Question: Preparing for an expat assignment

My company, an energy company based in Florida, has tapped me for a 2-4 year leadership assignment in a recent Japanese acquisition.

I will report to the CEO of the subsidiary, and my key responsibility will be to integrate our product lines and operations. This is not my first international assignment, and I expect a 2-day cultural orientation before I leave.

Knowing that I may not be getting candid feedback from my new colleagues, what steps can I take to quickly adjust to and drive changes in the new organization?

3 Expert Insights

First of all, congratulations on your assignment and the confidence your company has in your leadership potential. Your willingness to take the expat assignment is a major factor in your favor, and having had a prior international assignment you already have some idea of what to expect. The Japanese culture is likely quite different from your previous assignment, however. It's great that your company provides a cultural orientation, but you might want to take responsibility on your own for a more extensive cultural orientation, including developing some familiarity with the language.

One issue for many expats is the lack of a support system in their new location. It will be helpful to make the effort to get to know the people you will be working with. The CEO or just about anyone you develop a relationship with could continue your cultural orientation as a culture mentor. As you get to know your coworkers, you may be able to help them become more comfortable in giving candid feedback.

Increasingly people are recognizing that leadership and management roles are more effective when the workforce is engaged in problem solving and innovation, rather than simply taking orders. This would seem especially true in the expat situation you're describing. Rather than being the expert from Florida who is going to tell everybody in your new Japanese acquisition how they will be integrating your product lines and operations, you might begin by defining the challenge at hand and inviting your workforce to help in rising to meet that challenge

Congrats on your assignment!

1. Before you go, get some coaching from someone who has expertise in Japanese mindset and experience in working there. (if you need people i have 2 excellent folks). Understand embedded, cultural protocols (verbal language, body language, gender competencies; mindsets).  

2. Get clear on what your preferences are (for decision making, pace of work, what you mean by accountability) and what you value and what you do NOT value (core values, blind spots, hot buttons) so that you are very conscious of your habitual  "way of being" and can self-manage your preferences.

3. Speak with another expat who's working in the same organization -- mine his/her learning, experience.

4.  Create an ally(s) who will give you support and needed feedback.

5. creating relationships of trust and authenticity  will be the foundation of your results. it's all about relationships.

You've been chosen for the role because of what you will bring to it. Be clear on what that is, and who will be assessing your performance. Make sure your performance measurements will be appropriate for the culture, and not "super imposed" from our Western "get 'er done" mentality.  Situational leadership would be the mantra.  

have an amazing time on assignment.  

American and Japanese business cultures are very different. The first is based on the individual while the second is based on consensus. Consequently, reading your question gave me a chuckle because you are setting out with a mindset that does not take this cultural difference into consideration. You are setting yourself up for a lot more challenges than you need to.

You will have to work very closely with the CEO, allowing him to drive the changes that need to occur. This means you will - by necessity - have to get him onboard. This means his boss has to make it absolutely clear to him what your mandate and authority is, and that you have his support. Japan is a very hierarchical society. The protruding nail will get hammered down to be put in line with all the rest.

Integrating an acquired company is always challenging. Integrating one in your home country is easier because of the common cultural setting. Integrating one abroad is very challenging because the cultural norms can be very different. In order to facilitate your integration and success, your US and Japanese bosses should be you mentors. You will also want to set up a project team with members from both companies who will work along with you to bring about the successful integration of operations and product lines.

On a more personal level, this is an exciting opportunity for you to learn about yourself. We all carry around a whole bunch of cultural baggage which shapes how we see the world, and influences how we behave. Foreign assignments bring all those assumptions to the foreground of our thinking and awareness that even though we may use the same words, each person attaches their own interpretation to it. It can be a very exciting experience if taken the right way, or a disaster.

Enjoy it!