"The assignee isn’t going to be successful if the family isn’t"


Katia Vlachos, researcher and writer on cross-cultural transitions and expat life, has lived in 7 countries and 3 continents. Handout photo 

Delano caught up with authors Katia Vlachos and Michael Watkins to discuss their views on the challenges expats face and solutions for successful transitions.

Expat transition coach Katia Vlachos admits she’s an introvert. Even though she has over 20 years’ experience as an expat in 7 countries, when it comes to integrating “it takes me longer, so I don’t stress. That’s okay, that’s my pace.”

But she adds, “In a way, I think it’s easier for an introvert to move, which is counterintuitive…if you’re an extrovert and move to a new place and expect to be meeting people all the time, that can be very frustrating.”

Author of “A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment”, Vlachos says there isn’t a right or wrong way to integrate, but ultimately knowing yourself can ease the process. She has developed a framework which helps individuals define what home means--which could range from the landscape to home settings and, of course, people--and, by doing so, simplify the process of constructing home in a new setting. 

Dealing with expectations

Outlook also plays a critical part in the transition. Vlachos says it took her 9 of her 11-year experience in Austria to really integrate, but it’s because “I didn’t want to be there. It had nothing to do with the country, everything to do with the way I was thinking. It was a lot of resistance versus intention.”

Vlachos says it can be useful to think of the adjustment as a U-curve. “There’s a honeymoon phase, down to the crisis, then recovery and adjustment…even just knowing this is what it looks like and this is the general pattern, knowing you are not the only one going through that, is really helpful.”

New universes, support systems

While Vlachos’ work centres more on the expatriation and integration components, Michael Watkins deals more with helping people take on new jobs successfully. Author of the bestseller “The First 90 Days”, he’s also co-founder of Genesis, a leadership development consultancy.

“What has been interesting for us is comparing notes and realising just how different those experiences can be in a couple,” Watkins says, adding that while the assignee is familiar with the company and can focus on getting up to speed in the new professional culture, the partner may have “entered an entirely new universe, and has to construct a support system from scratch.” 

Michael Watkins coaches C-level execs taking on new roles including international assignments. Handout photo 

There’s already stress of a move to another country, but this can be multiplied when one partner is speaking, for example, English in the company, but the trailing spouse has to make his or her way in a foreign culture in a foreign language, dealing with things like daily errands or children. And spouses being unhappy is “one of the top reasons people cut assignments short,” Vlachos says. 

“What the research shows is that the assignee isn’t going to be successful if the family isn’t,” Watkins adds. 

Both agree that communication, along with regular renegotiation, is fundamental to succeed when it comes to global mobility. Vlachos says it’s important to spend time up front making an informed decision because sometimes the “agreement” isn’t really explicit. 

“Ideally, what I advise is for the partner who isn’t getting the assignment to have their reasons for going there, to make the move their own, to find what will be fulfilling for them… the move working for everyone instead of one person moving and one person following, which doesn’t help the relationship.”

Treat repatriation like expatriation

Repatriation can be just as difficult as expatriation, argue the two authors. Vlachos advises people to treat the two transitions in the same way, to have realistic expectations and understand that the culture back home doesn’t just stand still. 

On the professional side, says Watkins, “often people don’t have a good re-entry plan back into the core of the company they are in, so they go back and it’s not a great position for them, or colleagues have moved on in different directions and they feel disadvantaged.

“It’s not uncommon to see people leave their companies when it begins to happen.”

Emerging mobility trends

It was anticipated Vlachos and Watkins would be in Luxembourg for a 7 October global mobility conference, organised by the International Coach Federation in collaboration with Harvard Business Review at ISL, but it is currently postponed until spring 2020, according to the organisers. Expats, plus anyone in HR and leadership development dealing with global mobility, should find it rewarding, as the two experts will provide plenty of case studies, opportunities for discussion and interaction. 

There will be a focus on dual career mobility and new, emerging models of mobility which, Watkins adds, "is what we see the global mobility community needing today.” One of those emerging models is a commuter model which, as Vlachos says, should "apply really well to Luxembourg". 

Updated on 27 September to reflect the fact that the event has been postponed.