Navigating the Promise and Peril of Assignment Re-entry

One in four. That’s the number of organizations in a recent survey by Cartus that reported difficulties in repatriating international assignees and making good use of their experiences. When asked what aspect of their global mobility program they were most interested in improving, the top choice (58%) was repatriation and career management.

These are troubling statistics when you consider how much organizations invest in expatriates and how much is expected in return. They expose a common blind spot in managing developmental assignments. Not just international assignments, but other common types of experiences such as making a functional shift or playing a critical role in a turnaround or start-up effort. Greater attention is frequently given to putting the right people in the right assignments and prepping them for success than considering, “What happens next?”

Too often, they go off track. Employees experience frustration with limited opportunities to apply the insights and skills they learned during the assignment. Further difficulties stem from coming back to a job environment either very different or very similar to what they experienced before. Organizations experience a letdown effect from setting their expectations too high for what the employee can accomplish post-assignment.

When things fizzle after a high-profile developmental assignment, it’s a loss for all parties. The organization is unable to capitalize on its investment and is forced to consider other options for finding the strategic talent it needs. The employee is left to struggle with lower engagement, decreased commitment and diminished career expectations. What started out with such promise can sometimes sadly result in a premature parting of ways.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Try these practices to avoid the post-assignment blues:

Ask the right questions at the beginning. What are the individual’s developmental needs? How does the experience provide opportunities to develop these needs? How can the organization leverage what has been learned?  How does this relate to the person’s career interests and goals?

Maintain dialogue. A lot can happen between the beginning and end of an assignment. Individuals learn some things they expected and others they didn’t. Personal interests and priorities shift. Business conditions change and strategies evolve. Keep track of the changes as you go.

Continually assess learning. Learning from experience isn’t linear and occurs at an uneven pace. Depending on the length of the assignment, opportunities to apply and refine learning might be limited. Maintain a realistic view of how the individual is progressing against expectations.

Prepare for re-entry well in advance. Three months is too late. Six months might be okay. Better yet, be prepared to start thinking about next steps after the initial “settling in” period has passed.

Identify opportunities for application. Both parties need to weigh in on this. Look for opportunities to meet the organization’s strategic needs and the individual’s career aspirations.

Keep the learning going. Most individuals who thrive in developmental assignments are lifelong learners. They’re more inclined to seek the next challenge than a return to normal. Consider how the next assignment continues to stretch them.

The risk-reward ratio for developmental assignments is high. Commitment to planning, communication and partnership needs to happen through all phases of the process: before, during, and after. That strengthens your odds of avoiding the mishaps and celebrating the successes.


About George Hallenbeck

George is Group Director for Global Product Development. He leads an experienced and innovative multi-disciplinary team to develop the next generation of CCL’s programs, assessments, publications and services. The Global Product Development team builds off of CCL’s rigorous and pioneering body of research to develop products that are both proven and cutting-edge.
This entry was posted in Experience-Driven Development, Leading Globally, Talent Management & Development. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Navigating the Promise and Peril of Assignment Re-entry

  1. avatar Ned Keitt-Pride says:

    Having served as a volunteer overseas for several years out of college, I would add that it is important for all parties to recognize that international assignments are also cross-cultural assignments. Being immersed in another worldview for an extended amount of time is an incredible opportunity for growth, but successful re-entry requires that organizations anticipate fundamental perspective change in their employees.

    Too often, I think organizations expect their staff to return with exactly the same perspective as when they left, just more experience. That’s incredibly short-sighted and robs both parties of the opportunity to grow. Leadership needs to embrace a humility that acknowledges the value of the paradigm shifts that happen through extended cross-cultural assignments. Failing to do so, I think, plays a large part in the disengagement and disappointment you describe.

    • As you’ve described, Ned, rarely do organizations take the time to clearly ascertain what about the individual has changed (or for that matter, not changed) in the course of their experience. Different perspective, different skills, different behavioral preferences, and so on. Too often there is the urge to “pick up where we left off” without the appreciation of the deep changes that person might have undergone. As you observed, this is ultimately a lost opportunity for all parties. All the more need for there to be upfront dialogue about the impact of the experience and how both parties should attempt to leverage the lessons learned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>