Let’s Challenge “Expat Leader Syndrome”

  • Ezra
  • February 11th, 2021

Dan White, the head of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses the challenges of reaching a global workforce everywhere and providing equality of opportunity to avoid "expat leader" syndrome in your organization.

Avoiding Expat Leader Syndrome

When I look at the corporate world, particularly international organisations I sometimes get a slightly uneasy feeling when I see lots of Americans and Europeans heading up regional offices across Asia, Africa and South America.  I think I would be more comfortable with this if the reverse were also true, if we lived in a world where African talent was routinely encountered in the Western headquarters of large multinational organisations.  It does happen, but it’s rare.

I think this should bother us.

Ezra is built on the underlying principle of democratising coaching.  When we established our virtual coaching brand two years ago one of the major driving forces behind our vision was the idea that coaching can inadvertently reinforce the status quo and entrench existing patterns of power and privilege.  Historically only 25% of people who receive coaching are women, and only 4% are women of colour.

We love coaching. We believe it is a superpower that can transform the trajectories of individuals and organisations.

We aim to push coaching down into organisations, to support people in turn to push through into senior positions, to realise their potential and their ambition before existing inequalities and patterns of marginalisation have the opportunity to take hold.

We achieve that by leveraging a virtual delivery platform, our coaching app, to make this a lot more affordable.  That’s because it eliminates the need to spend a lot of time, and therefore money, moving highly experienced coaches around.

Our coaches stay put and their coachees come to them.  They spend their time coaching, not travelling.  And this is true in reverse.  Our coachees stay where they are and can be reached wherever they are.  So far in our first 18 months of trading, and with full operations in only a small number of countries, over half of all our programs have been international.  We have coached people from Albania to Botswana and Vietnam to Zambia.

This means the same developmental experience and impact is delivered everywhere.  We don’t favour those closest to HQ, or those who can get to where the learning is happening easily.  We embrace the far-flung nature of our new organisations where people can work remotely and yet collaborate meaningfully.

Because this proximity factor is too often a driver of the “expat syndrome”.  People working in HQ get access to the best learning, drink the most corporate Kool-Aid and are shipped out to manage local opcos on the other side of the world.  It’s often badged as a good development opportunity for them.  It can even become a bit of a right of passage.  “Maggie has done her stint in the Far East, now it’s time for the big promotion.”  The factor driving this is geography and the inequality of experience that drives.

With more and more virtual platforms there isn’t much excuse for this happening anymore.  I hope we see an erosion of the “expat syndrome”, or at least a levelling up.  I’d like to think there are just as many Vietnamese leaders who would make a great impact on a UK or US team as there are vice versa. Sorting out truly equal and global access to leadership coaching is an excellent first step.

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