A growing number of global firms are using short-term international assignments as a means to fill capability gaps as well as to develop top talent. These assignments represent an amazing opportunity to deliver benefits to the business AND to accelerate the development of the assignee at the same time. Yet few organisations seem to get this right.
This past year, Organisation Solutions was approached by McDonald's to provide coaching to an international assignee from their HQ in the U.S. working on a project to support their growth in the Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa (APMEA) region. The intervention blended an adaptation of our Leader Excelerator Personal Training (LEPT) and Strategic Learning Project (SLP) methodologies with some guidance on Organisation Design.
Below is a conversation between Devon Voster (the assignee) and me (the coach) in which she shares some of her lessons of experience. I also share my own observations and recommendations to companies who want to create short-term international assignments that positively impact the individual AND the company.
Devon, please give us a bit of context. What led to this assignment?
Since joining McDonald's three years ago, I've expressed interest in an international assignment, and my manager knew it was important to me. Just as important, our business in APMEA is growing rapidly and facing a number of talent related challenges. The talent management team in APMEA is leanly staffed and eager for support. Instead of pursuing a traditional two- to three-year assignment, which is expensive and traditionally reserved for higher level roles, my manager designed a focused three-month assignment based in Hong Kong to provide me with critical development experiences and share expertise that supports APMEA's talent management priorities.
Why did you opt to engage an external firm to support you during this assignment?
Because the assignment would last only a few months, I needed to hit the ground running. The project to which I was assigned required deeper expertise in Organisation Design than I had at the time, and I needed help to quickly understand the range of cultural issues impacting this work. My manager and I agreed that it was worth investing in an external coach who could help me deliver on the objectives of the assignment. In retrospect, I think this support made a huge difference in the success of the assignment.
Many companies send people on international assignments for exposure. What I loved about your assignment was that it was real work, it was very challenging, and it pushed you out of your comfort zone. In our coaching practice, ensuring the coachee has the right experience is critical. Please share a bit about what you and your manager did to define your assignment.
Preparation is key! Beyond the time involved in sorting out the logistical details, it took several conversations between my team (Global Talent) and the APMEA team to negotiate and agree on the three to five focus areas, including key deliverables and support needed. The goal was to find that "sweet spot" between work that would benefit the business and accelerate my own learning and development.
Beyond preparation, I'd highlight three things. First, like you said, I was given real work that mattered and was challenging. I think it's a mistake to tell people on assignment to spend their time shadowing others and attending training courses. While those activities certainly provide benefits, I don't think it sets the person up to learn as much as they can. It also doesn't give much back to the business. Second, I had a lot of support. Given the amount of "stretch" involved, I relied heavily on people with relevant expertise who listened, encouraged, and guided me. When I was lost, which certainly happened a few times, they got me back on track. My manager also took the time up front to gain support from our HR leadership team, which was crucial. Third, I made time to reflect and had others who encouraged me to make time for it. Every other week, I emailed my team back home with insights and progress updates. Without this, I think learning is limited.
Going into this project, I was a bit worried that it would be too short. Our Strategic Learning Projects typically take at least six months and many teams struggle to deliver in that timeframe. What are your thoughts on the timeframe you were given?
The three months went by incredibly fast. There were times when the amount I needed to learn in a short time felt overwhelming. It forced me to be realistic and accept that one can only do and absorb so much at once.
About mid-way through your assignment, you returned home for three weeks. I felt this time ended up being well spent because you recharged and also had a chance to engage with some key stakeholders of your project in the U.S. How did this impact your experience?
At first, I was worried that I'd lose momentum, but it ended up working well. We continued our coaching and I made some important progress on the project. Being back in our home office allowed me to reconnect with some key stakeholders and we ended up hosting a meeting with the entire project team from APMEA since a number of leaders were at our HQ that week. So, the time was well spent AND it helped me refocus on what I really wanted to accomplish in the second half. I don't know if we could have planned for it to happen this way.
Our company's model of "Personal Training" is based on the assumption that people often need more than Socratic questioning to help them get to their desired end point. So we blend traditional coaching, some mentoring, at times some advising, and the judicious use of tools. How would you compare this to other coaching experiences you've had?
This coaching was unique in that my learning was much broader than I've experienced in the past. I was faced with some pretty thorny organisational and cultural challenges, which required thinking differently, surfacing some tough issues, and attempting to influence leaders. While navigating through all of this, you pushed and stretched me quite a bit. One moment stands out to me when I had an upcoming meeting with the VP of the function for which we were doing the Organisation Design. During one of our regular coaching calls, I told you that I was planning to give this key stakeholder a brief update, but that I wasn't ready to share any findings since I hadn't yet finished the needs assessment interviews. Your advice was, "If I were you, I'd take advantage of this opportunity and put something in front of him, even if it's not perfect. Show him the value you can add." You were teaching me a useful influence tactic—and you were right. I put in some extra hours, sent him a draft, and it sparked a great conversation that impacted the project. I learned the value of putting my thinking in front of people more quickly. It may feel risky, but the pay-off can be huge.
Of the 25 coaches we have around the world, almost all of them coach virtually at one time or another. Some do entire coaching assignments virtually. In our work together, all but one of our interactions was long distance. How did distance impact the coaching relationship?
Honestly, working virtually wasn't a problem at all. We used Skype for our weekly coaching conversations and emailed each other regularly. During our calls, we both made an effort to be very present and engaged—that made a huge difference. It also helped that we both were very responsive and flexible with one another.
At the end of your assignment, I told you that you were such a terrific international assignee because of your openness to other cultures and to learning itself. Where did this come from?
I've always been a curious person and that's probably why I'm drawn to other cultures. I love moments when I uncover something that completely turns one of my fundamental assumptions about the world upside down. That motivates me. When I was young and on family trips, my parents would ask local people a lot of questions—not just for directions, but about things that were unique about people or their environment. At the time, I was incredibly embarrassed, but I learned so much from watching and listening to people with different backgrounds than my own. I guess that just stayed with me.
That's a great perspective. I see many leaders in Asia who have regular, ongoing cross-cultural interactions and yet remain the way they are. What are you doing that makes a difference for you?
I don't think it's enough just to talk to people from other cultures—the key is to listen without judgment as much as possible. This is not an easy task. I'm constantly checking myself to try to pinpoint the reason I'm reacting to something—i.e., Why does that feel wrong to me? What is it about my world or their world that's causing us to see it so differently? This insight helps me learn about myself and how to behave in a given situation.
Gaining some insight into Asia was one of the developmental goals for you on this assignment. During your three months, you spent time in Hong Kong, China, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore. What were some key insights?
One thing I learned is that we cannot group all of Asia together as though it's one culture. There are major differences across countries and even areas within countries. Having said that, one thing I observed in the region is that learning for the sake of learning (and not for a more practical, immediate purpose) or learning broad concepts that you might be able to apply in the future, does not seem to resonate in Asia. This has implications for the way we train, coach, and develop leaders.
One of the motives for seeking external support for your assignment was so that you could learn about Organisation Design and apply this to your project. What were some key learnings for you?
Since I didn't have much experience in Organisation Design before this project, I didn't know what to expect. What I learned is that the process in and of itself isn't all that complicated. It's diagnosing the core issues, forming clear recommendations, and action planning that's most challenging. I learned to view myself as an internal change agent, which means holding yourself back from jumping into execution mode. In that role, I struggled with the paradox of being both an idealist (i.e., here's what the future can look like) and a pragmatist (i.e., here's what is feasible given what we have). It's tough to get that balance right.
What was your greatest challenge during your assignment and how did you cope with it?
One of my personal goals was to focus on the experience and less on my performance, but that wasn't easy. Before the assignment, I read a Harvard Business Review article called "Stop Focusing on Your Performance" that really resonated with me. The essence is that in order to learn and improve, you need to experience things with an open mind and be willing to try, fail, and learn from any outcome—good or bad. Easier said than done (at least for me)! I wanted to show results and make a good impression. So, I had to constantly work at redefining the way I thought about "success" in this assignment—for me, it was about getting the most out of the experience, not having a perfect performance (whatever that means). I kept re-reading the article to keep that idea front of mind.
Looking back, is there anything you'd do differently to get more value from this assignment?
I would have tried to make connections even earlier and get conversations started before I was on the ground. Then I might have been able to do more in the time that I had. I also would have taken even more risks. At the time, it felt as though I was being stretched to my limits, but looking back, I think I could have even stretched a bit more. The experience taught me that we're much more resilient and stronger than we realise.
You've shared about how and what you learned from this experience. How did McDonald's benefit?
As a result of the Organisation Design work, I was able to provide an organisational assessment and implementation plan to the incoming leader of the function impacted. The work helped to launch several long-term initiatives including an intensive leadership workshop intended to drive crucial behavioural and mind-set shifts needed to strengthen our business in targeted high-growth markets. The pilot workshop was well received and we plan to launch it more broadly in the next few months.
I hope you enjoyed this conversation and found it useful. Below are some takeaways I'd like to share for anyone involved in short-term international assignments:
- Ensure the assignee has real work to do that presents a real challenge. Devon was clearly responsible for delivering a piece of work that leaders in McDonald's cared about.
- Don't waste great assignments on people who won't learn from them. Devon wanted and even lobbied for an international assignment. If you are a global company and have people identified as "high-potential" or "key talent" who are not excited about working outside their home country, you may have the wrong people identified.
- Start planning for work to be done during a short-term assignment about three to six months in advance. Better planning up front will increase the return on the assignment itself. Devon's manager was instrumental in making this happen and was willing to spend time on Devon's development. They had a number of conversations with leaders in the receiving region to identify work they needed, to prioritise this, and then select one for the focus of the assignment.
- Help the sending managers. Because Devon and her manager are part of McDonald's HR organisation, they may not have needed much support to make the assignment happen. Ensure your own organisation has the infrastructure and support needed. Avoid seeing short-term international assignments as something only a tiny pool of people can do. Instead, view it as a way to deliver benefit to the business AND build capabilities at the same time.
- Scope the work to be done so that it stretches the individual in the right ways. The project selected for Devon's assignment didn't play to her functional expertise. The external support helped her learn the "technical" aspects of Organisation Design so that she learned as she went. But more importantly, the work required her to engage with a broad set of key stakeholders, to learn about a part of the business relatively unknown to her, and to build a plan to prepare the organisation for a strategic shift in the business.
- Provide support to the assignee during the assignment. In this instance, an external coach provided coaching, mentoring, and advice based on subject matter expertise critical to the success of the assignment. Some companies may handle this internally. Whatever you do, don't just send someone somewhere and hope for the best.
- Keep the learning going after the assignment. After returning from her assignment, Devon was asked to summarise her experience and lessons learned and to share this with her manager and others. I was asked for feedback that could further support her continued development. Once the assignment is over you can take time for reflection and deeper insight.
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