The era of the Western expatriate manager is ending argues Jeffrey Joerres, CEO of the global staffing firm Manpower, Inc. in the May 2011 McKinsey Monthly Newsletter. It’s time for a local approach, he says.


Why is this? According to Joerres expatriate managers are very poor at adapting to local culture. The presence of foreign managers often promotes a belief among local employees that there is a glass ceiling to their own career advancement. This breeds anger and resentment often resulting in increased staff turnover. I’ve seen this resentful attitude myself in a group of about a dozen Bangalore research engineers and junior level managers who reported to an Australian senior level manager. Despite the Australian having good interpersonal skills and an understanding of the situation, overcoming these problems was a difficult, often frustrating process.


Independent companies and joint ventures with western firms are growing in number and strength. As they do so they become stronger competitors for western multinational companies. With their intimate knowledge of local markets, business conditions and workplace cultures, native managers are often more effective in managing operations in developing economies.


If multinationals staff their own international management ranks with expatriate employees, they often find it more difficult in competing to hire the best local management and technical talent. In addition, intimate local cultural and business knowledge is becoming increasingly important in competing effectively in developing markets.


Solving the problem


One approach to solving the problem is to make it clear to the expatriate manager and to local employees that the expatriate will be in country for only a limited time. Expatriate managers should have two major responsibilities. The first should be to get new programs or facilities up and running. This should include hiring local managers and staff members. The other is to train local managers to assume their responsibilities, become able to work independently and replace the expatriate in a reasonable amount of time.


“Reverse expats”


 A reverse expat is a local manager who is placed in charge of an international company’s operation in an emerging. This individual can be then rotated through some of the company’s more mature operations in other countries. Time in these assignments should be measured in months, not years. This process can accelerate the development of emerging economy managers and lead to a more competitive and sustainable organization.


Existing managers in the more mature operations play a key role in this process. They need to be aware that the goal isn’t to blindly transfer workplace practices to emerging economy operations. When rigidly practiced by local managers these practices are likely to fail. The goal is to develop local managers’ basic knowledge so they can adapt mature economy practices to operations in their homelands.


Parent company managers should work with emerging market managers to develop an action plan for the reverse expatriate’s return home. The principles of project management can be used to define goals, criteria for success and milestones for this process.


Lab managers


All of the above discussion applies to laboratory managers at various levels as well as managers of business and production operations.