The Secret Diary of a Global Mobility Manager: Expat Lifecycle – The Underpants model

by Gina Tonic

Expat Academy The Secret Diary of a Global Mobility Manager: Expat Lifecycle - The Underpants model  Dear Diary,

Making my way up the other side of what I affectionately refer to as the ‘underpant model’, I thought I would take some time to reflect on the experience of stepping into an assignee’s shoes myself.

The sniff test

The last time I relocated abroad I was a fresh graduate with nothing but a rather large overdraft to take with me. It was back in the days when an assignment initiation was sent by pigeon carrier (well, internal hard copy mail). It was a world pre-facebook, pre-instagram and people were enjoying a little bit of Mambo Number 5 in the charts….

The world was my oyster (or my mussel as the case may be) as I arrived in Belgium with my paper fold-out map of Brussels, a suitcase and a CD on how to speak French. Unfortunately, whilst the latter helped with important phrases such as ‘where is the bank?’ and ‘I’d like a cheese and ham toasted sandwich’, it was a fat lot of use when I signed a lease in Flemish which, unknown to me, was for a term of 9 years. To make matters worse, I got no help at all from my crazy Belgian landlady who demonstrated Glenn Close tendencies as she tried to make me pay for prior years of rent and bills when I had actually still been residing in my home country and living it up in my final year as a student. In fact, it was partly due to this experience that I ended up in the wonderful world of Global Mobility.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and impeccable timing on both a personal and professional level, the smell of an international assignment was wafted under my nose. It probably took me a nano-second to decide before grabbing it with both hands.

The crotch of the matter

The stressed-out expat. We’ve all experienced them, right? Yes, we should probably be grateful as they keep us in a job. However, they seem to come to our desks in droves. When things go right, it’s expected. When things go wrong, doesn’t the whole world know about it? From the ‘I simply cannot believe you will not allow me to claim excess depreciation on my Koi Carp; I’m having to move don’t you know?!’ to ‘The fact that you will not allow me an extension in my 3-month temporary accommodation means that I’ll have to buy a tarpaulin for me and my family to sleep under. I hope this makes you feel good!’ We could write a book and live off the royalties, couldn’t we?

I have to say though, my level of empathy (somewhat frayed after years of listening to the many expat moans and gripes) has recently been renewed somewhat because, even with great support, relocating – despite the fact that it’s an amazing opportunity – can be a tad stressful to say the least.

The sheer amount of things that need to be managed can be overwhelming. My to-do list was an excel spreadsheet with 76 rows of actions and actually, although I may in the past have done a surreptitious eye roll when hearing ‘but my case is unique, my situation is different, I need an exception’ for the millionth time, every case really is different.

When moving with a family, it’s double the stress. There’s a spouse or partner to consider, children to uproot who don’t want to leave their friends, two dogs and a bearded dragon to get through quarantine…. What about if you move alone? Great, in the fact that you don’t have to think about anyone but yourself, but it’s also tough when it’s you who has to take sole ownership of those 76 actions. To decide what to ship, store and leave behind; to do all the charity shop runs (if you’re lucky you might have the help of lovely willing friends); to find a tenant to rent your flat; to redirect the mail, sort out the utilities… blah blah…. The list can seem never ending. All this at the same time as BAU (business as usual) not that this exists in the wonderful world of Global Mobility, deliverables to be met, and other expats to counsel.

….and up the other side

Having landed in pastures new and felt a wave of pure relief that the preparation is over, reality sinks in when you realise you are exhausted and only 50% of the way there. Aside from the practicalities of finding somewhere to live, setting up a bank account and utilities and attending a tax briefing, there’s a new role to get to grips with, new foods, a different language and culture. On top of that, there’s the continual meeting of new work colleagues and new friends, and trying, in a short space of time, to find your feet. It’s like being in a perpetual job interview or on a dating website; meet, greet, repeat. Then one day you wake up, realise that the action list has diminished, your flat is looking like ‘home’, you’ve settled into the new role, you’ve picked up the local lingo (still working on the accent!) and you have new friends’ numbers in your new phone!

So, would I change anything? Absolutely not. Experiencing the ride of your life in the ‘underpant model’ is something that should be mandatory for all GMers. Would I do it all again? Absolutely yes. Will I still cast a discreet eyeroll and have a little mutter under my breath when I see an email with ‘Urgent Escalation’ in big fat capitals in the title? Probably (if I’m honest) but, what I will be doing is taking a moment to reflect and stepping back into the assignee’s shoes before picking up the phone, poised and ready to absorb their stress and deal with the latest GM ‘disaster’.

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