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The Personal Side of Global HR

January 1, 1997
Related Topics: Featured Article
There’s no magic formula. No tried-and-true methods. No body of knowledge on which to build a successful international human resources career. Global HR is a field that’s still in its infancy. However, there are a few HR professionals who not only have taken those first few precarious baby steps into global HR toddlerhood, but also have carefully maneuvered their way into international HR adulthood -- and are running with it.

These global HR mentors serve as models of the solid job competencies that HR professionals must possess to get ahead. They also serve as nearly the only source of information on how to blend career aspirations for a successful international HR career with the even less-often talked about facet of global HR: How a global HR career impacts your personal life and what characteristics you need to get to the top. Here are some tips from those who’ve been there -- and done that.

An enhanced service mentality.
An international HR career is similar in some ways to domestic HR. But there are many ways in which it differs. Topping the list is how a global HR job can affect one’s personal life. "There certainly is a different personal impact since you’re working with 15-hour time differences sometimes," says Elaine Patterson, manager of international HR for Unocal Corp.’s subsidiary in Brea, California. Patterson manages eight full-time people in the firm’s international HR department.

Patterson says that although most overseas personnel whom her department serves (more than 100) simply can send an e-mail to ask the HR staff questions, sometimes Unocal employees abroad may need global HR professionals even when they’re technically off duty. And that can mean having to wear a beeper or even allowing expats to call HR staff at home. Because of time differences, an international HR professional’s personal privacy and time sometimes may have to play second fiddle to his or her job of tending to the needs of workers in other time zones.

Patterson says this demands an enhanced service mentality of global HR professionals at her firm. If a company’s U.S.-based HR representatives are serving expatriates who are several time zones and thousands of miles away, they may have to be more patient and respond with more immediacy than the average U.S. HR person does. As Patterson points out, when you’re servicing expats who are 10,000 miles away, they aren’t always sure you’re getting their letters and responding to their concerns. And they can’t pop into your office with questions.

Different levels of commitment.
There are many types of global HR jobs -- both domestic and international assignments -- and each requires different levels of professional and personal commitment. For example, if you’re a global HR manager based in the United States, you may spend as much as 10 percent to 50 percent of your time traveling abroad. And those trips may last a few days to several weeks, depending on how many sites you’re managing and how critical the needs are at the sites you’re visiting.

John de Leon, regional director of international HR for Los Angeles-based Deloitte & Touche LLP’s international assignment services group, says that because many global professionals may spend so much of their time traveling, issues of personal security and lengthy absences from one’s family can heighten the job’s responsibilities. Deloitte & Touche is a Big Six accounting firm that also specializes in international HR consulting services. "And just the simple wear and tear on one’s body given the number of time zones that one crosses makes it tough," de Leon adds. "You get there. You get off the plane. You get six hours of sleep and you have to go to work the next morning and be sharp."

Although the domestic U.S. HR manager who manages global HR issues for workers in other countries is challenged, the job is perhaps not quite as challenging personally as the overseas HR assignment is. "I think one of the more challenging and interesting jobs in the international world of HR is your regional HR director’s," says de Leon. Why does he think so? Because it’s a job in which you actually get to live and work in an international setting.

And it’s just as challenging as, if not more than, the domestic HR job because the time spent traveling may not diminish if you’re a regional HR manager abroad with responsibility for managing several sites in neighboring countries. De Leon says regional HR managers abroad still travel as much as 50 percent of the time. It’s definitely not a job for the person with the nine-to-five mentality.

An HR expat tour of duty.
Although international HR has its downsides, an international HR career may provide professionals with a unique chance to serve on their own expat tour of duty. In fact, it’s preferable that you have an international assignment abroad if you want to reach the top of the international HR career ladder, say many experienced global HR professionals.

For example, before John A. Misa joined MasterCard International Inc. in January 1995, he had spent more than 20 years at IBM Corp. — of which four were spent in HR in Hong Kong. "As I look back over my international HR career, it was extremely important for me to have sought out and to have had that opportunity," says Misa, who’s now vice president of international HR for MasterCard based in Purchase, New York. He says his experience abroad has given him an understanding of the complexities of the global HR job that he otherwise wouldn’t have had if he had just stayed in the States.

"And, as it turned out, it was the fastest growing part of the IBM business, so I stayed on because there were many challenges, and we were growing so rapidly," adds Misa. This points to another area of global HR that makes it uniquely interesting. The global growth of business may be exciting, but it requires extreme flexibility in one’s personal commitment, because you may be required to move from one assignment to another quickly and to manage multiple tasks and roles. Yet for Misa, it was his chance to learn a tremendous amount -- both about HR and about business -- in a relatively short time.

Global HR can be both professionally and personally challenging. And it also can be quite rewarding. As with any other profession, you generally get out of it what you put into it. And while an international HR career can take its toll, it also can be a specialty that gives you a window to the world like no other.

Global Workforce, January 1997, Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 14.

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