What is the point of expats?
Expats are hugely expensive. They are also not highly effective, at least to start with as they work out how the local culture and local business works. Often, they may not even speak the local language. If you are sent on an expat assignment, the chances are that several members of your team will be wondering why they were not given your job. They will resent the apparent vote of no confidence in local talent which you represent and may worry that a glass ceiling operates in your firm: you are above the ceiling, and they are below it.
An effective global team leader can play several roles which are not mutually exclusive.
Skills transfer. This has been the traditional, and still common, reason for sending expats around the world to lead teams and units. The required skills are a combination of high technical skills plus immersion in the skills, standards and values of the global firm. The expat becomes the person through whom global standards and consistency can be enforced. If a firm wants a global way of doing things, then it is not enough to have standards and manuals: you need managers who can bring those standards to life and make them relevant in every country and culture.
Eyes and ears of head office. Global firms do not really know what is going on all around the world. They can read the reports and see the financial results which give some idea of what has happened in the past. But that yields little insight into what is happening now and what may happen in future. To understand fully what is happening around the world, the firm needs trusted executives who can see and hear what is happening locally, and act accordingly. In the past, this meant having a cadre of senior (male) executives from the home nation populating leadership positions around the world. In a truly global firm, these seasoned executives can be of any race, faith, nationality and even gender provided that they have earned the trust of head office.
Insider advocate. A global team needs an insider who can represent them at head office to influence key decisions, to protect them from adverse politics, to secure the right budget and resources, to advance their interests at bonus and promotion time. These advocacy roles are vital to the team as a whole and to each team member. Effective advocacy needs an insider who knows who all the decision makers are, has access to them and is trusted by them.
Global figurehead. A global firm needs people who can represent them locally, but can also represent the global face of the firm. Global clients expect to talk with someone who can talk with authority about the global capability of the firm, and can find and deliver those resources locally when needed. In many more heirarchical societies, it is often easier for an expat to gain access to top level clients, because they are perceived to have global, not just local, reach and power.
Expats may be expensive, but they have a role to play. The big question is where to find the expats who can fill these roles. Traditionally, the home nation has provided all the expats. A truly global firm will work hard to build a cardre of global team leaders who come from anywhere and can go anywhere.