The nice thing about switching countries is that no one (including you) expects you to know anything.  You are completely, certifiably, consciously incompetent.  Don’t laugh.  It’s a privileged state that you want to keep as long as possible.  When I worked in Japan I never sat down in a meeting until someone told me where to sit.  Seating in Japan was by rank and I was never sure what my relative rank was.  This worked because admitting my incompetence was taken as a sign of respect by my colleagues who were more than happy to help me respect their customs.

Hot Tip

It almost never matters what you do in a foreign country, just so long as you do it out of respect for your hosts.

We could write an entire book about international moves.  Instead, I'm going to give you a framework to adapt as you go. 

Get a head start

Don’t short-cut the personal set part of an international move for you and for your family.  The Washington Post used to do this about as well as anyone.  When Lisa was being moved from Madrid to Paris, she was notified 24 months in advance to give her and her family ample time to learn the language and the customs, and find a place to live, schools, stores, doctors, as well as get the necessary visas and documents in line.  These things almost always take more time than anyone expects.  Getting them in place ahead of a move can make a huge difference.

Craft your own onboarding plan (ideally in conjunction with your boss).  Almost by definition, your learning curve will be steeper internationally than in your home country.  So your learning plan will be particularly important.  Similarly, jump-starting relationships will involve more conscious effort than in your home country.  Plan to invest in that effort.

Plan also to get help – certainly from your boss and local HR.  But also from outside relocation experts, consulates, consultants, language teachers, tour guides, expat welcome committees, etc.  Remember, you are consciously incompetent.  There is no shame in getting help.  You and your family will need it.

Manage your message

Managing your message is particularly tricky because of the dual translation issues.  Translation issue #1 is linguistic.  Translation issue #2 is cultural.  What you say often does not match what they hear.  And what they hear often does not match what you mean.  And visa-versa.  Remember, it’s about communication and intent, not the exact words.

Coca-Cola’s CEO was giving a talk at a customer dinner in Japan.  His English words were being simultaneously translated into Japanese.  At one point the translator stopped her literal translation and explained to her listeners that the CEO was telling a joke which she was not going to translate.  Instead, she would tell them when to laugh.  After a few more seconds she counted down and told them to laugh.  They did, preserving everyone’s face.  (“Face” is a big word internationally.  Preserving it is what happens when you treat people with respect.)

Build the team

Building a team is always challenging.  In a different country, it is that much more challenging.  I was helping with a merger in Japan.  In trying to explain how leadership wanted the teams to come together while preserving their strengths, I suggested this was more like ingredients coming together in a gumbo than in a puree.  Get it?  Good analogy, right?  Amazingly enough, Cajun culinary analogies don’t work in Japan.  For the rest of the session, everyone called me “Gumbo-san”.

The key is building the team while respecting the individuals and their cultural heritage.  Trying to impose your country’s ways of behaving, relating, attitudes, values, and working environment on a different country’s team members is almost certainly doomed to failure.  Get a shared purpose in place and then form the team around that shared purpose in the context of their culture.  It’s about results, not process or format.

Summing up

"Get a head start.  Manage the message.  Build the team."  This is our generally applicable framework for accelerating onboarding.  Internationally, the framework and principles are the same.  It's the application that's different.  Pay close attention to those differences.  They are where the game is won or lost.

Note: This was adapted from the upcoming 3rd edition of "The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan" (Bradt, Check, Pedraza – Wiley, 2011)