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Global Mobility – the Bad News Guys?

Working in Global Mobility can be a thankless task. There can be fewer areas of HR where your hard work so often results in blame and derision for one small element of a move which did not go perfectly to plan, whilst the thousand elements that did are ignored; nor where your expertise is dismissed as a hindrance to corporate success rather than a vanguard of compliance. So why is this – and why are Global Mobility teams so often required to be the bearers of bad news?

Mobility deals, on one hand with hard business realities of high costs, evasive Return on Investment and legal issues which may not align with business objectives and on the other hand with the intensely emotional experience of moving an employee and family from one location to another. It is also heavily operational, and relies on significant external input in terms of vendors. No wonder, then, that GM often finds itself having to tell the business that things are not going to plan. So how can global mobility specialists best prepare themselves for this scenario? I spoke to Sarah Rowley, Director, Global Mobility for Wood plc, about her experiences.

“Firstly you need to build your credibility, not just as a GM expert but by demonstrating your understanding of the business and the commercial environment,” she says. It’s not enough for GM to sit in the ivory tower of HR – like HRBPs, it’s vital that GM learns to understand the issues its stakeholders are facing. “It is critical to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the Manager to understand the bigger picture that they are dealing with and how you can then support them in managing those quite often conflicting priorities.” In other words, if you don’t look at the world through the eyes of your customer, you’ll never be able to understand the pressures they are under. “

But Sarah’s point is also about Mobility teams developing their own self belief, and sense of self worth.

“You also need to be confident in your knowledge and expertise and ensure that your voice is heard when there are multiple stakeholders in the process who all have different agendas. One of the skills of a really proficient global mobility specialist is to be able to take all those differing views and ideas and broker a single, joined up solution which meets the needs of the business and ensures compliance.”

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Your reputation matters

Global mobility is hugely complex and technical, yet GM practitioners often don’t rate their own expertise highly enough.  When this happens, Sarah says “It is easy for the business to over simplify what we do and “tune out” our consistent messaging about timelines, risk and governance. We are often seen as an admin function because we fail to position ourselves in the same way as our colleagues in legal, finance and tax which can mean that our views and advice are not considered important. Being able to talk to the business in their language, demonstrating an understanding of their challenges and positioning our solutions in a way that is aligned to their priorities will get us much closer to being trusted business advisors.”

Ah – the Holy Grail of the trusted business advisor – a phrase familiar to most GM teams yet usually an elusive state. GM so often fails to position themselves correctly, that this can be a self inflicted wound. Have confidence and pride in your specialist knowledge, and then learn how to listen to your stakeholders and apply your knowledge to their “pain”. When you do this well, they will see that you have a voice that is worth listening to, and it will make any tricky discussions much easier. Sarah says “ The skill is to be able to ask the right questions and sometimes it is as simple as saying “tell me what you want” and then being honest about whether you can meet their expectations.”

Baden Powell was right – be prepared

Once GM has established itself as a credible partner for its stakeholders, there are certain key principles that can be followed whenever a bad news conversation needs to happen.  The first is preparation. Before attempting to deliver news of a service failure or error, it pays to know the full background and have all the facts to hand beforehand. Sarah says, “I get prepared for the conversation – what are the facts, what are the key messages I need to deliver. I make sure that I have investigated all options fully and that my solution is the right one when all things have been considered.”

Don’t be sensitive

It’s vital not to take criticism personally. Failures happen, and a good GM consultant looks for solutions and causes, not excuses or more sources for blame.  “If there has been an error I apologise but I don’t expect understanding or sympathy – this is not about me and my feelings it’s about dealing with a difficult situation in a professional manner and taking accountability even if I’m not personally responsible for the mistake.”

Look at the options

When it comes to repairing damage, it pays to be open – you may not have all the answers. “I’m prepared to be flexible based on the reaction from the person I’m talking to. If the person comes up with a solution I haven’t thought about, I am open to exploring it.”

Only promise what you know you can deliver

Avoid assuaging guilt by overpromising what can be delivered in the future. This is a difficult skill to learn and apply– the desire is there to set things right, but you won’t do yourself any favours by setting yourself up for further failure. As Sarah says  “if you are to build and retain your credibility you have to make sure that you don’t make the situation worse by over promising because you feel guilty.”

Tim Burgess, co-founder of Shield GEO adds, “This is so true. The temptation when delivering bad news is to say “I’ll fix it right away”. But sometimes you can’t do that and you set yourself up to fail all over again.”

Finally, if it’s possible, try to end the discussion on a positive. If it’s not obvious why the failure happened, you should commit to finding out why, and feeding that information back. Assuring your stakeholder that you understand the importance of fixing the root cause will go a long way to building trust in the future. As Sarah says, “Most people understand human error but are less understanding of repeated or systematic errors and lessons that have not been learnt.”

If the issue is one that isn’t so much a failure as a message the business simply does not want to hear – that a work permit will always take three months rather than three weeks, for example – ask yourself why you’re having to repeatedly deliver this message. Does the business not know the reality? If they do, do they simply not care? What can you do, in terms of explaining the wider compliance risks and implications, to help them to understand why they should care? As Tim says, “Sometimes delivering bad news is also an opportunity to reinforce the risks and messages which they might not have listened to at the beginning. This is why we always say 3 months even though it can sometimes take less time.”

If the message is still not getting through, who can you get on your side (legal teams, heads of HR, senior business managers) who might be able to lend a voice to your cause to give it weight?

Ultimately, GM is there for the good of the business it serves. The more your stakeholders appreciate that, the easier delivering bad news should be – and the ability to build that appreciation is entirely in your hands.

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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