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All the World's an Office


A Korn/Ferry survey asked its consultants which overseas assignments were most appealing, and found some surprising results

With its explosive economy and billion-plus population, China has an almost-magnetic pull for companies with global ambitions—and their employees. But China, as well as nearby Japan and South Korea, are tough places for foreign businesspeople to succeed, according to a new survey released Sept. 26 by executive management outfit Korn/Ferry International (KFY). The firm found that more familiar regions like Western Europe are more conducive to strong expatriate performance.

In its quarterly Executive Recruiter Index, the company asked 144 of its consultants about which overseas assignments are most appealing to executives. According to the survey, expatriates tend to turn in the best performances opening offices and in softer roles like "promoting better cultural understanding" and in advancing their own professional development. Those looking to find new business and address local workforce problems are more likely to struggle in unfamiliar surroundings.

EMERGING MARKET RISKS.

An overwhelming number of the respondents say experience living abroad is at least somewhat desirable in a job candidate. However, Tierney Remick, a Chicago-based senior client partner for Korn/Ferry, says any individual decision should be based on "a company's goals and how [those] tie to their goals for personal development." She points out that at companies like Coca-Cola (KO) and SC Johnson, international postings are traditional stops on the way to senior positions.

China commands immense attention from the international business community, but a job there doesn't necessarily translate into a great opportunity at every company, according to Remick. "Emerging markets are the highest risk but [have the] highest potential for great visibility when it's done well," Remick says. "[Candidates] have to weigh 'Why does the company want them to go there?'"

Some people may want to live abroad for reasons independent of their careers, she says. And the survey should give pause to those unsure whether living in a foreign country is right for them. The report says the ideal length of an overseas assignment is just over two and a half years.

CHINA VS. INDIA.

In terms of China, the survey is "right on the mark," says Ker-Wei Pei, associate dean for Asia-Pacific programs at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business. "Expatriates are very good at setting up the infrastructure," he says, but they "only know how to replicate the formula that makes their company successful elsewhere." Also, foreigners often underestimate the diversity of the immense Chinese market.

Like China, India has a huge population and a rapidly growing economy, and an even stronger tradition of speaking English. Even so, survey respondents didn't think the other Asian giant is as attractive to expatriates.

Pei agreed with that assessment as well. "China has invested enormously in infrastructure," Pei says, at least in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, which makes it comparably easy for Westerners to transplant their lifestyle.

LOOKING FOR AMENITIES.

By contrast, India's comparable lack of infrastructure means that outside of tech-heavy cities like Bangalore, executives are less likely to find the sort of social networks and amenities they are accustomed to. Remick says expatriates might also prefer China because multinationals are more likely to have their Asian headquarters there.

The survey found that other difficult places for outsiders include the "non-Gulf" Middle East, Eastern and Central Europe, and South America. All over, it finds that "lack of cultural fit" is the No. 1 cause of poor performance from expatriates. Other leading causes included personal and family problems and a lack of direction. Employers, it seems, shouldn't let out of sight mean out of mind.

Not surprisingly, the survey also finds that executives want to give a wide berth to politically chaotic regions, as well as those they find too insular. Respondents overwhelmingly selected Africa and the Middle East as the toughest places to lure talent.

Halperin is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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