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Global Mobility – A Transactional Function or Strategic Potential?

Having worked in mobility teams around the world and in many different sectors, it seems to me that the Holy Grail of mobility now (along with measuring ROI, and attaining a level of basic professional respect) is how to position the function as a strategic partner to the business, rather than just a transactional order taker. Mobility leaders talk loftily about “aligning mobility with Talent” and “adding strategic value” to the wider HR function. But what does this mean in practice – and is it actually a worthy aim? I spoke to two mobility professionals with very different views on the role of GM to understand their perspectives.

Vincent Tackoen is a Managing Partner of Talent Mobility Search. His view is unequivocal – mobility is a transactional function, and should stay in this space, recognising its role as an operational order taker.  He states “My strong view comes from the fact that I know way too many people that talk about being a strategic mobility person but I’ve never actually heard anyone with valuable description of what that is.” For Vincent, any strategic input GM might have comes simply from their role as a support function, supporting the wider business strategy – but from an operational perspective. He continues: “I do think that mobility has a value add but it’s not strategic. Mobility has to adapt and be nimble but its a highly operational function that responds to business strategy.  But I still believe that as a function it doesn’t have a strategic intent. When you take away strategic intent and all that fluff, it works.”

For David Wells, an industry veteran of many years and former Head of Mobility at Amec Foster Wheeler and Diageo, there is potential for GM to provide more strategic input through its offerings.  He says, “It depends somewhat on the nature of the business, size and scale of the GM programme and its criticality to the business. For example, an engineering services company “selling” specialist engineers to projects overseas has an immediate and critical need for international assignees (if the local labour market cannot provide the skills, then no assignees = no business). In that scenario, GM has an absolutely crucial (and highly strategic) role to play in supporting the business to win projects and to execute them profitably, by moving the right people at the right cost to the right project. Therefore it becomes critical to have a competitive Mobility offering, whilst retaining a degree of flexibility to support the business in winning work and protecting its margin. GM may also play a crucial strategic role in workforce planning – advising the business on how quickly it can mobilise people across borders, managing immigration compliance risk etc. For smaller programmes, or those moving people for talent development reasons, the strategic focus may be more on ensuring GM supports the Talent agenda, for example by helping to develop cross-border talent programmes. For some programmes, the business might not need or want GM to be strategic – they may just want it to focus on transactional excellence. That’s just as valid a goal as having a strategic function. Of course in a perfect world, GM brings both transactional excellence and strategic insight.”

From David’s perspective therefore, mobility’s strategic potential emanates from its frameworks (suite of policies), specialist knowledge (grasp of risk and compliance issues affecting business planning) and effective cost management in line with company requirements. The underlying operational piece is of course vital, but there is more that can be done by mobility teams to maximise their strategic value.

Vincent however believes that the value add ends with operational support, and the efficacy of this element has an underlying and all pervading effect on how mobility is perceived and, ultimately respected. He explains: “You can still have a mobility strategy. You want the mobility function to be fully aligned to the wider business strategy in terms of operational excellence. But that’s as strategic as you can be. Too many mobility functions talk about measuring Return On Investment etc,  but they can’t even get  operations  right and get people smoothly from A to B. In a lot of companies with significant mobility programmes, there’s a lot of talk around talent management, and maximising efficiencies, but the basic functions are abysmal. You can really see a misalignment between trying to be strategic and good execution.”

David agrees that the “basics” – operational excellence and solid processes – underscore everything GM does. Without these, any attempts to be strategic are likely doomed to failure. GM often struggles from an image problem – something David believes must first be addressed through operational success. “I think the main challenge is that GM functions so often have a negative reputation. Before any part of HR can get “strategic”, it needs to get the basics right and earn a good reputation. That challenge can be magnified by the fact that often GM gets a bad rap unfairly – GM tends to be deeply complex and an easy target for blame attribution – it’s the only part of HR which has both a deeply technical and a deeply “human” side to it (more so than Reward, where the day to day work tends to be technical). These challenges can only be addressed by focusing on what is important to the business rather than fashionable in the GM world. For example, aligning with Talent may not truly be a priority, whereas something more prosaic like creating good processes might be. GM teams should focus on immediate priorities, and build more strategic priorities into their longer term plans.”

Once those operational processes are running smoothly, and GM has managed to get a good name for itself internally as a reliable, efficient function, more strategic aims can be addressed. But what does this actually mean in the context of mobility? David explains, “I think it can mean a variety of things. Primarily though, it’s strategically supporting Talent, or being business critical in terms of offering advice regarding risk and compliance. GM can add value across the Talent, Reward and Compliance agendas, and through contributing to the bottom line with competitive but cost efficient programmes. For example, the introduction of a simple flex down mechanism in the GM policy at Amec Foster Wheeler enabled the business to have the flexibility to be more competitive in bids in order to win work and protect margin. Moving away from a rigid approach to policy was the right way to support the business in challenging market conditions in which winning work was getting harder and there was intense pressure to save costs.” This is a great example of GM strategy aligning with the wider business – where the business imperative was to reduce cost, GM was able to transform the policy framework to a flex based offering, giving the business much needed cost saving potential, whilst retaining oversight and control. Frequently revisiting the company’s strategies, and understanding what the wider business is trying to achieve is therefore vital for mobility teams wishing to develop a more strategic focus to their work. Of all of HR, mobility can least work in isolation from other areas, since the very imperative of GM­ – to move employees from A to B – is always at the instruction of another function, whether that’s the business directly, or HR.

Given this, it’s hugely important where possible to try to get mobility at seat at the “top table” – usually meaning as part of HR Leadership teams. When GM can understand directly what is the strategic direction of the company and of HR generally, they can more easily push their own agenda around talent alignment or ROI initiatives. If these messages trickle down to GM second hand via HR or Reward or other pipelines, there is no opportunity for GM to speak out directly to other function leaders about the potential to add value. Vincent supports this view, if from a slightly more prosaic angle: “Having a seat at the top table is paramount for two reasons: GM has a sense that GM is important, and has direct access to budget discussions. If GM shares a budget with HR, recognising that mobility is an expensive function, it’s likely they’ll get less than they need. It’s bad for GM to have decisions made outside of GM. If they’re at the top table, they know they can support the whole business strategy, and they know the budget is there.”

Whilst Vincent and David have differing views regarding the potential of GM and level of strategic input realistically achievable, both agree that there are some aspects in which GM must attempt to exceed its operational remit. GM leaders being accepted as part of the Leadership team is vital, if only in terms of external positioning, and having a voice regarding budgets. Secondly, even if the strategic input of GM is solely in support of strategic initiatives originating elsewhere, there is scope for GM to escape the operational treadmill and add value by crafting sensible, flexible policies, ensuring the specialist knowledge around risk and compliance is delivered to the right place at the right time, and proactively managing costs through benefit and vendor oversight. Put these simple elements on top of a great operational base, and you’re on the way to elevating GM beyond the basics.

Caitlin Pyett is a Mobility industry veteran with 20 years’ experience gained in London and Singapore. Currently in Hong Kong due to her husband’s recent relocation, she now finds herself in the unenviable position of “trailing spouse” – a fresh perspective on mobility after 20 years! Caitlin is available for senior in house opportunities in HK, mobility consulting work and freelance writing assignments. She can be contacted on +852 9655 6657 or connect with her on LinkedIn. 

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