Careers: The End of Expats?

Over the course of my career, I've packed my bags and moved countries eleven times. Along the way, I also held several short-term assignments lasting about a year for which I chose to live in hotels and serviced apartments instead. For most of those moves, I had my company’s commitment that as long as I performed, opportunities would await me when it was time to return home. Back then, it was common for repatriation to be the underlying goal of both organizations and the executives they sent overseas. That has fundamentally changed, with high-potential talent managing their careers on their own terms while the best companies are investing more in developing local talent. As a result, the traditional three-to-five-year expatriate assignment is truly a thing of the past.

At the same time, while multinationals have cut back on expatriate packages, expats are more willing to give up those privileges in order to stay where the action is. Many voluntarily bail out of their expat status, recognizing it as a symbol of an outdated colonial mindset, and a costly burden for their employer. Others proactively look for opportunities to stay in Asia and apply their new expertise as “local” hires in new organizations once their initial expat assignment is over.

In fact, few self-respecting, globally minded executives would describe themselves first and foremost as “expats” today. The best recognize that to make a meaningful contribution, they need to blend into the international melting pot. They also value gaining experience over receiving immediate financial rewards— these executives are in it for the journey, not just “the job.”

Bonnie, an American citizen, has shuttled between the U.S., Singapore, and Australia for most of her work life, always as an assignee from headquarters. Now a regional executive in Asia with a top-tier U.S.-based company, she was almost speechless when I asked her if she has any plans to return “home.” “Why would I do that? The opportunities are in Asia.”

Another American, a top regional executive with a U.S. multinational who has been in Singapore less than a year, is coming to terms with the realization that he is happier in Asia than in headquarters, just as his assignment there is coming to an end. “It’s emotionally tough to consider the possibility of leaving after spending my entire life with this company. But I’ve got to look to where the opportunities are, here or on the outside. And this is where the action is.”

For organizations, building a pipeline of mature and agile local leaders is a strategic and cost-effective move for the long-term that will take time to achieve. While more and more programs like Capita Partners’ AsiaNext platform are being offered to prepare high-potential local talent for global roles, for the foreseeable future, most companies still need expatriate mentors to help groom them.

Getting and maintaining an appropriate balance between expat and local executives will remain the challenge for HR teams, especially in fast-evolving markets, where “un-expats” with the right experience and attitude are presented with new opportunities all the time, regardless of a their current employer’s repatriation plan. Their future is determined by the cut and thrust of the market for talent, not by some executive sponsor in headquarters. Recruiters call every day, and they know they have choices.

Smart organizations will win their loyalty not with a binding expat deal of “three to five years,” but by ensuring that they provide immediate and tangible career benefits that outweigh tempting opportunities at other companies. It is time to let these expats “go local,” recognizing that all career paths do not lead back to headquarters. They lead to where the action is.

For those expats whose time has come to return home, a strategy for repatriation will help them make a smoother, more successful transition. Capita Partners offers game-changing workshops and one-on-one intensive coaching as part of its Xroads Career Engagement offerings. Contact info@capitapartners.com for more information.

CapitaPartners is a leader in global mindset and careers. The firm consults to multinational organizations on global leadership, expatriate assessment and selection, and repatriation