Taxonomy of internationally mobile managers

global_managerDue to increased business globalization, the demand for competent international managers also continues to grow. Accordingly, international human resources management (IHRM) practices are constantly adapted to account for the many different ways that international work can be arranged. Indeed, several scholars argue that a classification within the group of international managers is needed, which would allow for a more tailored approach of IHRM practices. A similar argument is made in a recent study by German scholars Andersen and Biemann (2013), who posit that different career patterns imply different career management practices, as employees with different career patterns may vary in their motives and competencies. Specifically, on the basis of previous theoretical taxonomies, and their analysis of 202 actual careers of international managers, the two scholars identified four different patterns of international careers, namely the international organizational career, the international borderless career, the transnational career, and the early career. The four careers were differentiated based on the length of professional experience, expatriate experience and organizational tenure. Below, the four typologies will be described, and several managerial implications proposed.


The international organizational career

An international organizational career can be viewed as a traditional pattern, because managers following this path have the longest tenure with the same employer, and as part of this tenure take two or three long-term assignments abroad. Employees in this category tend to be very career oriented and they view expatriation as a necessary step towards further career development, which explains why they build their career with one employer. As stated by the authors, rather than assigning importance to the experience of expatriation, these managers emphasize the importance of repatriation to their home organization, as a step signifying the continued connection with the employer. Comparing the four typologies, the authors also note that managers with an international organizational career have the highest objective career success, hence earning higher salaries, have more subordinates reporting to them, and reach higher positions with one employer.

Given how highly this traditional approach is valued and how much loyalty towards the employer it involves, companies should plan for such careers to create a pool of highly skilled international managers, who will stay with the company for a long time. To retain these managers, companies should plan appropriate international career paths, which would enable them to combine international and national work periods without gaps in career development. Hence, repatriation plans should be in place with definite and suitable job assignments, which would allow the repatriate to use the new skills and knowledge they have acquired. Moreover, as these managers strive towards objective career success, which can be one of the selection criteria, companies should provide them with adequate compensation packages and other career status benefits. Last but not least, as the authors note, companies should continuously work on maintaining the psychological contract with the expatriate to be able to retain them in the long term.


The international boundaryless career

The main difference between an international organizational career and an international boundaryless career is in their underlying career concepts: whereas the former pattern reflects a career in only one organization the latter implies a career in multiple organizations and industries. In essence, employees with international boundaryless careers can be termed international itinerants, a breed of expatriates I have written about earlier. In brief, these managers fulfill several international assignments, yet have a tendency of changing their employers upon repatriation. As found in the current study, an international boundaryless career involves rather low objective career success. This can be explained though, as these managers tend to purposely accumulate less company-specific knowledge, which is essential for career advancement within one organization, and focus rather on knowledge that is transferrable between organizations. At the same time, subjective career success is quite similar across the two groups, which indicates that international itinerants have somewhat different criteria of career success. If traditional career success is assessed through the level of positions reached and the pay obtained, then expatriates with boundaryless careers might value the meaningfulness of their work, and enjoy the challenges of new environments in terms of both different organizations and countries.

From the company perspective, as discussed in my earlier blog post, managers with boundaryless careers can offer some advantages that cannot be offered by traditional expatriates. These managers are best suited for projects of limited duration that require an international mindset, but are managed still at the regional level. As these employees are highly mobile and highly self-managed, such international projects can be sufficiently supported by local HR functions. Finally, as these managers usually have some specific knowledge that is transferred between organizations, companies could benefit from networking with other organizations, aiming to develop a shared pool of international itinerants.


The transnational career  

A transnational career pattern is similar to an international organizational career in that it is characterized by staying with the same employer for a long time. However, different from the previously discussed pattern, transnational careerists spend almost their whole work life abroad, relocating to many different places. As identified in the current study, such employees value an international career as important for achieving promotion, income, challenging work, and a rich private life. Compared to the other career patterns, transnational careerists have the lowest objective career success, however the subjective career success is as high as in the other patterns. Similar to employees with boundaryless careers, it can be argued that these managers value inspiring and interesting jobs or job environments, as opposed to external success factors.

Companies should benefit from transnational careerists in case they need highly mobile managers, who would fulfill different tasks in several different subsidiaries abroad. The authors suggest that when selecting employees for such careers, the potential candidates should perceive international experiences as highly important, but the career in a traditional sense should be of less importance for them. To retain such employees, companies should ensure that subjective career success is perceived, which is why it is better to manage transnational managers from corporate headquarters, keep personal contact with them, and ensure their professional development throughout the different assignments.


The early career 

The early career pattern describes the traditional view of expatriates, who work for several years abroad, and then permanently repatriate back to their home-country company. These managers tend to value such an international assignment from a career point of view. The authors argue that the group of early careerist is also a pool of potential candidates for the three other career patterns, as after their first assignment some employees might decide to further embark on an internationally mobile career. As such, companies should pay a lot of attention to these employees during their first assignment, assess their expectations and experiences, as well as maintain the psychological contract to define the further path of these managers.


Further reading:

Andersen, M., and Biemann, T. (2013). A taxonomy of internationally mobile managers. The international Journal of Human Resource Management, 24 (3), 533-557

2 thoughts on “Taxonomy of internationally mobile managers

  1. Prof Reiche, this is a great blog post about international managers. Although a little old (from 2013) it still applies to current times as well. Thanks a lot, nice reading.

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