What to expect from an assignment in an emerging economy

What to expect from an assignment in an emerging economy


By Paul Denhart, ACMA, CGMA

It’s a big decision to work abroad, from both a family and a career viewpoint. The big question is: How adventurous are you?

There’s a huge difference between working and living in a developed country and a developing one – including in what you can expect as a normal working day.

One thing is for sure: Wherever you work, the job will be demanding and there will be high expectations of you. But you will develop skills you never knew you had. Overseas experience can really enhance your career prospects and give you much more to offer to your next employer.

Here are some things to be aware of before accepting an assignment.

High expectations, high profile

You will be expected to be productive from the day you arrive. Some allowance will be made for settling in, for learning the new company, and for personal administrative matters which will include all aspects of settling your family if they come with you. But the job needs to be done, and you need to be available. Prioritise dealing with the red tape as soon as you can so you can concentrate on the work.

Your role will more than likely be at a more senior level than the job you leave, albeit in a smaller company or a smaller office. You will be more visible both inside and outside the company, which means you have an ambassadorial aspect to the job. In smaller locations there aren’t that many secrets. You need to be careful of what you do and what you say, especially in public.

Your boss, whether expatriate or local, will be absent for periods in the year on leave and business, so you may be the stand-in boss during such absences. When this happens, you suddenly have other departments to manage: sales, technical, operations, HR, public relations, and especially health and safety.

If you are working for a subsidiary, the head office will make a multitude of demands for figures and analyses which are always communicated as vitally important and must always be done quickly. Managing this constant drain on your time is important: You need to meet their deadlines, but you have to meet your boss’s deadlines, too. The cardinal sin is to miss a reporting deadline, so don’t be afraid to reprioritise one or more of the other demands. Remember that the head office will form an opinion of you which might influence your career, so no matter how frustrated you feel, tact and charm are important.

Unexpected responsibilities

Your career is not limited to the finance department. You are adaptable, flexible, resilient, and resourceful. General management roles are a very real possibility, and you could find yourself in a GM position in a small company. This brings a whole new range of challenges. Instead of just standing in for the boss in times of absence, you will now be the boss and, as such, responsible for everything that happens in the company – whether you have been trained for it or not, whether you have direct experience or not. This is what makes working in smaller companies in emerging economies so exciting. Every day really is different and incredibly stimulating – if you are prepared to rise up to the challenges life throws at you.

Health and safety is probably the key element of the GM’s job, and safety performance, particularly in a manufacturing or industrial company, will be judged severely by the head office. It will take much of your time, perhaps up to 30% to 40%, but you may not be given training immediately – or perhaps at all. A common-sense approach and, if you have such a resource, tapping into your local safety manager’s knowledge should see you through, but you will have a lot of catching up to do.

Crisis management can be another task that falls to you. Dealing with crises will exercise your management abilities to the extreme, but always remember that the head office needs to know when a crisis hits; don’t try to keep it hidden from them. Whether it is a catastrophic systems failure, destruction of a key part of the business infrastructure, civil unrest, or a natural disaster, the best approach is always to break the crisis down into elements that can be managed by your managers, and involve everyone in the solution.

Cultural awareness

Accounting principles may be similar from country to country, but the standards, the presentation, the tax rules, and the disclosure requirements can all be quite different from UK GAAP. Trust your local accounts teams, as they will know what is required, but always challenge the figures as you will be responsible for them.

The company does not sit in isolation in any country nor in any local community. Strong relationships are key to the company operating without too much hindrance. You will be expected to meet with local community leaders, local chiefs or kings, senior civil servants, government ministers, possibly even the president or vice president, to negotiate on behalf of your company. You may also be expected to give interviews to the local press, who may quote you out of context. This public relations aspect to the work can be quite daunting. Make sure you pack some good suits, and for men, conservative ties, for such occasions.

You will need to understand the culture of the people you are negotiating with and adapt your approach accordingly. For example, the concept of losing face is quite difficult for many of us to understand, and negotiations can proceed at a much slower pace than you are used to in cultures where saving face is a priority.

Follow these tips to help ensure a successful placement:

  • Empower your team to do their jobs within their authority limits; don’t try to do it all yourself. Build trust, support your managers, and create an enabling environment.
  • Lead by example. As a senior figure in the organisation, your staff will be looking up to you – and looking at you. What you do will be very visible to all and will be talked about.
  • Don’t be afraid to say you don’t have all the answers, especially when you are in an unfamiliar situation. You have a vast source of knowledge available within your team. Find the key to unlock it.
  • When meeting a representative from your host government (a minister, perhaps, or senior civil servant), always go with a senior local manager from your team who is familiar with the various protocols to observe. This also serves to demonstrate that you are involving local management in the business.
  • In the event of a crisis, call your management team together and engage them in dealing with it. Give everyone a job and ensure that priorities are shared.

Paul Denhart (paul.denhart@pauldenhartassociates.com) is a freelance ERP project manager specialising in JDEdwards and Sage X3 as well as business process analysis and the design and implementation of internal controls.