Must-have Global HR Competencies

By Jennifer Koch

Oct. 1, 1996

Talk about your big job. International human resources management quickly is becoming a management challenge of intercontinental proportions. You not only have to know HR well, but also need a world of knowledge beyond that—literally. Whether you’re managing HR in the States but have increasing global personnel responsibilities, or you’re outside the States managing HR for an entire region, your skills probably are growing at a rapid rate. But are you focusing on the right competencies to get you where you want to go?

If you’re headed toward a stellar international HR career (or would like to be), consider what experts in international HR—both consultants and senior HR managers—have to say about the core competencies global personnel professionals must have to be successful. If you don’t al-ready have the right skills, don’t panic. You’re in the same boat as most other global HR professionals. Because international HR is still in its infancy, few HR professionals have had the opportunity to polish all these skills. Start now for better advancement in the future.

Falling into global HR.
The reason most international HR professionals don’t have the skills they need at the start of their careers isn’t a big mystery. Inter-national HR isn’t a career that most HR professionals head into when they first set foot into HR management. Rather than plotting a direct course to an international HR career, it’s something that seems to fall into their laps. Sometimes it’s by choice. More often, it’s by chance.

“It’s something that [seems to] happen more to experienced HR managers—probably the same way everything else in business internationalizes: It’s just one of those accidental things that happens. Companies start sending people overseas, then all of a sudden they have international questions, like how to pay their first expat going to France,” says Dennis Briscoe, professor of inter- national HR management at the Ahler Center for International Business & School of Business Administration at the University of California at San Diego.

Once someone lands in international HR—and demonstrates an affinity and aptitude for the blending of culture, business and people management—he or she tends to stick with it. It’s an exciting job, and there’s usually lots of travel. To top it off, international jobs tend not to be entry-level, so there’s often a greater chance for a higher salary.

No matter how you land in international HR, you have to get up to speed on core competencies rather quickly—or you may not last long in the global arena.

Competencies similar to domestic HR.
Experts say that some of the core competencies international HR careers demand are the same as those for domestic HR professionals—the skills are just on a heightened scale. For example, global HR managers need effective communication skills, including the ability to listen well, says John de Leon, regional director of international HR for Los Angeles-based Deloitte & Touche LLP’s international assignment services group. Deloitte & Touche is a Big Six accounting firm that also specializes in international HR consulting services.

Communication skills also are highly valued at Westinghouse Energy Systems based in Pittsburgh, where every manager, including the unit’s international HR professionals, must possess at least eight core competencies. Communication skills are among the top three in importance, along with people development and reinforcement management.

Gordon Beecher, manager of services and projects/international HR for Westinghouse’s Energy Systems division, agrees communication skills are the most important for international HR professionals. Why? “Not only be-cause international HR managers have to overcome language barriers, but also because they have to be able to express themselves to multiple audiences—much more so than a U.S. HR person does,” says Beecher.

On top of that, most of the HR professionals employed by the division’s European offices are required to speak other languages. “We prefer people who can speak French, Flemish or Spanish there, whereas my U.S. HR reps don’t [have to speak an-other language],” says Beecher. “But it’s not just the language, it’s an ability to communicate and understand cultural differences and the communications nuances [that come] with those.”

Furthermore, good international HR professionals must have a comprehensive understanding of the international business environment. In the United States, there tend to be business models to fit the majority of given business environments. If your company wants to start a manufacturing company with an outstanding HR department, for instance, there are many successful U.S. ventures to model it after. “But, off shore there tend to be as many models as there are countries,” says de Leon. “So, although partnering with line management is critical for U.S. HR, it’s a much greater challenge to achieve in the international arena because there just aren’t as many models as in the domestic environment.”

Beyond domestic HR.
Despite the fact that all HR professionals need a wealth of skills, international HR managers need additional competencies. Elaine Patterson, manager of international HR for Unocal Corp.’s subsidiary in Brea, California, says the top 10 skills her company re-quires of its domestic HR professionals are the same skills required of its international HR managers. But beyond the usual HR skills, Patterson says international personnel people have to possess additional characteristics, such as a high degree of empathy and cross-cultural sensitivity—having an interest in, and an understanding of, how different cultures will interpret what you say or write or do. It’s critical that these HR professionals view cultural differences as being a positive rather than a negative. But having sensitivity and empathy doesn’t mean HR staff have to be pushovers. “It’s not to say the international HR managers necessarily agree with everything [their overseas people] tell them; they just need to understand where those people are coming from,” says Patterson, who manages eight full-time people in the firm’s international HR department.

John A. Misa, vice president of international HR for MasterCard International Inc. based in Purchase, New York, agrees that cultural sensitivity is the top skill that global HR professionals need to possess to be successful. He oversees a staff of five HR managers and directors in regions all over the world. “Basically, you need effective people skills in dealing with a variety of cultures, races, nationalities, religions and genders,” says Misa. “And a sensitivity to cultural differences is very important.”

Flexibility is crucial.
In addition to cultural sensitivity, Patter-son says she looks for her global HR staff to have an additional level of flexibility. “We find domestic people who design something in comp or benefits really only look at it from one point of view. But people who’ve worked in international HR for a while might see that very same domestic policy and immediately say, ‘It works here. It doesn’t work there. We’ll need to tailor it.’ That’s not something many people coming out of domestic [HR] bring with them.”

Westinghouse’s Beecher calls the same skill adaptability. One minute, an HR manager in Asia may be talking to corporate about the great, new program headquarters just announced. The next minute, he or she is having to ex-plain the program to the company’s overseas personnel—who may think the program isn’t so hot. “You have to do some of that in the United States, but not like they do abroad,” says Beecher. It requires a tremendous amount of adaptability to explain policies and business practices to people in other business cultures—and win their buy-in. Furthermore, it demands that HR managers have resilience. “They have to be able to stand firm in their beliefs to defend their own [overseas] operating environment—and also stand firm with our business unit’s headquarters position with their people,” Beecher explains.

Deloitte & Touche’s de Leon takes the idea of adaptability a step further by narrowing it down to adaptive problem-solving skills—because in domestic HR, problems usually are fairly easy to identify. “The difficulty is in searching for the most appropriate solution,” he says. “But in international HR, the first challenge is to identify what the problem is.” Once you identify the problem, it can be just as difficult to find a solution. “One finds in searching for solutions that, many times, one is plowing new ground,” explains de Leon. For example, one HR manager he knows had to go to a company located in one of the former Soviet republics to build an HR infrastructure where none existed. “How do you build an infrastructure when even the concept of an infrastructure is alien?” he asks. No wonder adaptive problem solving is an important global HR skill.

Another skill international HR professionals must be adept at is managing complexity. Because every country and region in the world has its own set of rules, regulations, laws, customs and practices, knowing how to blend local practices with home-office practices can be rather complicated. It takes a sharp mind and a lot of common sense to blend all those elements into a comprehensive whole that everyone can live with.

Overall, most international HR experts say that a global career requires, in most cases, a broader range of abilities than a domestic HR career. That’s why it can offer even more rewards—both personal and professional.

Global Workforce, October 1996, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 13-15.

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