assignment. For the employee and family, their hope is that “magic happens”— making new friends and learning about a new culture. In return for the costs, the employer expects that the assignee achieves an important business objective and produces an acceptable “ROI” (Return on Investment). In my case, I wanted a challenge and felt I had a unique window of time with my family to make it work. I did hope for some “magic.” I certainly saw the opportunity to personally experience the relocation process.
As an assignee now finishing up a three-year commitment in Prague, I consider my (including my family’s) experience very positive. At the beginning of my assignment, I put a lot of importance on being in a safe, comfortable, and healthy environment. (My good friend Anne Copeland, who helps families on the move, reminds me that this follows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.) Fortunately, Prague has proven to be all of these. It must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is extremely safe, and because Prague is a walking city, we have found is a very healthy place to live. While safety and health are very important, I found that they are not enough. I learned that it was more important to connect with others, including colleagues in the workplace and others in a non-work environment. In our case, this required more effort than I expected
Our office has grown to 60 employees, most of whom are young professionals. They are very global and represent the following nationalities: Bulgarian, French, Czech, Slovakian, Polish, British, Irish, Spanish, Finnish, Canadian, Macedonian, Dutch, and even Taiwanese. Our team enjoys learning about the business and is anxious to take on new responsibilities. Fortunately, this group has been extremely respectful to me. Yet as their new MD, I realized it took time to build this respect. I found that what I did was much more important than what I said. Did I take time to get to know everyone? Did I learn about Prague and the region’s history? Did I stay late to resolve issues? Did I care about my family? They watched closely. Although my role was that of the teacher, I learned so much from our young team. They taught me to really listen better. Even in English, it took me some time to really understand what others were saying. They also helped me develop a new perspective on achieving a work-life balance. Many of our team have young families, prefer the intimacy of their family lives and guard their privacy. Nevertheless, I have been privileged to ofciate a team member’s wedding after the formal, religious/legal ceremony, to mix mortar and plaster the walls at another employee’s self-built home, and to play Santa Claus for our holiday party.
Because of the private nature of family, home, and culture, I found it necessary to reach out beyond the work world. My wife and I have been fortunate enough to meet many individuals who have helped us “connect” and who challenged me to expand my knowledge. Although the Czech Republic is largely a non-churchgoing society, our St. Thomas Catholic community introduced us to a variety of people of all ages, races and nationalities. With the help of an amazing leader, Fr. William Faix, we have met others by volunteering at the soup kitchen, serving at the Thanksgiving dinner, and helping restore a monastery. Our parish has become our Sunday place to connect.
Likewise, the Rotary International Club provided a valuable passport to new friends and the community. Rotary is both very local and very global. It has helped me learn the needs of the community, meet Czech professionals, and better understand local politics. Our Prague club has hosted country-western dances, dragon boat races, and bike hikes, all for worthy Czech charity causes. The American Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Embassy here in Prague also provided opportunities to connect and intermingle with business and government representatives.
The people I have met are strong-willed yet very considerate of others. Many in Central Europe have endured hardship or dislocation and have dramatic family stories to share. History has not been easy for Central and Eastern European citizens, who have lived through two world wars followed by forty years of communism. I am amazed at how little I knew about the history of the country and have been inspired by the people and their family stories. Although the time has gone very quickly, we made lifelong relationships. In retrospect, I realize how important it is to be connected and wished we had gotten more engaged with the community more quickly.
Secondly, I learned that it was extremely important for me to feel productive. I believe most assignees feel very accountable and want to make sure the assignment was worth the investment of his/her employer. Quantifying productivity isn’t always easy, but it was very important for me see tangible results such as growth in revenues, improved customer satisfaction, and an increase in employee retention. Over the past three years, the results weren’t always moving in the right direction. I definitely hit moments of self-doubt. At one point, when not much was working, I just made the decision that I would not quit. Connecting with key colleagues in the HQ was very critical to get through the tough times. This required initiating phone calls, many during the evening to get advice. I learned what many others have said; the initial excitement of an international assignment wears off and a job needs to get done.
Lastly, I have learned how important it is to have my family’s support. My 91-year-old mother encouraged me to accept the assignment. She just said, “Get home soon!” My two young adult children coached us to “Go for it!” and, of course, wanted a great place to visit. Most importantly, my wife Maureen embraced the idea completely. Maureen manages a Chicago-based law firm and agreed to commute to and from Prague. I calculated that Maureen has dealt with cross-continental jet lag over 38 times over the last three years! We have learned how to work hard when we are apart, refresh when we are together and to keep our family connected. We have met many couples in similar situations. Without my family’s support and health, most importantly my wife’s, I would not have been able to perform my role or meet my commitments.
What can the employer do to make the employee’s assignment a success? My first recommendation is to invest in professional pre-assignment candidate assessment programs. Every employee has a mix of skills, experiences, family dynamics, relationships, good and bad habits – the list goes on. All these factors conspire to make or break an international assignment. The actual cost of the assignment, the potential cost of a missed business opportunity and all the organizational drama are just too significant not to take advantage of a thorough “pre-candidate assessment.” A recent global mobility study reported that only 25 percent of companies have a formal assessment program prior to sending a candidate off on assignment. Too often we see and hear of families struggling and often with situations that could have been anticipated.
Honestly, I am not certain that my employer or our family adequately assessed the risk (cost-benefit to both employer and employee) before making the commitment to the assignment. My many years with the company likely gave my employer faith we knew what we were doing. But I now see many of the conditions, mostly family-related, that could have derailed the assignment. I credit my family, primarily my wife, for being open-minded, flexible, and supportive.
Second, the organization and those in the home country need to appreciate that while an assignment offers wonderful advantages, an international assignment isn’t easy. My nature is to be open, friendly and helpful. These qualities didn’t always fit into the Czech culture especially without me speaking the local language. An assignment puts unique strains on the employee and family. My late evening calls to home were often met with….”Sorry, I’m busy with a client,” or “I’m in class now…can we talk another time?” We missed a few important birthdays, skipped some weddings and were unable to attend a friend’s funeral because of being on the other side of the world. Skype is a wonderful tool, but it doesn’t work for everything.
An assignment can also lead to a lot of lonely moments. When my wife was in the U.S., I finished work a few Friday evenings realizing I had zero plans for the weekend. No lawn to cut, friends to visit, or little-league game to attend. Often, the extra time was filled with longer work hours, which isn’t always good for the soul. I did find new time for doing things I always wanted to do, including reading more, attending operas and running a marathon. In the global relocation service business, we sometimes sense an attitude of entitlement from an international assignee. Based on my experience, I have gained an additional appreciation for the challenges and sacrifices involved and have a renewed respect for the traditional corporate expatriate.
Third, the employer should do everything possible to provide at least an idea of the role of the employee after his/her return to the country of origin. No matter what, I believe an expatriate and their family are always thinking about what comes next. We are all trained to think about the future. Further, every conversation with family, friends, or colleagues includes the question, “What will you do after your assignment and after you come home?” Most expatriates understand there are no guarantees and that corporate plans and strategies can change frequently. However, the post-assignment future should be at least acknowledged and discussed as frequently as possible. These conversations will improve the assignee’s effectiveness. I have been fortunate to get regular feedback from my employer regarding next steps, which has been very helpful and gives peace of mind.
This expatriate “magic” did happen for our family, and we hope we can help others have a similar experience. We connected with new people and cultures. We felt productive. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been fulfilling. Ultimately family issues were the most important, and our marriage, family and friends benefitted from our opportunity to live and work on another continent.
Over the three years in Europe, I have observed a changing client profile. Many employees have the traditional relocation requirements, which require hi-touch coordination with professional services provided by local experts. This seasoned expatriate knows what he wants and can likely write a book on the process. However, the growing employee population on the move is very global and has navigated the world for years. For example, our 31-year-old son has lived in Spain, Chile, four different cities in China and now Chicago. His generation requires a much different set of services. We, as relocation professionals, need to service both the traditional and newer generation of mobile employee. Additionally, employer’s focus has shifted. More often, immigration, compensation and tax compliance dominate HR professionals time and attention. My immigration process was very time-consuming and bureaucratic. With the recent refugee crisis and terrorist attacks, countries’ resources will be further burdened, and we can expect the process of relocating employees to be adversely affected, especially in the area of immigration.
Ultimately, employers need to get the talent in the right place, do so in the most cost-effective manner, and get results. Ideally, the talent becomes more globally competent and can help the organization grow. Global relocation is changing rapidly, and employers, employees and their families will face new challenges and enjoy exciting new opportunities. The process is far from perfect, but employers and professionals are available to help and every assignee experience will offer unique insights to make it better. For us, it’s is just about time “to get home soon.”
Benjamin D. Ivory is a senior vice president at Graebel Companies, Inc. He is a third-generation moving industry veteran, Ivory began his career in Detroit Michigan at his family’s moving company. Now with Graebel for 33 years, Ivory has held multiple executive positions for the global relocation company. Prior to his return to the U.S. as senior vice president for Graebel Companies, Inc., Ivory was the organization’s EMEA managing director in Prague, the Czech Republic since 2010. Ivory has served as president of the Federation International des Demenaguers Internationaux (FIDI) USA and is the former Chair of the FIDI-FAIM Quality System Steering Committee. In 2015, he was recognized by the Worldwide ERC with its Meritorious Service Award. Today, Ivory is a board member of the Josephinum Academy, a women’s college preparatory school in Chicago, Illinois; and, is member of the Rotary International Club in Prague. He is a graduate of Marquette University and holds the Worldwide ERC Certified Relocation Professional (CRP®) and Senior Global Mobility Specialist – Talent Designations (SGMS-T®).