Expat managers are need based otherwise expensive

One reason why Indian agencies haven’t had too many expats in the past is the fact that expats are an expensive proposition even today. Previously, those who came, came for the love of the country. They were prepared to take a cut in salaries to fulfill their dream of living here. Now that India Inc can afford to pay better they will start attracting others.

In terms of absolute salaries, India has achieved parity, at least with large parts of Asia. The big agencies here are significantly bigger and more profitable on the whole, so they can pay well. The problem starts when cost of housing is added to the package. If companies understand what it means to stay in India, Housing here is more expensive than in Singapore and Hong Kong, and that’s what is crippling.

The other reason expats have been few in number is simple: Indian agencies haven’t really had the need for expat managers. In other Asian countries, the managers on the clients’ side were expats, so they needed expat agency people so that there was a comfort level, a common wavelength. Thanks to Indian IIMs and other business schools, managers in India, even among MNC clients, were Indian.

And our Indian agency heads were also schooled similarly, so everyone was on the same page. Indian companies may not really need expats. Some senior expats working in India are in India because they had the experience of working with companies like IBM in the past, and have the relevant IT and creative experience.

However, expats definitely have a role to play in areas where Indians haven’t yet developed skill sets. Fitch’s David Blair, for instance, sees his and his co-expats roles as imparting specialist skill sets to Indians. The fact is some skills in some businesses don’t exist in India and expats need to train good people in India to run a self-sustaining business.

While a ‘need’ for expats may not exist, when salary levels are competitive, the imperative is to get the best person for the job. That could mean taking the best Indian and putting him in New York or the other way round. So, for instance, when Jet Airways mandated M&C Saatchi to get people with a regional experience of managing a global airline brand, the agency signed on Andy Lock and James Woolett.

Expats do come with advantages that can be tapped and leveraged. They bring international practices of working on brands. They know how to build, feed and manage a network. And they tend to think on a broad scale, think about the brand on a much bigger canvas.

Expats bring a different contextual reference to the table, “a different way of approaching a problem that Indian managers may not be exposed to”. A HR recruitment agency CEO says they are open to working with good, talented expats. Only initiative the agency has to take is sensitize the person about Indian sensibilities. Expats bring in diversity: Expats bring fresh energy, and that reflects in the work. Otherwise it’s the same people doing the same stuff over and over again.

But how much value an expat on a limited contract brings in is debatable. While on the one hand the transitory nature of the job might act as a disincentive to perform there is also the counter-pressure of delivering results within a stipulated time frame. This could result in the expat overhauling the system, which could be good and bad.

Good if the agency is stuck in a rut. Bad if he ends up changing something good for the sake of change. It all ultimately depends on the maturity of the individual.