Thriving Abroad

Thriving Abroad

Author: Louise Wiles & Evelyn Simpson

Review by: Michelle Parry-Slater

I love it! I could stop there, but as book reviews go, that is not very helpful.  I will give you some context of why this book is perfect for anyone thinking of taking an international assignment, or anyone who employs staff working internationally, or anyone involved in global mobility provision, either in house or supplier side.

“If human resources staff were athletes, mobility would be the decathlon. International assignment management is one of the most complex areas within human resources.”

Chris Debner in the Foreword

I’m not big reader. I love an audio book but finding time to read words feels hard in a busy life, so why agree to do a book review? Partially because I work in Learning & Development, so pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is good for you. Partially because I have ‘thrived abroad’ myself and it was hard, worth it, but hard. Mostly because I was very, very interested in what this book had to say about something I’ve spent a large chunk of my career doing or training others to do, global mobility, or relocation as it used to be known.

Global Mobility is a niche area of HR. I’ve seen the industry change over time from a full hand holding service to a call centre style help space, even a self-help space. The cost of relocation support has been smashed downwards over the years, yet the cost of relocating an employee has always been approximately 3-4 times their salary for the length of the assignment. Whilst working in the industry I could never understand how companies sent their staff overseas with such little thought and preparation to their family, their whole selves, and to them coming home again. Most organisations do not have a handle on the personal outcomes or the ROI of international assignments. The authors really do understand this space. Take heed of their sharing. It is such a huge waste of money to have experienced staff leave an organisation because their mental wellbeing, their career planning and their family lives were not considered by their employer. Yet in no single other circumstance of employment would any of these arenas come under such a spotlight by line management or HR in a company. This book nicely fills a gap created by the conflict that HR is working for the good of the company and the employee, but both parties have tough questions to answer.

Written by people who have years of assignment work under their belts, their knowledge through experiences shines out of the book. Having worked for several international relocation service providers, I was curious to see if this book would help cut them out of the loop, if it plays into the self-help market or if it realistically shares the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I was curious if this book would help assignees / transferees / global nomads (each relocation provider has a different title – we should just call them ‘people’) to make better decisions about relocating. Whether it would prepare them better, help them really understand it is not like going on a long holiday.

‘Thriving Abroad’ didn’t disappoint in any areas of my curiosity. From the beginning of this book, immersing myself in this world of global mobility again after some time away made me miss supporting families as they leave everything behind for a different life abroad. And although nostalgia is not a balanced mindset for a book review, I’m sure it did not cloud my judgement. I can be confident of this because, as anyone who knows me knows, my practical mindset overrides all I do. This is such a practical book written by international assignees themselves I cannot see how anyone can argue that it is anything other than impeccably useful. It is almost surprising this type of book has never been written before.

If there is one criticism, it is perhaps too assignee focused in approach. A practical manual ought to include all sides, and whilst there is some content and research in these areas, I think it could have benefitted from more. There could have been tips from removal companies on what not to transport, or expectations management from relocation suppliers, or thoughts on career suicide from in house assignment management providers. I suspect I have a fuller picture because of my years in Global Mobility, yet I wonder how much different audiences (such as HR or International Tax providers) would find is missing as a result of not knowing what you don’t know. I guess this book is not aimed at everyone, although the front cover says “The definitive guide to professional and personal relocation success”, but I believe with a little wider and further research the authors could have made a genuinely unique offer to all involved in international mobility.

The format of the book is around ‘The Framework for Thriving Abroad’ developed by the authors. The framework centres around the international assignee in different facets of their life – professional, personal and family. Moving out from the centre there are keys milestones of decision, preparation, relocation, settling and thriving. Surrounding those arenas, the framework asks the important questions of what, why, how and who. The book asks a lot of important, tough questions, and in some respects is not for the faint hearted. Often you don’t know what you don’t know, so you ask the wrong questions. Someone helping you ask the right questions when taking a life changing decision is immeasurably valuable. There are beautiful moments of reflection in this book, which really stretch thinking and are fabulous little learning motifs. They push towards rational rather than emotional thought processes. To get to a place of thriving abroad you have to go through a rigorous journey, both mentally and physically. The book can certainly help with that. When I first saw the framework I smiled. It is perfect. It is exactly all the things that need to be considered for a perfect relocation. The book is written from the perspective of a perfect relocation, however life is not actually like that. Life is messy and complex. Organisations cannot expect a perfect relocation and they should not build up an employee to expect one either, but we can aim for that though! We see the framework played out in the book through two relocating couples. These punctuations in the book ‘keep it real’ so to speak, helping to moderate the framework into the real world.

When introduced to our case study couples, I could identify with them immediately. Many experienced relocation professionals or seasoned global nomads will recognise their stories and be able to predict how it will play out for them unless they get good support (a fun game I indulged in as I read through the book!). If you’re not a relocation professional or veteran of the international assignment scene reading this book is the perfect alternative for learning more. I particularly liked the level of detail the book went into about topics you may not have thought of such as wills, behaviours, or adjusting mindsets. In addition, there was good advice and strong questions to get you thinking about the typical expectations such as housing, schools, and career progression.

One piece of incredibly sound advice is to never assume, to question everything. When it comes to global mobility, there are no silly questions. As a relocation consultant years ago I once had a phone call from an incredibly distraught American spouse of an assignee, about a month into their move to London. She was devastated to find a fully furnished UK home did not come with baking equipment. Baking was her hobby, and of course four weeks in, the honeymoon was over. Ordinary life has started; her husband was out at work meeting new people, her children were at school having a jolly fine time, and there she was, lonely, having a hit of reality and all the emotions flooded out. Had she known to even ask the question whilst back in the US regarding the provision of baking equipment, or even around her hobbies, I would not have to had to direct her to the nearest Woolworths. Of course she was not angry and emotional about the lack of a Kenwood Chef. She was experiencing what almost all relocating people experience, a wave of emotions and nobody to turn to. I don’t think this book at that dire moment of need would be the answer – there is no substitute for a fabulous HR mobility team, a network of expat spouses, or an incredibly understanding family – however this book speaks practically about exactly these types of scenarios. This book could play two parts in her situation. Firstly, if she herself were more prepared, she may have been able to recognise potential difficulties before she arrived. Being more prepared most certainly helps – forewarned is forearmed. Perhaps too if her family had read this book they would understand if she called them in the middle of the night in floods over a missing patty tin. Secondly, had her husband’s HR mobility team and relocation provider read this book, they could also have understood her pain more easily. I had years of experience as both an expat plus a relocation provider under my belt to know to listen, to empathise, to support and to guide. I got that experience through getting it wrong time and time beforehand – this book could have helped my speed to competency. This book perhaps should be considered as a set text for the Worldwide ERC’s GMS designation.

There is an angle to this book which sits within popular psychology. It is a little clichéd but useful to see the reflections of popular theories from the likes of Dweck, Frankl, etc in this context. Asking the right questions, raising sensible challenges and offering supportive suggestions all make it beneficial. To the scientists and purists amongst you it may grate a little, however I think it takes a sensible approach, for example who can argue with the 4Ps presented here as Positivity, Proactivity, Purpose and Personal Development.

The book ends with some very useful reference pages. We live in a world not thirsty for knowledge, yet knowing where to take a drink can be challenging. The authors have curated well here for the expat themselves and offer to quench any knowledge drought with their thoughtful sharing. Again, I would like to see more on offer to relocation providers, global mobility professionals, lone HR professionals relocating staff for the first time. Perhaps I am being over ambitious to think one tome can suit all people, but when it comes to the world of international assignments, there is so little book content shared in this space, I guess I was overly ambitious when I saw this text.

In conclusion I draw you back to my opening thoughts. I love ‘Thriving Abroad’.

Michelle Parry-Slater, L&D Director, Kairos Modern Learning

Published by Practical Inspiration Publishing

Click here to read more book reviews.