International assignees play a vital role in the ongoing success of multinational companies. This article offers a concise overview of the latest trends in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector and their impact on mobility, and then goes on to outline how the global mobility team at Barry Callebaut – one of the world’s leading suppliers of cocoa and chocolate products – recently transformed the company’s approach to overseas assignments while maintaining an extremely tight ship.
While the larger consumer goods companies are already well established in many emerging markets, they will need to maintain a ‘continuous improvement approach’ if they are to keep success rates high. Two of the main challenges facing these firms involve establishing new operations in greenfield sites as quickly as possible, and in addressing the competition posed by smaller – and arguably nimbler – businesses in these potentially lucrative locations.
International assignments are not only becoming more common, but they are also increasingly diverse: while traditional long-term assignments are still very much part of the mix according to recent Mercer research, short-term moves are happening more frequently than hitherto; local plus and developmental moves, as well as commuting arrangements, are also gaining in popularity. Business expansion remains by far the principal driver behind international mobility, yet career development is also an important factor: gaining experience in overseas markets is vital for shoring up an organisation’s future leadership pipeline. That said, finding the most suitable candidates for assignments remains a challenge, as does cost containment and a dearth of specific mobility tools that would help businesses generate and analyse assignee metrics. Exceptions management is another hot topic: housing and home leave trips are frequent sources of conflict even in established locations, and a degree of flexibility will be required while businesses and assignees become accustomed to new host areas.
Important aspects to consider going forward include:
- improving the link between career management, talent development and broader business requirements;
- segmenting polices for international assignments where appropriate in order to keep pace with evolutions in overseas moves, and fine-tuning policy package elements;
- centralising the management and administration of the global mobility function in order to improve compliance and governance.
The recent experience of the global mobility team at Barry Callebaut is an excellent example of how these actions – among others – can radically overhaul and improve the mobility experience for employees and employer alike.
Case Study: Transforming Mobility at Barry Callebaut
With more than 9,000 employees operating across over 30 countries, ensuring the right people are in the right place at the right time is crucial for the entrepreneurial CG firm Barry Callebaut (BC). Yet just four years ago, the business’s approach to mobility was ad hoc; a loosely constructed, and widely ignored, mobility policy meant that assignees and managers negotiated terms between themselves on a case-by-case basis. As a result, overseas moves were protracted, expensive and marred by erratic service from vendors and local HR teams alike, although this was not surprising given that the latter were typically excluded from the decision-making around assignments and had not been given the opportunity to build their knowledge of crucial issues such as payroll and compliance.
Realising that much could be gained from overhauling the company’s mobility processes and policies, head of global reward Jane Arlow and her team took the initiative and began to move BC towards a more coherent process. The transition began unobtrusively at first, when the team started to produce cost estimates featuring standard line items that helped to flag up to managers just how much their independently negotiated assignee packages cost in reality. Thereafter, managers began to contact the reward team before they set new assignments in motion – an important step forward.
‘Stealth’ Policy Design
Other issues clearly had to be tackled, however. Compliance was high on the list, but informal inhouse research also flagged up:
- assignee dissatisfaction with poor service levels;
- unsatisfactory liaison between home country managers and local HR teams;
- disparities among assignee packages and internal disagreement over remuneration approaches.
Armed with this knowledge, the mobility team designed and mapped a set of simple, streamlined policies – catering for long- and short-term assignments, graduate assignees, and local plus moves – that would act as easy-to-understand templates for managers. After an exhaustive tendering process, three external vendors with a global footprint to match BC’s were appointed to manage relocation, tax and medical insurance issues respectively, and following leadership sign-off the new system went live on 1 September 2013.
Key results include:
- improved relations with many internal stakeholders. For example, HR teams have received extensive training in the new system from their principal partner and global mobility manager Isabelle Riege, and are now an integral part of the mobility process. Cost leadership is important at BC and to that end the finance team have also been brought off the bench in mobility terms and now flag up all assignment-related expenses to the relevant parties. Finally, corporate tax colleagues help the mobility team ensure that the implications of any complex overseas moves are assessed and acted on appropriately.
- better service from high-calibre external vendors. Given how lean the three-person mobility function is at BC, these vendors act as an extension of the inhouse team and communicate directly and frequently with assignees. Not only has coverage has also improved, but the inhouse administrative burden has been eased and assignee satisfaction levels have been boosted as a result of consistently good support across all of BC’s international operations.
- a positive impact on company-wide learning and support as a result of standardising processes, packages and services. While there has been a modicum of resistance to a more consistent approach – BC is an entrepreneurial company and places a high premium on flexibility – establishing policies and processes and process has helped the mobility team to establish and assign key tasks and responsibilities more effectively and will ultimately speed up what had been to date a protracted and fraught process.
Successes, Challenges and Lessons
Two years in, mobility at Barry Callebaut mobility is on a much more stable footing and the inhouse team has noticed particularly successes in terms of:
- visibility. All employees now understand what the mobility function does, who the team is, and what they do. Ad hoc assignments are now by and large a thing of the past.
- credibility. The first moves under the new system were completed quickly, and received positive feedback from assignees. As a result, BC’s senior leaders were appreciative of the team’s expertise, and now actively seek their advice on assignment-related issues, especially with regard to cost.
- efficiency. This has been increased significantly: even though the company’s expat population has doubled (it had doubled during time, but then decreased again), the mobility team has been able to maintain the same headcount thanks to streamlined operations and the support of top-notch external partners.
As with all new ways of working, however, important lessons have been learned along the way. Organisations considering a similar transformation should:
- be prepared for more resistance than anticipated. At BC, for example, prospective assignees had expected to negotiate their own packages, as their peers deployed under the old system had done. Some senior managers continued to offer under the radar packages also, but running exceptions reports and presenting them to the executive committee – outlining how the extra costs incurred and who had authorised that expenditure – has helped to cap this. Ironically, even though local HR managers had felt out of the loop where mobility was concerned, there was concern that centralising global mobility decisions in Zurich would undermine them. Closer liaison has gone some way to resolving this issue, however.
- be flexible, and realise processes must evolve constantly.
- be open-minded during tendering processes. Your assumed number one choice may not necessarily provide the best value for money or level of service.
- be proactive about marketing. Spread the word about new policies and processes in good time, stressing the benefits of the revised approach.
- consider incremental change via a pioneer group rather than seeking to implement widespread
change in one fell swoop. Having a success story to boost the profile of a different policy or process could help it gain acceptance quicker.
- realise that cash isn’t always king. While assignees need to be rewarded appropriately for their time away from home, the career development aspect of mobility is just as important and arguably should be seen as the principal reward.