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How Mobile Talent Managers Can Become Strategic Partners for the Business

Olivier Meier

Principal at Mercer | Helping Companies GoGlobal | Consulting, Data and Tech

How many times have we heard that “global mobility needs to be more strategic” or “mobility managers need to better link global mobility with strategic talent management?”

The struggle to get a seat at the management table where strategic decisions are taken and avoid being siloed within HR is a perennial concern for mobility managers.

It’s difficult to change perceptions and position mobility managers as strategic partners or at least internal consultants of choice for a wider range of international talent issues.

This positioning shift is even more urgent now that technological progress, the persistence of outsourcing, and the rise of self-managed mobility solutions are threatening to further reduce the influence and purview of mobility teams.

Yet, it is not all doom and gloom in the world of global mobility and there are numerous success stories of mobility professionals who successfully reinvented themselves and their mobility function to become strategic HR partners for the company.

Here are a few things that we can learn from them.

Understanding the Link Between Mobility and Strategic Business Issues

The first step is to revise the way mobility managers look at mobility issues and present themselves. Talent mobility is at the heart of some of the major business issues that a company has to address.

Strategic Talent Management

Words matter: the evolution of the job titles of HR professionals involved in mobility tells us something about the role they want to play within the organization. “Expatriate managers” are increasingly calling themselves “global mobility managers” or even “talent mobility managers.”

This is more than just superficial personal branding. It reflects the realities ofglobal mobility that is not just about employee relocation. Mobility is about:

  • Rightsizing and diversifying the international talent pool: efficient mobility talent management goes hand in hand with decisions about international workforce resizing, reshaping, and reskilling. It is as much about managing an international talent pool as about moving people from country to country.
  • Fostering talent diversity. If international experience is the best way to reach top management, the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the expatriate workforce is blocking the diversity initiative.
  • Ensuring the right leadership talent pipeline is in place.
  • Addressing key skill shortages in critical markets.
  • Protecting key talents; the tactical deployment of key talent from stagnant markets to more active markets.
  • And more generally enabling continued globalization of functions and business activities.

Strategic Cost Control

Like many business activities, global mobility is largely driven by cost considerations. Top management might be reluctant to get involved in the details of global mobility but they will pay attention to well-structured feedback about the cost implications of talent mobility decisions. The problem is that mobility professionals often complain too late that they have been ordered to cut costs and that management doesn’t realize the value of assignees and lost mobility opportunities.

Mobility managers need to communicate on an ongoing basis with management about costs, educate stakeholders about the value of assignments (or the absence of value for some of them), and provide timely input on total costs. Fostering a culture of cost transparency can also help reframing the cost debate in case of economic downturn and replace simple cost cutting by more structured cost control approaches.

Strategic Risk and Compliance Management

Meeting compliance standards is sometimes dismissed as a complex and grueling but ultimately tactical exercise. However, mismanaging compliance issues could trigger business risks that could in turn derail the business strategy, reputation, and profitability. Top management are keenly aware of the importance of watertight compliance and risk management for the success of their business. Mobility managers are not always directly responsible for all compliance and risk management issues but they are in a unique position to act as expert advisers and educate the business about potential problems in an internal context, coordinate activities, and anticipate issues. The increasing involvement of mobility managers in major business issues lead to questions about the responsibilities and purview of the mobility function.

Positioning the Mobility Function Strategically

There is an on-going debate between those who think that mobility teams should only focus on traditional assignments (e.g. long-term assignment and sometimes short-term assignments) to avoid complications and those who want to expand their horizon and broaden the definition of mobility to encompass other types of moves including business trips, commuters, and even the question of moving jobs to people and virtual mobility.

There is no simple answer that is valid for all organization and all teams. However, the growing preference of companies for cost effective outsourced or automatized solutions could disrupt in-house mobility teams and force a difficult choice between sticking to issues related to traditional assignments (but at the risk of eventually being either stuck in their career or even replaced) or re-inventing themselves the mobility function to encompass broader issues than just relocation. This repositioning would work if it can be properly articulated through clearly defined business cases.

Communicating Strategically

Finance and HR are not always talking the same language. Let’s face it, if mobility issues cannot be related to business objectives and translated it into convincing figures, discussions with top management will fall on deaf hears. The capacity of mobility managers to influence major talent decisions is a direct function of their capacity to build effective business cases supported by factual information.

Numbers crunching might not always be the favorite sport of HR but when it comes to metrics and analytics there is no excuse for not having at least the basics in place. As a second step, it is useful to determine what additional insight can make a difference in the decision making process. Well-designed metrics and analytics can highlight the disconnection between the official speech and the realities of global mobility within an organization, not least about the alleged benefit of all international assignments for fast career promotion.

Having discussions based on hard facts is especially important because the view about mobility within many organizations is shaped by a limited number of stakeholders who might have been on assignment, have managed assignees, or whose business units have to pay the costs for assignees. Their opinions, either positive or negative, have a disproportionate impact on the companies’ views about mobility.

Leveraging Technology Strategically

Technology is moving fast and will increasingly disrupt traditional business activities; the capacity to identify and leverage new tools to be more efficient with daily tasks will determine the long-term success of the mobility function. The objective for mobility professionals is also to understand where the human touch is adding value to processes and activities. And this might take serious soul searching and facing inconvenient truths – the common assumptions that only basic tasks will be automatized and that employees will always prefer to talk to human being than machines might be misguided.

The good news is that there will be opportunities for professionals who can understand the bigger business picture, interpret new trends and master storytelling (i.e., conveying the right message to management and assignees and explaining mobility policies in the wider business context).

Finally, just like mastering numbers and metrics is a precondition for a smooth interaction with finance, it will become increasingly important to be able to communicate with IT teams. This doesn’t mean becoming a coder but it does imply acquiring a better understanding the logic of IT projects, tool development and implementations.

All this implies constant retraining, reskilling, and even personal re-invention.

The rewards of this on-going effort are an access to more career opportunities and, with a bit of luck and a lot of tenacity, an invitation to join the exclusive club of CEO whisperers.