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Three Tough Decisions All International Managers Face


{#/pub/images/ThreeToughDecisionsAllInternationalManagersFace.jpg}International managers need to address many situations throughout tenures, some expected and others not so.  Multi-national companies send international managers to destinations quite often ‘unseen’ or ‘rarely visited’ and hence hold limited knowledge of the reality of doing business on the ground.  In fact, it is not uncommon for International Managers to experience something very different from the picture painted during the transfer/promotion process, with this resulting in head-on collisions with some rather large unexpected business decisions along the way.   Just as with business planning for a new venture, some decisions can be taken on calculated facts whereas others may need to be simply a stab in the dark.


Three Tough Decisions All International Managers Face 

  • The degree of decentralization

  • To localize or flavor with international best practice 

  • To aim for ‘what is possible’ or ‘what is probable’


The Degree of Decentralization


Naturally a manager, setting off on a big and sometimes ‘first’ overseas assignment, feels solace from the fact that the policy umbilical cord remains firmly in place. He knows he has something to fall back on, refer to and use as a backbone.  That is, until he discovers, as many do, that this umbilical cord feels like a heavy albatross squeezing the corporation’s throat on a local division level.  It may be that misalignment exists between it and the local trading practices, cultures and ‘the norm’. Either way, umbilical chords are intended to serve to nourish an outer body, and when the nourishment is not wanted nor needed, how much autonomy (or lack of) will that international manager find himself with to make a call on the degree of decentralization?


Examples spring to mind that many need to deal with:


The use of corporate services come at a cost. 

    • e.g. Corporate marketing may be provided by a well-respected and reputable supplier, yet the cost will simply outstrip any gain possible

    • or on the other hand, a local company may have the connections in the area and may come in cheaper, yet need much education, and simply take too much time.

How much is too much?

    • e.g. The franchise agreement terms insist on behaviors that the local customer base would simply not accept or buy.


What options would the international manager face, and naturally with every option comes consequences.  Should a phased in approach to changing over be applied, or should the guarantee of company standards and reputation be applied at any cost?  How much should be revealed to the Head Office Unit, and how much would be classified as ‘reneging’ on your duty’ for non-disclosure?  Who will, or should, ultimately have the greatest say in the decision – the customer or the Head Office?



To Localize or Flavor with International Best Practice?


Naturally an international manager immerses into a completely new culture, defined as the cement that holds our bricks together.  So many MNC’s rely on ‘international best practice’ or ‘the latest case study’ yet where is the comfort that it has brought results to this new culture.


Decisions about whether to localize or internationally-flavor impact many areas including:

    • Workforce Composition

    • Accreditations and industry standard recognition

    • Purchasing Agreements and Suppliers

 …to name but a few.


Consequences of misaligned or ill-fated judgements can be fatal to the business. Corruption can wind its way through the doors in the case of poor procurement decisions, silent dissension can infest the ranks of the people where imbalance may occur between nationalities and sects (Nigeria is a great example here), and customer buying decisions may take a turn away from your company if a standard is not understood or endorsed is introduced. And when things do take a turn for the worse especially when grounded in best practices that go wrong with negative impact on the local region, for example in the BP Gulf Oil Spill, societal consequences very quickly rear their head. 


To Aim for ‘What is Possible’ or ‘What is Probable’?


Cultures differ in many ways, with both the way of thinking and the way of acting or behaving having major impact.    For example, when a culture is deeply rooted in corruption and lack of transparency, what is really possible?  When a company is leading the way in a new industry, what is known about possibility? Change can always be on the agenda yet realistically, how long can that take?


An international manager could bring the ‘what is possible’ vs. ‘what is probable’ discussion into many areas of business planning and budgeting, considering:

    • Likely output per capita

    • Likely availability of resources

    • Likely legislative environment

    • Evidence of stability and trust in the leaders 

High expectations are one thing, yet setting oneself and others up for failure with unreal expectations can backfire quickly.  Perhaps the decision is really more about ‘what can we start aiming for this year’ and observe during the first year to know what might need to change to orchestrate positive growth the following year.



There is no doubt that international managers will need to take some tough decisions and face tough choices, yet intention is key in any business.  When business purpose and intention of business activity and decision are aligned, an international manager should be able to sleep comfortably at night, regardless of the difficulty of decision.  There are of course no guarantees that all business will be free from uncertainty, yet when managers, staff and customers have an awareness of ‘why’ decisions are taken, and their intended level of service to constituents, this can equate to half the battle!  Long live tough and aligned decisions!



{#/pub/images/debbienicol.jpg}Written by Debbie NicolManaging Director, 'business en motion' 

With leadership workshops, strategic approaches to organizational development and change, executive coaching and public speaking engagements, Debbie’s USP is the ability to open minds of those around her. Offering both traditional and contemporary toolkits focused on story-telling as the impetus for self and corporate leadership change. Sectors span across Asia, Africa and specializing in Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.


Do you have a management question for Debbie?  Please visit our International Management Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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