Overseas job assignments get a haircut

August 1, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Say farewell to that company-paid stint in Paris. Some companies are now sending budding leaders to emerging markets to test their adaptation skills and grit.

By Elizabeth G. Olson, contributor

FORTUNE -- For rising managerial stars, an overseas assignment can be a glamorous perk. Spending a few years abroad, largely on the company dime, sounds almost as good as a paid vacation. Almost.

But some corporations are taking a new approach to the overseas assignment and have begun to send employees abroad to work on short-term projects as a means to test how they work, and adapt, outside their comfort zones.

Companies still send executives to attractive locales like Paris, but short-term projects are often based in emerging markets where companies are looking to expand. Some businesses are even taking a page from the missionary's playbook, sending employees on charitable assignments with the side goal of promoting their business.

IBM (IBM), for example, is sending its budding leaders to Africa and other developing markets through its Corporate Service Corps program, with the goal of seeing how these managers how operate in unfamiliar surroundings, work with people from different backgrounds, and lay the groundwork for future business by developing relationships with local decision-makers.

"This is part of operating a global enterprise," says Tom Vines, vice president of business and technology leadership for IBM. "Leadership has to be more than just a class and more than just a webinar."

IBM vets its employees for performance and leadership qualities before selecting candidates to work on an array of projects in areas such as education, health care, and economic development. IBM has sent teams to Egypt, India, Kenya, and Nigeria, all strong growth regions for the technology giant.

In Kenya, John Fredette, a Boston-based IBM manager, joined a team last March for a month-long pro-bono consulting project with the Postal Corporation of Kenya.

"Our goal was to work with the postal corporation to add financial services to what it offers customers," says Fredette. "We ended up giving them a roadmap so the postal corporation can add services like issuing passports, which people now wait in line for at government offices, to make better use of their locations around the country."

He had to present the team's plan to the Postal Corporation's national board to persuade them, he says, "that if you don't change the [company] mindset, it will become irrelevant. It was dicey to say that to them."

Too short for its own good or just right?

Since its launch three years ago, IBM's Corporate Service Corps has sent 1,200 employees to participate in more than 100 projects in 23 different countries. And its model has been adopted or adapted by other corporations like Dow Corning and FedEx (FDX).

Few programs are as large as IBM's, which selects around 500 employees to participate each year. The teams, usually between eight and 12 members, spend three months preparing for their trip, a month on location, and two months back at their home office wrapping up their work and sharing their experiences with other IBMers, typically through blog posts and public appearances.

Many companies argue that these short-term projects abroad help them respond to the demands of an increasingly global work environment, but leadership development experts have given mixed reviews to this approach.

Rosabeth M. Kanter, director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, praises such short-term projects as "cost-effective ways to build skills and relationships in a diverse team."

IBM's model, she says, "mirrors the way people increasingly work: thrust into new situations that require them to learn and react fast while adjusting quickly to different styles and cultures."

A drawback, notes Kanter, who wrote Super Corp, How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good, is that: "People don't learn a country in depth the way they would on a longer-term assignment.

"But they learn how to learn about countries," she adds. And, "sometimes the projects demand innovation that isn't possible in more routine business work."

Taking the costs into account

Briefer assignments also allow companies to provide leadership experience to upcoming managers without the family disruption and major relocation expenses of a long-term international move.

Also, studies have found that there is a high rate of departure for executives that return from assignments abroad and find themselves off the management track or out of sync with the culture at company headquarters. Brookfield Global Relocation Services' annual trends survey for 2010 found that 38% of executives surveyed left their companies in the first year after their return from an assignment abroad.

Devising a relevant experience for each employee is key, says Michel Buffet, a managing partner at Fisher-Rock Consulting, which specializes in organization change and talent management. "There's a trend toward moving to short assignments, and customizing the experience for each employee," he notes.

Still, companies are not likely to abandon traditional overseas assignments any time soon as it allows companies to quickly address talent shortages in different parts of the world, says Haig Nalbantian, a director at Mercer, the global consulting firm.

"But we are seeing more concern at companies about the impact, given the high costs such moves incur," says Nalbantian. "A number of recent clients have talked to us about substituting shorter term assignments…. It has to be a balance."

"It's a struggle for every company," agrees Ed Hannibal, who leads Mercer's North American mobility practice. In a survey last year, some 30% of some 462 Mercer clients said they were using shorter term assignments, he says.

Charity with a twist

FedEx is launching its own take on IBM's leadership program. The company recently completed a pilot program in Brazil for its new Global Leadership Corps which "marries the Peace Corps with business," says Tess Smith, a human resources manager for the company.

During this particular project, FedEx employees helped Afro-Brazilian youth in Northeast Brazil prepare for college-entrance exams, teaching English and helping them obtain scholarships, according to Smith.

Candidates had to be nominated and recommended as high potential performers -- a vetting process similar to IBM's. But Smith notes that the FedEx program "is much less direct than IBM's. It does promote our brand, but it's not set up to get new business."

Dow Corning Corp. began its own program last year, starting with a cook stove technology project in Bangalore, India, to give its employees a chance to learn about working in emerging markets.

"International leadership experience is valuable, and people want to sign up," says Ed Colbert, the company's global director of talent management. Last year, 100 director-level employees applied and 10 were selected to participate.

"Short or long-term, it's much more valuable if an employee [goes] outside his normal comfort zone. The key for the employee is immersion."

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