According to Ambassador Fernando López-Fabregat, Director General for International Economic Affairs, Uruguayan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and former Consul General of Uruguay in Toronto, we can learn a lot from what he calls foreign service employees (FSEs), people working for governments but based internationally and for international agencies, who were the first expatriates to appear in the international arena. The most successful employees have a tolerance for ambiguity, sophisticated interpersonal relations and communication skills, high cultural empathy, and are open-minded. These skills are always crucial for any employee but in the case of FSEs are essential to balance the national interests of their country with the desires of their host country. They must be highly flexible, as it is not unusual for the FSE to deal today with an issue (for example trade promotion) and tomorrow with a very different one (for instance cultural affairs).
One of the adjustments in organizational culture that FSEs have to make is the shift from working in a large government department at home to a smaller group located in the host country. When in the head office at home, the FSE will work in an organization with, perhaps, thousands of other employees that give them adequate back up services. But, suddenly, when posted overseas they begin to work in an organization (such as an embassy, consulate, etc.) that is very similar to a small- or medium-sized company.
There is continuing debate about whether FSEs have to be generalists or specialists. According to López-Fabregat, the correct answer is that they have to be both. They can be specialists on certain areas (for example political analysis, marketing) but particularly when abroad, to really understand the surrounding social, political, economic environment they have to be generalists, duly prepared to work in a team, to coordinate efforts with other services, agencies, or private companies, and, finally, to give their authorities at home the very useful broad picture of the situation in the host country.

Case Discussion Questions

1. What are some of the skills that can make an expatriate manager successful? Give an example of each of the traits and how they would be found in a foreign environment.

2. Give an example of when an FSE would have to apply generalist knowledge.

3. How would an expatriate manager adjust the shift from working in a large organization to a small one in a foreign environment?

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