A New Season For Coach Expat

By Pete Brunoehler

By Pete Brunoehler

As we flip the calendar and move into 2017, many businesses and expats find that the new year brings new assignments, new teams, and new challenges. With this in mind, it is timely to contemplate what can be expected and what should be avoided.

Whether you follow the NBA, the Premier League, La Liga, or nearly any other professional or amateur sporting league, you’ll see a pronounced difference between the quality and execution in season-opening matches vs. those in the playoffs or championship series. This difference is the result of practice and effort during the season, as well as the “gelling” that every coach looks for in their team members working effectively as a group. Companies are a lot like sports teams.

I have had the great opportunity to work for many years in Hong Kong and Singapore. These are two business minded, fast-paced, world-class locations in which to hire and rapidly develop teams. Malaysia, for various reasons, lacks the same profile. As such, while I find teams genuinely wanting to learn and improve themselves, they can quickly – and understandably – get turned off if an immediate, quantum improvement in their performance is what you demand. I have seen Malaysian teams quickly throw in the towel when a new boss arrived, saying something to the effect of, “If you are so smart, do it yourself.” So by all means, strive to raise standards, teamwork, and performance, but remember where you started and how far you have to go to reach your goal. The teams that win championships frequently get hot towards the end of the season, often after a painfully slow start.

One of the worst examples that I am aware of was when an expat manager came to Malaysia and asked each of his managers to present a brief overview of their departments’ personnel and results. After watching a couple of his managers present their information, he angrily stopped the meeting and asked for all presentations to be sent to him. The very next day, the expat manager reconvened the meeting, and had each bewildered manager present once again roughly the same information, but in a format that he required, and had used in his prior role. So rather than teach them what he wanted, show them how, accept a bit of trial and error before his team got to where he wanted them, and achieve some group learning and camaraderie along the way, he showed his temper (always a mistake) and did the work himself (usually a mistake). The competence within the team hadn’t changed one iota. But they became very leery of their new boss.

Key takeaways from this experience:

1. In the companies that I led in Malaysia, a regular visit from Global HQ and/or Asian HQ leadership was the standard. That was always a time to showcase the challenges that I had developing the local team, but also to show the progress that we’d made since the prior visit. Each visit went a bit better, got a bit easier, and most importantly increased my teams’ confidence significantly – that they could present, answer tough questions, and articulate their issues, without relying so much on me.

2. At first, whatever the project, I learned to accept getting about 50-60% of what I actually wanted, but then tried to specifically and systematically point out the deficiencies. The next round still wasn’t what I wanted, but progress was evident. By encouraging staff, the satisfaction that came from their improvements was something we both could share.

3. While this does not mean that you accept mediocrity, it does mean that you should be very specific with shortcomings and realistic with the pace of improvements. It’s fair to say that employees in any country appreciate when you can help make them better at what they do.

4. Look at it this way: Would your company really need you here, with the complexity and cost of relocating you (and presumably paying you well), if the local team could already operate at a sufficiently high level? As mentioned often in prior columns, your teaching – and their learning – is what you’ll leave behind.

In conclusion, there’s a saying that “you begin with the end in sight” that definitely applies here. Step by step, work your way via your team up to championship performance levels. It feels great when your team is performing at a very high level and subsequently delivering the desired results. Having played competitive sports (many years ago), this is the closest feeling professionally to “coaching a championship team” that I have experienced, and I can tell you, it feels great!