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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Decline of the Expat Executive

Peter Felix, president of the Association of Executive Search Consultants, discusses the new effort by multinationals to hire local executives in foreign locales.

Executive expatriates are expensive, as many multinational firms have learned. Moving a manager to a factory or corporate office in Dubai, Russia, or India can be a costly experience after providing relocation dollars, tax equalization, and housing allowances. For that reason and others, Western and non-Western companies competing in emerging markets are dramatically reducing the number of Western executives they retain on full-fledged expatriate packages, replacing them with local nationals, third-country nationals (executives who live in the region but not in either the home or host country), and returning nationals, says Peter Felix, president of the New York–based Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC). According to recent surveys by AESC of hiring activities in China, India, Brazil, the Middle East, and Russia, only 12 percent of senior executives in those markets are expats, compared with 56 percent 10 years ago. Given this profound shift, Felix believes that there is a war for management talent brewing in emerging countries and that the ability to hire the best may determine who comes out on top in the fastest-growing global markets.

S+B: What are the most significant changes occurring in the way global talent is distributed?
FELIX: We’re seeing huge and explosive growth in demand for executive talent from multinational and local companies in emerging markets like Russia, India, and the Middle East. They’re looking in many different places to find that talent. In particular, they are seeking “returning talent”: returning Chinese, returning Indians, maybe even returning Russians, who have been educated, for instance, in the United States, worked there for a period of time, and have now come back to their home country. In seeking these executives, companies are hoping to find people who have broad experience — building infrastructure, implementing management practices, modernizing financial services and retail, and developing efficient steel and manufacturing operations — but who also have enough native knowledge of the region that they can fit in easily. At the moment, the expatriates still have a role in these markets, but that will continue to diminish as these local markets are more successful in finding either local nationals, third-country nationals, or returning nationals to fill the jobs.

S+B: What is the cost difference between using an international expatriate versus a third-country national or returning national?
FELIX: Expats are at least two or three times more expensive than the others. If the executive is an American working for an American company, then the company has to pay hefty tax equalization costs, covering any taxes the executive and his or her family pay to the host country. In many of these developing countries, accommodations are becoming extraordinarily expensive, and often companies provide either a housing allowance or adequate accommodation, which is an increasing burden.

Then, there are the significant costs of training people in the regional lifestyle and commercial habits and, in some cases, providing classes to improve their ability to speak the local language. Unfortunately, much of the investment that companies make in sending executives overseas doesn’t actually pay off, because those executives often leave the company a year or two after they get back to the home country: They may have problems fitting into the structure at headquarters or perhaps they have a hard time reconnecting with their colleagues. But whatever it is, they feel frustrated and leave.

And with these high costs as a backdrop, consider that there is a greater supply of local executives available, as many of the barriers between markets are falling. There is more mobility. The traditional brain drain from Russia, China, and India to the West has now reversed and many of these executives are staying home.

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  1. Expatriate Senior Executives an Endangered Species, Say Headhunters in Emerging Markets,” press release, Association of Executive Search Consultants, May 30, 2008: Results of a global survey of trends in executive recruitment. 
  2. András Gábor, et al., “Winning the Talent War in Eastern Europe: Challenges Facing the Consumer Goods Sector,” Spencer Stuart white paper, March 2008: Analyzes executive recruitment in the consumer goods sector in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.
  3. Avdesh Mittal, “Executive Stripes (PDF),” Heidrick & Struggles, 2008: Describes the difficulties of recruiting and retaining Indian executives.
  4. The Leadership Crisis: New Survey on the Best Companies for Leaders,” press release, HayGroup, December 12, 2007: Describes the study, conducted with Chief Executive magazine, which makes the case that demand for new leaders from economies such as China and India will intensify the global talent shortage for skilled executives.
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