5 Questions to Ask Assignees to Determine Cultural Fit (and Why)

With more than a decade of experience supporting foreign assignees, Jesse Rowell, Managing Director of Global Mobility and Market Development at Aperian Global, shares his expert views on what cultural fit really means. He also shares five important questions that global mobility professionals should ask candidates before sending them on a foreign assignment and the reasons behind these key questions.

Jesse’s Definition of Cultural Fit

In the context of a foreign assignment, I would define “cultural fit” to mean the ability to successfully immerse within a setting that may be outside one’s normal comfort zone. For a foreign assignee the settings are both the corporate culture of their company and the host country culture where they are moving to. Adaptability into both cultures is important in order to feel there is a fit, so that the assignment can be successful. Below are some questions and reasons behind them that provide a framework for cultural fit and assignment success, based on our research involving some of the most successful foreign assignees among our clients.

Jesse's 5 Key Questions

  1.  How curious are you about how you operate in the world versus others?

    Why this Question? A genuine sense of wanting to seek cultural self-awareness is important for anyone going on assignment. The methods Western corporate expatriates use to handle their business activities are not necessarily better than the methods of local managers. Indeed, they may not even be as good. A key guiding rule for any assignee representing their company in another country is to respect the customs and traditions of the people in that nation. That is smart business. Plus, it shows respect for the people they work with and supervise.

  2. How do you maintain core values while employing flexibility?

    Why this Question? Foreign assignees should never cross ethical boundaries, regardless of local attitudes. For example, people in some countries regard bribes and other forms of corruption as business as usual. Global leaders find that they must draw a line in the sand and refuse to participate in these practices, even if such a refusal makes it more difficult for them to operate successfully. Leaders must also know their corporations’ policies and the relevant local laws. They may find that they can be more flexible on certain issues than they might have thought, but they must tread carefully and always uphold their core values.

  3. Can you get results through relationships?

    Why this Question? Trying to manage business in another country can be difficult for non-natives. That’s why global corporate leaders working in foreign lands quickly develop good rapport with locals they trust who can show them the ropes. Many cultures place a high degree of importance on relationships. For example, business people in Brazil feel that they must get to know each other socially before they can sit down and discuss the details of business deals or pending projects. In a new country, it is important that assignees focus on relationships before turning to specific work tasks.

  4. How can you adapt your working style to reflect the local norms?

    Why this Question? Global leaders must be prepared to alter not only their leadership style but also their strategic methods so they can adjust to different cultures. Often these changes involve new ways to communicate. We call this “frame-shifting.” For example, US managers can directly ask American employees to work overtime. However, managers in Spain must adopt a far more indirect approach, or they won’t get anywhere with local employees.

  5. How comfortable are you with inviting the unexpected?

    Why this Question? You can learn a great deal from the people you lead and collaborate with if you are curious and ask intelligent questions. Foreign assignees should see them as a valuable source of information. They should be receptive to traditional in-country approaches, even when they develop a sense of ownership of the company’s overall activities. This will be difficult — if not impossible — if the managers at corporate headquarters treat offices in other countries in a “mother ship/baby ship” type of arrangement. Instead, assignees have to work to give local offices in other countries a greater sense of autonomy. It is important that assignees lead by example if they are coming from the headquarters.

Interested in more practical questions?
Also read: Key Interview Questions to Ask International Candidates (and Why)

Jesse Rowell Aperian GlobalAbout the Expert:  Jesse Rowell is Managing Director of Global Mobility and Market Development at Aperian Global, which provides organizations with scalable and innovative learning solutions to conduct business effectively across boundaries, including the GlobeSmart cultural tool. The firm has prepared tens of thousands of assignees and families for international moves across the globe, equipping them with best-in-class support for the challenges they are likely to face in their new locations. He is based in Chicago, Illinois.