Passport To The C-Suite

Global Business Week – How Going Abroad Can Advance Your Career

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 Passport To The C-Suite


By Mary Welch


Corporate America is morphing into global organizations run by leaders with significant international experience. Few dispute these overseas assignments continue to be overwhelmingly given to men – effectively keeping women from getting the necessary experience to obtain top leadership positions.

However, while more women today receive international assignments, the percentage of women vs. men in such roles hasn’t increased. In fact, it’s decreasing. In 2012, women made up just 20 percent of international expatriates, compared to 23 percent in 2005, according to the 2012 Global Relocation Trends Survey by Brookfield Global Relocation Services. That’s one of the lowest numbers since 2001.

Why aren’t women getting these plum overseas assignments? Is Corporate America doing enough to find and groom qualified female candidates, while implementing best practices to overcome barriers impeding their career path?

“This was a career choice for me,” says Therese Gearhart, who recently left Turkey for a new role as president of the South African business unit, for The Coca-Cola Company. “I work for a global brand and I want to go as far as I can. So I automatically wanted an international assignment. This is my personal choice that was supported by the company and by my family.”

While women like Gearhart excel in international roles, an invisible barrier holds others back.

“The data about women in overseas assignments hasn’t changed all that much in the past couple of years,” says Patricia Deyton, director for the Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons College School of Management.


Are women not getting these assignments because of gender bias?

“I personally think that overt biases are no longer in play in businesses today,” says Deyton. “But what we are facing is second generation gender issues. Those subtle things can create barriers and they can be so subtle that you may not even think they’re there, but they are.”

According to a survey by Cartus, that “subtle” bias is based largely on three assumptions:

  • Women don’t want to be international managers.
  • Companies refuse to send women abroad for safety reasons.
  • Foreigners’ prejudice against women render them ineffective.

Some Fortune 500 companies such as Chartis, Bank of America, American Express and General Motors have sophisticated processes to identify and help female high potentials navigate abroad, and then into C-Suites.

Chartis says it’s a high priority for them. “The advancement of women into global roles is vital, not just for international roles but in ensuring, wherever possible, that we have the best people in the right jobs,” says Peter Hancock, CEO of Chartis.

The company has a formal sponsorship program where women leaders are provided increasing exposure to global networks and career opportunities. “This assists in strengthening our pipeline of existing leaders and high-potential talent,” he says.

Unfortunately, other top companies do not prioritize it similarly. For those women who are not recruited for overseas assignments, the fault may lie less with the woman’s resume, and more with the company’s inability to identify the woman in the first place.


Getting into the Leadership Pipeline

As costs rise (it’s now estimated a corporate overseas relocation costs about $1 million), companies look increasingly hard to find the right candidate.

There are three major reasons why they send employees overseas, according to Scott Sullivan, executive VP of Global Sales at Brookfield Relocation Services:

  • To fill an immediate need or rare skill.
  • To fill a managerial role, especially in countries like China, where there is a certain level of technical skill available but not as much in middle or upper management. The company sends someone over to run the company and possibly turn it over eventually to local management.
  • To grow talent and develop careers.


Jo Danehl, a British expat working in Chicago as account management director for Cartus Intercultural and Language Solutions, says 90 percent of respondents to her firm’s survey believe talent and mobility need to be linked. But only two percent believe they are.

“We have seen a spike in the last 12 months of clients seeking ways to get better candidates and try to improve the selection process,” she says. “They need to close the gap and recognize the global movement is part of talent management.”

It’s a win-win situation, when both, the assignment and the woman going abroad benefit from the move. “That’s the holy grail,” says Accenture’s global director of leadership development, Camille Mirshokrai.  But often, “nothing is flowing to the person who goes to the assignment to fill the skill gap.”

There are notable exceptions.

 Passport To The C-Suite

“At Bank of America we are devoted to developing talent at all levels,” says Ruth Ferguson, SVP and HR head for their Asia-Pacific Region. An expat herself, Ferguson lives in Hong Kong with her family. “We have several ways to identify talent and then we nurture it through networking, mentoring, extra training, stretch goals and assignments. We look less at gender and focus on the position and what skill set is needed. We also look to identify a person who could use that experience.”

In contrast: “One of our key diversity focuses is women,” says Terry Hildebrand, head of global talent and development for The Coca-Cola Company. She says it’s part of Coca-Cola’s 2020 strategy, to develop a robust talent pipeline. “We have a slating process and we take a rigorous look at women, earmark them and get development plans in place.”

They do this by consulting with business leaders in the company and following key candidates. 

American Express also works to create a culture of opportunity for women who now represent more than 60 percent of global employees and over 30 percent of top executives. That’s according to Jennifer Christie, chief diversity officer and VP of executive recruitment. “We are able to track, identify and select high-potential women for the pipeline through our extensive talent management system, data analysis and discussions with senior HR executives.”

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