Characteristics of Successful Expatriates: Unleashing Success by Identifying and Coaching on Specific Characteristics

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Characteristics of Successful Expatriates: Unleashing Success by Identifying and Coaching on Specific Characteristics

Article and Author Information

Kelly Ross (MSLOC 2011) wrote this article in March 2011 for the Capstone 3 Research Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary assignment is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. Kelly is a coach, instructional/curriculum designer, trainer and facilitator with global experience. In addition to her independent coaching and consulting work, Kelly is an MSLOC Foundations Coach; in this role she coaches MSLOC students on areas related to their individual learning plans and how they will maximize their graduate school experience. Kelly's broad understanding of business needs, cultural differences, and the global marketplace aid her in developing great leaders and teams. Prior to working independently, Kelly spent more than nine years at McKinsey & Company, working in more than 20 countries and living on three continents. A former expatriate, Kelly is passionate about helping expats succeed on their overseas assignments. Kelly has experience interpreting and coaching with several assessments, including Hogan Assessments, 360ºs, Creatrix, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Kelly is a certified Hudson Institute Coach. Learn more about Kelly's work in leadership development and talent management: Ross Associates

Learn more about the MSLOC Graduate Certificate in Organizational and Leadership Coaching.


Today's increasingly global business world is resulting in more organizations sending employees to work outside their home countries as expatriates. Organizations incur tremendous costs to support expatriate assignments, which are challenging for the employees as well. The primary goal of this study is to define the characteristics that describe successful expatriates. The study's secondary goal is to assess how coaching can support the expatriate's success. Nearly 200 expatriates completed the study's survey testing five hypothesized characteristics thought to describe successful expatriates: adventurousness, cultural sensitivity, curiosity, flexibility, and open mindedness. The findings show that these characteristics are critical to expatriate's success: 95-97% of the respondents rate each of the characteristics as moderately or very important. There is also further evidence that executive coaching would increase expatriate success.

Introduction of the Question and Methodology

In today's increasingly global world, organizations are investing heavily in their expatriates, individuals working outside their home country. This trend is likely to continue to increase (Rodrigues 1997; Black 1999; Harris 2000; Selmer 2001; Haines III 2008). Expatriate, or expat, assignments are difficult and fraught with challenges such as new job responsibilities, foreign environments and unfamiliar cultural norms while striving to make new friends, create a social life, set up personal finances and healthcare, and in many cases, learn a new language (Tung 1998; Harris 2000; Yeandle 2006; Taylor 2009). "Expatriate executives face a double-edged challenge to their mental and physical health: the stressors affecting them are not only new and unfamiliar, but the coping responses that worked at home may not do so abroad" (Sanchez 2000, p. 96). It is not surprising that many expats struggle while overseas either at their work assignment, adjusting to life outside of work, or both. Expats' inability to adjust to work and life in the new culture can lead to poor work performance and/or returning home early (Selmer 2001). There is not enough data to look beyond the US, but it is estimated that some 10-45% of US expats fail to stay in their overseas assignment for the agreed upon length of time. (Mendenhall 1985; Rhinesmith 1996; Brake 1997; Hofstede 1997; Black 1999; Marquardt 1999; Cassiday 2005; Yeandle 2006). An expat's early exit from a job overseas can have costly repercussions. The organization is left without someone in the role, there are direct and indirect expenses (i.e., assignment administration, outsourcing costs, investment in learning and development), and the organization would need to invest in a replacement (Palthe 2004; Yeandle 2006). Because expats are expensive, organizations need them to be successful.

Considering the bottom line alone, it makes sense for organizations to be interested in improving expats' success. Because expats are needed and require significant investment, organizations want these individuals to excel in their overseas jobs and to stay in their assignments for the agreed upon length of time. Through the lens of the expat, taking on an expat assignment is often a career-changing opportunity, one that comes with tremendous challenges (Rodrigues 1997; Black 1999; Harris 2000; Selmer 2001; Haines III 2008). Expats want to be successful on their assignments, to do their job well and to enjoy the overall experience.

What does it take for expats to be successful in their assignments? This study set out to define the characteristics that make for successful expatriates. A secondary question explored how executive coaching could support the expatriate.

Figure 1

The goal of this research is to better understand the characteristics that describe successful expatriates. While not within the scope of this research, this definition could ultimately be developed into a coaching methodology and used to coach expatriates to greater success. While the field of business coaching is increasingly robust, little research has been done to understand how to leverage coaching to increase expats' success while working and living abroad. Opportunity exists to advance the field.

This study employed an electronic survey to gather data through both quantitative and qualitative questions. The survey population was expats, defined for this study as those living outside of their home country for the purpose of professional work for two or more consecutive years. Employing an electronic survey enabled this study to incorporate the views of a diverse and geographically dispersed population.

The survey asked for the subject's views on what made them successful as an expat and then asked the importance of five hypothesized characteristics thought to describe successful expatriates: adventurousness, cultural sensitivity, curiosity, flexibility, and open mindedness. The hypothesized characteristics were formulated based on a literature review, interviews with subject matter experts, and the researcher's personal experience living and working abroad. In addition to testing the importance of each of these characteristics using 5-response Likert scales and ranking their importance relative to one another, the survey also included open-ended response items to capture any unaccounted for characteristics that either contribute to or hinder success. Finally, the survey collected demographic data that may prove helpful in capturing trends or recognizing bias, as well as some basic information on the frequency and value of coaching for expats. Defining the characteristics that describe a successful expat allows for more effective and targeted executive coaching thereby further increasing their success.

Analysis and Results

The electronic survey that was designed to yield both quantitative and qualitative results was started by 227 individuals. Of that number, 193 usable current or former expat responses were produced. The quantitative data was analyzed through descriptive and inferential statistics; thematic analysis was employed to analyze the qualitative data.

The nearly 200 study subjects constituted a large enough sample to reveal trends for the success factors of the expatriate working globally in business-related fields. The diversity of the population further contributed to the study's credibility. On average, subjects were expats for over five years, more than double the study's requirement of living and working abroad for two years. The subjects' significant experience abroad illustrated that the population was well versed in the challenges and success factors of expatriation. Further, the survey sample was very diverse, allowing for more compelling results. Subjects came from 33 home countries, worked in 32 industries, were on expat assignments in 73 countries with 18 native languages represented. The subjects were nearly evenly split on gender: 54% male and 46% female. The average age at the time of the first expat assignment was 31 years.

Subjects were asked to assess the success of their expat assignments and to share their organizations' views on the success of said assignment. For the purpose of this study, success is defined as achieving both personal and professional objectives for the assignment time specified. On both measures the population was successful: 84% self-assessed their assignment to be moderately or very successful, while 91% indicated that their organizations considered their assignments to be successful. (Figure 1) Thus, this population constitutes an ideal sampling to indicate the characteristics of successful expatriates.

Figure 2

As the study's primary goal was to understand the characteristics of successful expatriates, subjects were first asked to articulate what made them successful abroad. Then, subjects were presented with five characteristics hypothesized to contribute to success. Subjects were asked how important each characteristic was to their success as an expat. Interestingly, four of the five hypothesized characteristics were frequently mentioned as qualities contributing to expat success before the hypothesized characteristics were revealed – adventurousness was the exception. When asked how important each of the five hypothesized characteristics was to the expats' success, between 95-97% noted each of the characteristics as important. (Figure 2)

Figure 3

Adventurousness is defined as the expat's desire to have exciting and new experiences, both at work and in life outside of work. Adventurousness did not come to mind when first asked what made one successful, but when asked directly if it was important to success, 95% said adventurousness was moderately or very important. Perhaps this contradiction is partially explained in the anecdotal evidence that language barriers, culture shock, and attachment to the way of life back home are inhibitors of success. One subject who mentioned adventurousness as contributing to his or her success also indicated both a willingness to try and fail and an outgoing attitude were factors that contributed to his/her expat success.

Cultural sensitivity is defined as the expat's ability to understand the culture in which they are living and working, and to integrate/fit into it. This characteristic encompasses many elements that appeared in the open response questions about contributors to success: "interest in the new culture," "curiosity and passion to learn new things culturally," "ability to fit into the new location/society," "having a sense of humor and understanding that other cultures or countries might have a better idea or approach about something than what was perceived as the best in my home country," "acceptance of my host culture for what it was," and "happy to understand and live within a different culture." Respect was often mentioned. Language came up frequently: those with the existing language skills or the willingness, time, and ability to learn a new language mention this as a contributor to their ability to exhibit cultural sensitivity and fit in. Not surprisingly, those that lacked the language skills, and perhaps the willingness, time, and/or ability to learn, list linguistics as a barrier to success.

Curiosity is the expat's interest in learning about their new culture, environment, and job. Being inquisitive and curious was frequently listed as contributing to success. One subject said, "willingness to understand why things were being done [fed success]." Aspiring to learn was frequently mentioned. Intrigue and desire to understand different practices and methods, even as a way to minimize frustration, fits within this characteristic as well.

Flexibility is the expat's willingness to try new ways of doing things. Adaptability and flexibility were the most frequently listed characteristics when subjects were asked what made them successful before the five hypothesized characteristics were revealed. One subject puts it this way, "being flexible on the methodology, while remaining focused on delivering results within the allotted time is essential." Another said, "each country and job had a different way of doing things - flexibility was key." When designing the study, adaptability had been eliminated from the hypothesized list as it was deemed to overlap with flexibility. Interestingly, many subjects listed both adaptability and flexibility as important characteristics. Clearly a distinction was drawn between the two by subjects. Unfortunately, an electronic survey does not allow for probing into the difference in these terms.

Open mindedness is the expat's ability to look at their new environment with a desire to learn about and understand it and an interest in seeing things differently. Willingness to try new methods and accepting failure as a means to learn and improve were mentioned in the answers to the open response questions. One subject said he/she was, "constantly challenging myself to try anything." Another put it this way, "there were no rules and with an open mind you can succeed in that environment." Others said that being open to new and different practices while accepting that there is not always a clear answer or direction was critical.

Figure 4

After subjects rated the importance of each of the five hypothesized characteristics they were asked to rank-order them. (Figure 3) While all characteristics were individually seen as important, flexibility and open mindedness were ranked most highly. An implication for organizations considering potential expats is to carefully assess for flexibility and open mindedness.

For future research, drive should perhaps be added to the list of hypothesized characteristics contributing to success. Many subjects spoke of their commitment, work ethic, unwillingness to give up, and ambition as a factor in their overseas success.

Correlations were run in search of statistical support that success (self- or organization-assessed) is correlated with one or more of the five characteristics. No correlations or significance were found. This may be explained by the lack of variability in the data; nearly all the subjects were successful and most said each of the characteristics was important to their success.

Additional Findings

The survey also asked subjects about the types of support they received before, during and after their assignment in areas such as language training, job skills training, cultural training, and repatriation. Most were offered no support in these areas. Those who were offered one or more of types of support/training largely opted to participate and found it helpful. Subjects were also asked if they were offered executive or business coaching, defined as working with a coach external to one's organization in a one-on-one or group setting, virtually or in-person, on topics related to one's expat experience. The overwhelming majority, 92%, reported that coaching was not offered. When that group was asked if they would have found coaching helpful had it been available, 63% speculate that coaching would have been moderately or very helpful. When asked how coaching might have improved their success, one subject responded, "a regular, sane sounding board to remind me that things are not as bad as they first seem, a reminder of my skills, worth, and self-esteem [would have been helpful]." Another said, "There was a point two or three months in [into my assignment] where I was starting to pack my bags to go home. I felt like Alice in Wonderland and so out of place. Coaching likely could have helped me before I reached that point."


The study has the following limitations: (1) An anonymous survey did not provide the ability to follow-up in order to further probe and understand subjects' answers. For instance, had interviews or focus groups been utilized, subjects could have been asked to expand on the difference between adaptability and flexibility. (2) While the study was fortunate to garner interest and usable responses from nearly 200 subjects, the sample is not random. Thus, the trends learned from the study should be used with caution when being applied to the general expatriate population. (3) This study asks expats to self-assess their success and to report on their organization's view of their expat assignment success. The study's data relies on subjects' self-awareness and willingness to admit true results. Had the study asked organizations to report on the expats' success and compared those results with the expats' self-assessments of their success, there could be interesting findings in the similarity or disparity of answers.

Interpretation and Recommendations

Figure 5

The study defines expatriate success in terms of five vital characteristics: adventurousness, cultural sensitivity, curiosity, flexibility, and open mindedness. Even before survey subjects saw the study's hypothesized characteristics, four of the five characteristics were the top answers to the open response question asking about contributors to success on one's expat assignment. Nearly 200 successful and experienced expats confirm these characteristics were important to their success, and literature reviewed while creating the survey is further evidence that these five characteristics are important to the success of an expat. These findings further the field of international business. Leaders of multinational organizations can leverage these results by assessing, even informally, their current and potential expats for these five characteristics. Someone considering taking an expat assignment can leverage these findings similarly by assessing themselves on these five dimensions.

One of the most interesting findings is the unmet need for support, and the potential for coaching to fill this gap. Despite the complexity of relocating and working abroad, expats are largely unsupported. Where support was offered it was taken advantage of and well received. Expats largely did not have coaching support but a significant number speculated it would have been beneficial. Even if one embodies the characteristics which are important to the success of an expat (as defined above), this study implies that there is further support needed to excel abroad. Organizations should consider providing training such as job, cultural, and language skills before and during assignments.

Furthermore, executive coaching should be considered for expatriates. Coaching has the potential to "unlock" the successful expatriate experience. Having a thought partner and unbiased listener to help distill challenges while building on the characteristics core to the success of expats is likely to increase success. The researcher's experience as a coach and as an expat suggests that executive coaches with good interpersonal skills and extensive expatriate experience will be the best fit for expat coachees. This study supports the argument that global organizations that leverage mobility to grow and improve their business should invest in executive coaching for their expat leaders possessing the characteristics of adventurousness, cultural sensitivity, curiosity, flexibility, and open mindedness; these leaders will be more successful on their expat assignments.

Figure 6

This study leads to several questions that should be explored further, including:

  • How can adventurousness, cultural sensitivity, curiosity, flexibility, and open mindedness be measured?
  • How can organizations best select the right people for expatriate assignments?
  • How is adaptability different from flexibility? Does this distinction shed some light on the success factors for expatriates?
  • How can executive coaches effectively coach expatriates to increase their adventurousness, cultural sensitivity, curiosity, flexibility, and open mindedness?

An interesting and pressing need arises: how can the characteristics confirmed as vital to expat success by this study be effectively measured? The lack of such measurement methodology should be addressed. Further work to assess for these characteristics would, in combination with the findings of this study, enhance organizations' ability to select and develop successful expatriates. Much work has been done around measurement which can be utilized. For instance, Ittner and Larcker's (2003) research found that many organizations have not identified the non-financial areas that might advance their chosen strategy and therefore are neither measuring nor acting upon the findings of measurement. Ittner and Larkcer's findings can be leveraged to figure out how to measure the critical characteristics that this study found vital to expats' success.


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