With extensive management experience gained over nearly 20 years of European and American MNC leadership and expat living in Southeast Asia, Pete Brunoehler has recently relocated from Singapore to Penang to head up a US-based management consultancy. In this regular column, he shares with fellow expat managers some of the best ways to overcome the challenges inherent in being an expat in a Malaysian management role, along with some humorous anecdotes along the way.
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Regardless of whether these words are in fact attributable to Honest Abe, they provide a useful perspective as to the role of preparation for expat managers.
Over many years of weekend socialising with expat managers and their families, I have seen two starkly differing mindsets when it comes to the manager doing his/her homework in order to be well-prepared for the unknown and unfamiliar challenges that inevitably will face them at work.
The first of these is the ‘I am the king here in my local kingdom so I see little need to prepare’ expat; second is the ‘I am overwhelmed with the fact that so much of what I am doing here is new’ expat. Neither is healthy; both can lead to failure. The path to a proper middle ground is that unsexy yet crucial habit: preparation.
Back when I was still a manager in my native US, I generally did not spend a lot of time on preparation – for meetings, customer visits, planning discussions, for the weeks and months ahead – in large part because I had literally grown up there. I fundamentally understood the people, the culture, the company, the quirks, and the typical reactions.
So once I took on my first expat managerial role, confident that my promotion clearly indicated I must know what I was doing, it seemed counter-intuitive to focus more on preparation and planning. In fact, this seems very common for expat managers experiencing newfound levels of seniority, independence, and authority. There’s a tendency to ‘wing it,’ secure in their knowledge to handle all things coming their way despite the new surroundings.
This approach is exactly the opposite of what is called for. To quote one of my favourite sayings: ‘You don’t know what you don’t know.’ And while you’ll never be able to anticipate all challenges, some basic questions always need advance attention: What is the working and meeting culture in general? How are customer meetings conducted, and how should I handle myself in them? Which topics are off limits? How can I be forceful but in an appropriate local context? What is the background to each key issue on my agenda? And on and on. These issues should be addressed during discussions with your team, supplemented with your own individual preparation.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those expat managers who, now working outside of their home culture comfort zone, tend to be constantly overwhelmed and panicked when thinking ahead about upcoming issues, meetings, and challenges – a tendency which seems to rear its ugly head around the conclusion of the weekend, when the prospect of these challenges returns to the horizon. Call it the Sunday Night Expat Syndrome: not a healthy way to end a weekend, nor to start a new workweek!
1. While your promotion into an expat leadership role is an indication that your company has confidence in you, this is no time to literally rest on your laurels. The dual requirements of most expat roles are to get results and to train successors. As such, particularly in a new environment, you’ll need to increase your level of listening, observing, studying, asking, rehearsing, and generally preparing in much more depth than you did back home.
2. Sunday Night Expat Syndrome can be minimised by proactively visualising what is causing the discomfort. Anticipating and preparing for those unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable situations is half the battle. (Executing, of course, is the other half.) Preparation breeds confidence.
3. The space in this column does not allow for a thorough overview of suggested periodic personal organisational habits of expat managers, but here’s a simplified version: Especially when beginning a new expat leadership role, always ensure to set aside planning time for the week ahead before leaving the office on Friday. In briefings with your team and/or self-study, spend at least the last 60-90 minutes of each week completing detailed preparation for the upcoming week. Then conduct a final solo review in 20-30 minutes sometime on Sunday. That basic preparation will work wonders, and may be the key to a good Sunday night’s sleep and a strong start to each new week.
In conclusion, you’ll need to study more than you did back home to prepare yourself properly for the many different types of challenges and events that are now part of your job. Maintain this planning habit, and you’ll always hit the ground running, make a good impression in company and customer interactions, and avoid ‘Sunday Night Expat Syndrome.’ Doing so will ensure that your stress levels, your career, your team, and your results all benefit accordingly.
Pete Brunoehler is Managing Partner of AMark Consulting Southeast Asia, the first Asian office of US-based AMark Management Consulting. To learn more, please visit amarkconsulting.com or contact him with no obligation at petebrunoehler@ amarkconsulting.com.