By Olivier Meier, Mercer
HR professionals may spend months crafting competitive mobility policies only to see them shot down by stakeholders or not applied consistently, but in other companies, similar policy changes could receive strong support and acceptance among management and employees. Why would similar policies fail in one organization and succeed in another?
The difference between these two situations is due to what we loosely call the “corporate culture”, good or bad communication, and “office politics.” These vague concepts boil down to one idea: the talent mobility narrative (i.e., the overarching story about talent mobility in the company), and more specifically how it has been built, who owns it, and how it is used.
Mastering the talent mobility narrative is about linking the elements of the talent mobility journey with business objectives, communication channels, and the company positioning. The narrative provides context behind the information and policies communicated to internal stakeholders and assignees.
What is the master narrative?
What does talent mobility mean in your company? Most HR professionals will have some form of answer to this question but often dive too quickly into details about their approaches (“We have a local plus approach”) and fail to provide a clear and consistent picture. Sometimes, the picture is incomplete: “We have a talent mobility program, because we need to move talented individuals to business critical locations.” Okay, but what does it mean for me as an employee?
Motivation gurus would simplify the question by saying that what matters is not so much what or how but WHY? Building a structured master narrative is a practical way to explain the “why?”, connect it with both the business and the personal experience of individuals, and provide a clear resounding message that can be spread in the organization.
The master narrative brings a sense of causality, purpose, and alignment: “We are mobile talent because our business need and strategy in order to fulfill a given purpose and by doing so we offer our employees opportunities to grow and develop.” (A real narrative would have to be more detailed and specific to the realities of mobility in the company rather than a generic feel-good statement.)
The narrative story can be tailored for different audiences and purposes:
- Elevator pitch: describing what mobility in the company is about in two minutes.
- Introduction for policies: a longer version of the narrative, often involving the point of view of top management and articulating clearly the vision.
- Success stories: a version of the narrative with examples involving role models/successful assignees.
- Elements of language (words to use, principles): the key words, terminology and principles that should be communicated consistently by all the stakeholders. Are you promising to replicate the lifestyle of assignees or an international lifestyle? Are you applying an equalization logic or paying for the full costs? What are you promising explicitly and implicitly? Words matters and trigger expectations.
Why does it matter?
Controlling the master narrative is not a mere communication fad, it is a tool designed to achieve a successful implementation of the mobility programs.
Policy changes can be shot down by a counter narrative – a negative message about the new policy that has spread in the company and ultimately makes the implementation of changes difficult. Conflicting narratives crystallize around cost, value, alleged perceptions, and mobility trends. They can block change.
Sometimes a management injunction or a new buzz turn into a powerful narrative that wrestles control of the agenda away from HR: “Cut cost!”, “Do something for the new generation!”, “We need to introduce flexibility”. The unintended consequences of these counter narratives might be over-implications – e.g. cutting the package instead of analyzing cost drivers, doing something completely different for the new generations and discarding effective policies, or going too far with flexibility.
However, a well-structured positive narrative can support changes, new policies and practices, and ultimately reinforce mobility branding. Some of the largest companies attract mobile talent not because they pay more but because they give a sense of re-assurance about the level of support they provide for the whole family (“They take care of everything”). They don’t spend more money but have well established practices backed by a strong narrative. It’s more than just basic communication, it’s about having a structured story repeated over time and validated by consistent practices.
The objectives of a positive narrative are to:
- Bring clarity. The role of talent mobility in the organization is well defined and is linked to business objectives. The narrative provides context behind the data, factual information, and policies.
- Foster inclusion. It involves the internal stakeholders as well the different talent groups and explains how they are part of the mobility journey.
- Generate enthusiasm. Mastering narrative is about getting everybody on board about a program and eliminate negative buzz.
- Remove resistance to change and roadblocks preventing the implementation of new policies and practices.
- Dissuade people from requesting exceptions and disrupting policies. You can easily challenge a clause in a document that is not fully understood by most stakeholders, but going against a resounding narrative accepted by most people in the company is much more difficult.
A good narrative feeds into and reinforces the branding of the mobility program and the overall branding of the company.
Setting the content of the narrative
A good narrative is the description of a journey: the journey of the company to achieve a business goal, the journey of mobile employees to develop their careers and themselves as individuals, as well as the common purpose that unites everybody on the journey.
The journey described needs to reflect the realities of mobility in the organization. It cannot be an abstract idea imposed from the top and requires instead some soul searching about how mobility help the business and what international assignees really experience on the ground in the host locations.
It is useful to rely on design thinking tools such as a Journey Map to better understand what the stakeholders experience and think at each step of the mobility process from initial selection to repatriation (and even beyond: leveraging what has been learned on assignment and the career evolution post assignment).
A narrative can take different forms and rely on one or several of the following elements:
A description of the situation of business, what assignment support is provided and how assignments are managed. While such a description constitutes a significant part of the content , a narrative should not purely be descriptive and requires more context.
Linear versus non-linear approach
A linear narrative focuses on evolution and provides a sense of direction. It should reflect the direction of the overall business but also of mobility management – it can be a journey from basic mobility approaches to a fully integrated talent mobility function with, as background, the growing internationalization of the company.
Not all organizations follow a linear path and some business are more cyclical. Explaining these cycles of activity and how they impact mobility could also be part of the narrative.
Mobility development efforts can be put in historically context. The objective is not about the direction as such but rather about connecting with the traditional value of the company and provide context for a change. It could also be a reminder of what the company is about and the intention of the founders – in other words restoring a bigger picture that got lost in the urgency of meeting annual financial targets.
The point of view leverage the voice of a key influencer or stakeholder. In practice this would be someone from top management or role model for a target group that needs to be encouraged to take on assignment (e.g. women and minority groups).
For example, a top manager can describe his previous experience as international assignee and his opinion that mobility is essential for managers in the company.
The point of view is designed to make the narrative more personal by showing the commitment of leadership and connecting mobility practices with the success of previous assignees.
The narrative needs to speak to all the stakeholders who are directly or indirectly involved in talent mobility.
- For line managers, HR teams, and other functions helping with mobility management, the narrative should explain what it means for them (link with their business objectives) and the expectations (you need to provide that type of support and communicate this type of message.)
- On the employee side, the narrative needs to explain how mobility connects with the overall Employee Value Proposition which includes compensation, benefits, and career, as well as lifestyle and purpose. A strong narrative is a way to highlight non-compensation elements of the EVP – a clearly understood purpose means less pressure on others reward items and ultimately less costs (or at least control cost and limit exceptions.)
The importance of fact-based narratives
Factual data can improve decision making but it does not eliminate the need for a powerful narrative. The problem is when a narrative comes before the facts have been established and the conclusions of analyses are twisted to align with that narrative.
We tend to think of mobility management as a rational process and assume that management has a good understanding of its implications, costs, and consequences. Mobility analytics provides an opportunity to drive fact-based discussion and dispel myths. Facts are here to inform and set the base of the narrative and then reinforce it.
Controlling the ownership and flow of the narrative
If the mobility team doesn’t own the narrative, others will. They might misrepresent the message that the team is trying to communicate.
Here are common examples:
- Line management and local HR are not experts in assignment management. Their views of mobility are informed by business priorities and local considerations. They might have developed negative views of mobility due to perceived high costs or from trying to solve a problem reported by mobile employees. Unchecked, their messages could develop into a counter narrative – a negative buzz about mobility that could ultimately weaken talent mobility management in the company.
- Companies that are outsourcing some of their mobility management activities should be aware that external suppliers might not understand the message the company is trying to convey. They should be provided with clear elements of languages and a good understanding of the narrative, but ultimately it’s the in-house mobility team that need to control the message. While it may seem obvious, let’s remember that external suppliers are often in direct contact with assignees (e.g. relocations firms) and line management (tax advisers, payroll provider etc.). If there are no clear guidelines and proactive actions by the mobility team, they will communicate their limited or flawed understanding of the policies.
In addition to securing the ownership of the narrative, mapping how it flows in the organization is important.
Official organization charts and processes don’t tell the whole story about how employees collaborate and communicate among themselves. Many employees rely on their informal networks to find information. In the case of international assignees, they might get information from peers or local colleagues who are not officially involved in the mobility management process.
A collaboration network analysis allows us to understand how the information flows between employees and business units and who employees turn to for support. Collaboration patterns can reveal a disconnection between stakeholders:
- Choke points can appear in the collaboration network – points in the network where the flow of interactions or information is slowed down or stopped. This could be the result of voluntary (excessive control) or involuntary (overload) actions by network actors. In other words, some line managers can act as gatekeepers who control the information going to their teams.
- Some employees are more connected than others – and this does not always correlate with grades or official job titles. These “central actors” are influencers who play a great role in the dissemination of official information, news and rumors. Understanding who they are is important.
- Other employees might be “outliers” in the network, meaning that they have few connections and might receive less information and ultimately might not understand or be aware of the narrative.
A detailed analysis can take time and be complex but simply bringing stakeholders in a room and having an in-depth discussion about how they get their information and collaborate among themselves can already bring clarity and provide insights on how the narrative might spread in the organization.
Closing the say-do gap
The gap leads to challenges to policies and could produce a counter narrative that would threaten the whole approach: “I did not receive the support I was promised” (assignees), “We spent a lot of money on the assignments and the people resigned shortly after. Do we really need so many international assignments?” (management). The gap can be the result of several things:
- The narrative is not adapted to the realities of talent mobility in the companies – e.g. officially, mobility is good for employees but there is no talent management process in place to ensure that international experience translate into a career boost.
- Lack of global consistency (or “congruence” as marketing would say) in the implantation or communication: the implementation of the mobility principles is patchy. The HQ might be aware of these principles but local management and regional hubs might say something different. The organization claims to provide extensive support to the assignees and their families, but in practice it is difficult for them to find information or have a clear point of contact.
- Conflicting changing priorities – new business changes can impact mobility practice and force management to discard some of their original promises. A new sweeping cost cutting exercise or a new reorganization means that some of the mobility provisions are not fully implemented.
A narrative should be positive but it’s not about telling employees will be having a perfect experience on assignments. Closing the say-do gap is about improving management practices and be consistent but also about adapting the narrative to the realities of mobility.
In any case, it’s up to the HR and talent mobility teams to step up to the challenge and build a compelling but realistic narrative – in other words go beyond basic communication to articulate a strategic talent mobility vision.