Category Archives: Globalization

Relocation: Convincing the Family

Photo by Arving Balaraman
Photo credit: Arvind Balaraman

After two weeks of secretive discussions and hidden asides to friends, I finally decided to broach the subject with my 8 year old.

‘Darling, how would you feel about going back to live in Geneva?’  Silence.  And then a determined, ‘No way!’
 
Over the following days, I gently approached the subject from many angles, not wishing to cause panic, not wishing to insist too much (especially before we had definitely made up our minds).  And each time the reaction got more and more dramatic, the tearful conclusion being: ‘You can go there with Daddy and my brother if you like, I’ll stay here all by myself!’
 
And it wasn’t just the children.  Grandparents, other relatives and friends, all had opinions and advice, and many of them were very sceptical of the move.  All of this can be  hard to bear when you are yourself in two minds about it.
 
Convincing others when you are not sure yourself whether you are doing the right thing…  what a challenge!  And yet, especially with children, you need to be strong and keep your doubts to yourself.  Not in the sense of painting an unrealistic picture or emphasising only the positives.  Here is what Oana, now 13, had to say about her parents’ claims when they first moved abroad when she was 9. 
 
‘They told me I would make friends really quickly, expected me to pick up the language immediately, said I would love the new house and new places.  But it took me months till I dared to say my first words in German.  I felt everyone was laughing at me.  The teacher was not as patient with me as the one back home.  I was really, really unhappy and I felt lonely in the big new house.  Even now, I can’t say I have as many friends, or best friends, as I did back home.’
 
Here are some things that you need to consider when you are trying to persuade your children that relocating abroad is a good idea:
 
1. Timing.  At what point do you involve the rest of the family (beyond the spouse, I am assuming you are involving them right away) in the debate?  Experience suggests it is better to give them time to get used to the idea, but not too early, just in case you decide not to go.  Brian says he told his children they were moving to Bermuda and generated huge enthusiasm for the idea.  A month later, they discovered Child No. 3 was on the way and changed their minds.  The two older children never quite forgave No. 3 for his untimely appearance.
 
2. Do not oversell.  Acknowledge that there will be difficulties (for all!) when adapting to a new environment.  Of course, put as positive a spin as possible on things, but do not promise perfection or you are setting your kids up for huge disappointment (as in Oana’s case).
 
3. Drip feed.  This is how we won our sons over.  I drip fed bits of information, news, pictures etc. of life in Geneva.  I got them involved in choosing the village, the house, the school. I casually mentioned Skype and webcams and having their own email addresses so that they could stay in touch with their friends in the UK.  I may even have promised some trampolines in the garden or pets (negotiations are still in progress).
 
4. Build resilience.  In yourself and in your family.  Expect some difficult times ahead but do not let that fill you with fear.  Instead, find ways to overcome those obstacles and support each other as a family.  More details coming soon, as I hope to get the wonderful Julia Simens http://www.jsimens.com  to guest blog for me next time on improving emotional resilience.
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To Move or Not to Move – the Relocation Decision

Relocation Decision

Decisions, decisions...

It took us around two months to make the final decision about relocating to Geneva.  At the time, of course, it felt like much longer. 

Every week, in fact, nearly every day, I was:

  • – weighing the pros and cons;

– list-making laced with gut feeling;

– asking for advice and ignoring it;

– searching online expat chat forums for clues. 

With all of the discussions, alternative views and justifications, with all of the gentle nudging to find out what the children thought of it, I felt I had aged ten years by the time we came to the conclusion that we were indeed going to move. But I realise that we were the fortunate ones.  We could take our time to make a decision we can all be happy with.  Many other families do not have that luxury.  They are forced into a decision in a matter of days.  Sometimes it’s a stark decision:  a matter of ‘go abroad or lose your job’.  It’s becoming less common now, as companies begin to realise that not involving the spouse in the decision-making process can lead to the failure of the overseas assignment and premature return.  But it still happens.

We were even luckier in that we already knew the positives and negatives, the lifestyle and the bureaucracy of the place we are moving to.  We had already spent 18 months there in the past.  Unexpectedly, that made our decision harder: there were no rose-tinted spectacles to entice us with an idyllic image of our new life abroad.  We knew just how hard it would be to find suitable accommodation, a place in a school, have the children adapt to a new language, change the car licence plates… There was no honeymoon period for us, with its gentle ignorance.  There wasn’t even much nostalgia for our life there 4-5 years ago, as in the Pays de Gex a few years can bring in phenomenal changes and doubling of the population.

So what do families contemplating relocation abroad find most useful when making up their minds?

1. Talk to others who have made the move.  Not just the ones who are still living there, but also others who have moved on.  Ask lots of questions, both online and off.

2. Focus not just on the practical aspects of the move (important though these undoubtedly are).  In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, take stock of your resilience as a family.  Be honest about any weak points in your relationship with your spouse, with your children, because they are likely to be exacerbated during your time abroad.  Can you change as a family and would you want to? 

3. If you do ask friends and family for advice, be prepared to ignore it.  There may be hidden agendas and partial views at work there.

4. If at all possible, visit the country and town you are planning to live in.  Of course a weekend trip in glorious sunshine in June is different from seven months of winter, cold and darkness, but if you still hate the place when it’s at its best, then you know you are in trouble!   Yes, it would be madness to marry someone based on the first impression, but you cannot ignore that instinctive reaction either.

5. Rely on both your reason and your intuition to make sure you come to the right decision.  I’ve seen many cases where families make long lists of pros and cons, decide that the pros outweigh the cons and rationally they really ought to go… but even as they start making the preparations for their departure, their hearts just get heavier and more distressed.  A certain amount of grieving as you say goodbye to your current life is absolutely normal, but if there is no excitement whatsoever, no lightness of heart and quickening of pulse, then maybe your decision was the wrong one.  Be sensible, by all means, but be happy too.

It’s always going to be a leap of faith, just as much as a marriage.  Because, even if a marriage is (intended to be) permanent and your move abroad may not be, you will be changed by it.  You and your family will never be quite the same again.  And that is my only nod towards a certain Royal Wedding.

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Relocation Blues

It's time to pack up again...

You may have noticed (I am flattering myself that someone is waiting for my blog posts with bated breath) that I haven’t been writing much lately.  That’s because we have been experiencing the highs and lows of relocation decisions, anxieties and excitement.  Ah, yes, I do not just coach others about moving abroad, I also happily take my own advice and medicine!

From summer onwards we will be moving as a family from the UK to Geneva, Switzerland, living on the French side of the border.  We expect to stay there three years, but life has a habit of surprising us, so we are prepared for anything.

I am calling this the ‘relocation blues’ (although perhaps it should be ‘blues and pinks’, because there is a lot to celebrate and enjoy, as well as much to mourn and worry about).  Over the next few weeks, I would like to write a mini-series charting our own personal relocation journey, as well as providing other examples and ideas or tips which might be useful to others about to embark on a similar experience.

I was thinking of the following topics:

1. To Be or to Be Elsewhere:  The Decision

2. Persuading Your Followers

3. The Househunt

4.  Education Systems

5. Portable Careers

6. Drowning in Admin

Are there any other topics that would be of interest to you?  What would be most useful or most fun to find out about?  It doesn’t have to be specific to Switzerland or France, since so many of the challenges of moving with a family are similar, regardless of continent.

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Becoming a Global Manager

Global management talent is still a rare commodity, despite the fact that international travel, cross-border university studies and population mobility are becoming more common-place.  Paradoxically, although companies need those global skills more than ever before, in the past two-three years economic pressures have been such, that they have created fewer opportunities to develop that basic talent pool of young people with an international outlook and experience.

The Global You

So, what is the solution, other than the slow process of convincing these companies that they are missing a trick?

The Mindful International Manager

The solution is to commit personally to developing a global mindset as well as you can.  How?  By relocating, by seeking out new markets for your services and products, by getting involved in international project teams within your organisation and by travelling extensively and with an open mind.  The two books I am reviewing today enable you to embark upon this journey of discovery of other cultures, but, even more importantly, on a journey of self-discovery.

I have recently read and used in training both ‘The Global You’ by Susan Bloch and Philip Whiteley (published by Marshall Cavendish) and the new edition of ‘The Mindful International Manager’ by Jeremy Comfort and Peter Franklin (Kogan Page).  They are valuable additions to the books discussing cultural differences and their impact on international business, but, unlike many of those, they specifically address the manager him or herself, rather than the intercultural trainer or global HR specialist. 

Both are refreshingly jargon-free, accessible and systematic.  Both emphasise personal performance within the global context, so really answer the questions ‘What’s in it for me?’ or  ‘Why should I care?’  (Which, as any trainer knows, is the battle half-won).  Both books also contain numerous real-life examples from interviews with global managers, reflecting on their mistakes and lessons learnt.  The difference between them, I believe,  lies in the audience they address.

‘The Mindful International Manager’ addresses a more experienced management population, who has perhaps been managing for a number of years and is now being increasingly exposed to international project teams or working abroad.  As such, it has more in-depth (and very realistic) case studies with suggested solutions, and carefully distinguishes between national culture, organisational culture and personality or individual preferences.  I really liked the way each chapter was structured: an explanation of cultural differences and similarities , then a description of the key competencies required to handle these differences, followed by a guidance to develop best practice.  The focus is much more on making teams work globally and in a virtual environment.  I really liked the fact that it was suitable reading for managers in other countries, not just the US and the UK, as many of these book in English often are.

‘The Global You’ addresses perhaps a more English-speaking audience,  a business person with international aspirations, regardless of whether they are currently managing people or not.  As such, the emphasis is more on the individual than on the team.  Of course, that is an excellent place to start and it  contains valuable learning strategies, including virtual learning, building a personal network and raising your global profile.  It feels very up-to-date, containing all the buzz words and concepts that a younger business audience can relate to (m-learning, personal brand, online profile).  And that is my one concern: that it may need a revised and updated version very soon, to keep up with the pace of technological advances.

All in all, two titles worth including in the library of any global manager or global learning specialist.

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First Impressions in a New Culture

Three friends who have not seen each other since high school twenty years ago are chatting late at night.  One has since moved to Canada, US and now France.  One has lived in Geneva, New York and is now back in Romania.  The third has lived in the UK, Germany and Greece. 

Friends' Reunion

They are comparing notes about their first impressions of their new cultures – and their first impressions whenever they go ‘home’ to their birth country.  What did they find most ‘different’ at first sight?

1) Rules of hospitality.  How to behave as a guest, how generous (or not) to be as a host, subtle rules and assumptions about present-giving and receiving – these are the most immediate eye-openers.  Food running out at Western parties is often mentioned by Mediterraneans and East Europeans as an example of lack of hospitality.

2) Gallantry.  How men behave towards women in public.  All three of them said they missed the gallantry of having doors opened for them and seats offered to them, even the odd wolf-whistle, in the Anglo-American or Germanic cultures.  The feeling was that these latter cultures were not necessarily less sexist, but just less interested in women.  Particularly in those that were not available.

3) Levels of friendliness can be hard to interpret.   You have to be prepared to deal with rejection and not take it personally.  And not confess too much to the first person who wishes you a nice day.

4) Speaking the language of your host country is tricky, even if you previously thought you were fluent in it.  Regional accents, colloquial expressions, new slang and cultural allusions that you are unfamiliar with (cricket or baseball metaphors, anyone?) can make you feel like a beginner all over again.

What about your own big ‘eye-opening’ moments when you moved to a new culture?  What did you find interesting, exciting or perhaps frustrating?  And did your first impressions change after spending more time in that country?

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Why Going to Conferences Pays

Or ‘The Remaining 6 Things I learnt at the Washington conference of FIGT’. (For details of the Families in Global Transition organisation, see this website: http://www.figt.org/).  This is Part Two from yesterday’s blog and I couldn’t resist this beautiful image of the cherry blossoms, although they did not quite look like that last week, more like a hesitant pink mist. *

Spring in Washington DC

7.  No matter how many coffee breaks, working lunches and dinners there are, you will never get a chance to meet all the interesting people you want to meet (including all your Twitter friends).   I keep looking at the attendee list and saying: ‘Oh, no, he was there too?  Oh, no,  how could I have missed her?’

8. One group of expats that was under-represented are the academics.  So, Ph.D. students,post-docs and lecturers from different cultures who meet abroad, get married and then move on to the next position.  They do represent a different kettle of fish than diplomats or missionaries or army personnel, because in many cases the spouses want to continue their research careers as well, so the ‘trailing spouse’ scenario is even more unacceptable.  On the other hand, I wonder if there are differences in how these highly-educated parents are talking to their children during these global transitions. 

9. You go there for the big ideas, but you come back with lots of little practical tips.  I now have a clearer understanding of how to add the pesky Twitter button on my blog, where to find excellent stock photos and what refreshments to serve to your international writers’ group.

10. You might even find yourself a job.  Having exchanged business cards and kept in touch, a number of participants at previous conferences were top of mind when companies were looking to recruit specialists.

11. Don’t forget your camera !  I did and was cursing about it daily.  It would have been an excellent opportunity to capture images of all the friends I made, to conduct short interviews with the numerous experts there… and perhaps to have my own pictures of cherry blossoms.

12.  Take a little bit of time off.  No matter how passionate you are about your subject area, the long days in an enclosed space, overdosing on caffeine, will wear you out.  Do recharge your batteries and see something of the town you are in, especially if you are as fortunate with the weather as we were last week.  I used to work a few months a year in DC, so I didn’t feel the need to go to all the museums this time, but I did reconnect with some dear friends, go for walks in old favourite haunts and enjoy authentic Mexican food (which is a bit harder to find in the UK).  It felt like a mini-break and I am sure helped with the digestion of information!

What do you like best about international conferences?  And what annoys you most about them?  Perhaps next time I will talk about that.

*  For the original image and more details about the cherry blossom festival in DC, look at this website  http://chuvachienes.com/2010/03/28/the-national-cherry-blossom-festival-in-washington-dc/

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12 Things I Learnt at the Washington Conference

Just back from the wonderful FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference in Washington DC http://www.figt.org/2011_conference and I am sitting in groggy but rapt contemplation of all that I have seen, heard, encountered and learnt.   I feel somewhat like a boa constrictor who has just swallowed a very large animal and now needs a bit of time to digest.

Conference logo

Washington DC. March 17-19

Here are just a few of the small and big revelations of the past five days, in no particular order:

1) American conferences are slick, well-organised and colour-coordinated, even when run by volunteers.  But yes, the air conditioning is fierce…

2) With concurrent sessions, there will always be clashes between two or even three or four sessions that you really, really want to attend.  Resign yourself to the fact that you cannot possibly see them all.  Or, even better, go with a friend, divide up the sessions and ensure both take copious notes.

3) Interculturalists love to talk and meet people!  It was the friendliest atmosphere I have ever experienced at a conference.  The emphasis seemed to be upon collaboration rather than competition (which, having been to some academic conferences, is not always the case).

4) Despite your good intentions, you will come home loaded with books.  Yes, I could have bought them afterwards on Amazon and had them delivered to my house, but what would I have read on the plane?  And how else would I have got the authors to sign them?  Expect some book reviews shortly.

5) You’ll get a lifetime’s worth of memorable quotes.

6) Everyone hates the term ‘trailing spouse’.  Thanks to Jo Parfitt, writer,  publisher and global nomad http://www.joparfitt.com/ ,who suggested that maybe we should refer to this category as STARs (spouses travelling and relocating) and STUDs (spouses transitioning under duress).

Now, excuse me while I settle back to digest some more….

Ah, I hear you say, but where are the remaining 6 things you have learnt?  There will be another blog post later this week about this, I promise!

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