Secondment Foreign assignments: Ticket to retention

Secondment to a foreign location can be key in the fight to win and retain top talent, and many agencies have set up such schemes. Cathy Wallace looks at how it works.

In the war for top PR talent, the opportunity to work in a glamorous foreign location can often be a deciding factor in not only attracting the best people, but keeping them loyal and interested.

Jonathan Jordan, UK chief executive at Burson-Marsteller, which runs several overseas secondment schemes, says: 'The marketplace is very competitive for the best talent and we like to have the best consultants in the industry working for us.'

Patrick Danaher, new business and marketing manager at Bite PR, adds: 'People sometimes get bored with London and it can be a tough working environment. Having a network of international offices, as we do, allows people to see a different side of the world and of PR.'

Sending staff abroad can throw up a few challenges, not least in relationships with clients. But Danaher says: 'If we can't keep our staff happy, we won't be able to keep our clients happy.'

Kathleen Noonan, key client director at Mmd, which runs an overseas scholarship programme, agrees: 'There are benefits on both sides, but we look at this as a clear benefit for employees first. Exposure to a different culture helps people grow on both a professional and a personal level.'

There are several ways secondments can work. Larger agencies with international offices can bed them into company policy. This is the case at Bite, where a human resources policy has been written up on overseas secondments.

Other agencies, such as Mmd, offer secondments as a reward for excellent working practice. Anyone up to account director level who has been with the company for two years can apply for a three-month overseas placement within the Huntsworth Group, which bought Mmd in 2006.

The programme measures candidates against a strict set of criteria to find an overall 'winner', who is given a tailored secondment that fits in with their own personal career development goals. The company meets all their expenses and adjusts their salary to fit with the cost of living in their host country, plus a bonus.

Last year's winner, Renata Rydzewska, a senior account manager at Mmd's Warsaw office, spent three months working in Trimedia's London office. She says: 'The secondment gave me an opportunity to gain insight into the practicalities of how the UK market functions. It strengthened my professional confidence and allowed me to look at day-to-day work from a wider and more international perspective.'

Secondments are not offered just by global agencies with offices on every continent. Kerry Hallard, managing director of Buffalo PR, says membership of the PR Network, an international body of agencies, has allowed the agency to send people on secondment as well as take on visitors from overseas. 'Joining something like the PR Network is good for smaller agencies that don't have international presence,' she says. 'It's good for international PR links, and for staff retention if they feel they are part of a wider global network.'

Paying for an employee's secondment, as many agencies do, can be expensive. But Jordan says the benefits compensate for this: 'Don't think of it as a short-term cost; think of it as a long-term investment'.

In fact, the only drawback of sending employees overseas, says Danaher, is 'sometimes they don't want to come back'.

Secondment Dos and Don'ts

DO

Brief the seconded employee before they go overseas to establish exactly what they want to gain from the experience

Give the employee the chance to share their experiences with colleagues on their return

Look for ways to make sure employee, client and agency all benefit - for example, using a secondment to cover another employee's maternity leave

DON'T

Expect staff in the home office to pick up their seconded colleague's workload - make sure cover is arranged or the seconded employee spends some of their time working on their own clients

View a secondment as a cost - rather think of it as an investment

Allow an employee to go on secondment without being fully prepared and without support from both their home and secondment office

Case Study: Nadia Guerirem, Bite PR

Who: Nadia Guerirem

What: Account manager, Bite PR

Where: Nine months into a three-year secondment to Bite's San Francisco office

- So why San Francisco?

I had been at Bite for three years and I loved the company and had built a solid career there. I wanted a change, but I didn't want to leave the agency. They were short-staffed at the San Francisco office and wanted someone with experience similar to mine, so it worked out really well.

- How easy was the relocation process?

The time period from when I was first interested to when the move went ahead was eight months, which I think was pretty quick. The visa took a little while to come through - the way it works with transfers to the US means there's a lot to be checked off. They do a full analysis of your entire career history, qualifications, why you would do the job better than anyone from the US. Bite helped me find somewhere to live, I got a week's paid leave to research properties and they reimbursed me for temporary accommodation.

- How different is your secondment job from the one you did at home?

Clients are a lot more demanding in the US and expect you to be a lot more flexible. People also work longer hours than in the UK. Media relations is different too - in the UK it is based on spending time with journalists, networking and building one-to-one relationships. In the US there is far more contact by email and relationships are based on your technical understanding of the business. If you don't understand products instantly, journalists will find someone else to deal with. They expect your knowledge to be on a par with an engineer's, and they won't let you even take them out for a drink until they know if you are credible or not.

- What have you learned from the experience?

I have gained such a huge amount in nine months, and it was good to be so familiar with the company's core values. It was like going to a different agency, but without leaving the culture in which you like working.

Case Study: Carolyn Forest, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Who: Carolyn Forest

What: Manager of Canadian media relations, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Where: Spent three months in PwC's UK offices on secondment from Canada

- So why the UK?

During a global planning session with my boss I expressed an interest in going to another country to see how its media teams worked, and to bring back new knowledge and experiences to our Canadian offices.

- How easy was the relocation process?

PwC has a very robust global mobility programme and it co-ordinated everything on my behalf. The firm uses an external agency to help with accommodation and it provided me with options for flats. When I got to London everything was set up and ready for me, so I moved right in.

The firm, both from Canada and the UK, assisted me with the various tax forms I had to fill in, medical information and what to expect from day one. I also spoke at length to the head of UK media relations to understand more about what my role would be when I arrived.

- How different was the secondment job from the one you do at home?

The UK team has more resources that focus on various areas of the firm. In Canada our team is much smaller, so while I was in London I was able to really focus on the two or three projects I was given to work on.

A big challenge for me was getting to know the UK media, which was a whole new world for me.

- What did you learn from the experience?

I learned quite a bit about the UK media market and the challenges that come with having to deal with a completely different set of journalists. I've been in the PR field for more than ten years, but not knowing the UK press felt like I was starting right from the beginning.

The best thing was getting so many new ideas that I could bring back to Canada and implement here.

HOW WE DO IT

THE GLOBAL AGENCY

Jonathan Jordan, Chief executive, Burson-Marsteller UK

'We have two main opportunities. One is an open-ended transfer to one of the other B-M offices. For people who want to travel but not move permanently, we offer a One Europe programme across our offices. Consultants apply for three-month secondments to another office and the company picks up the cost of them getting out there, temporary accommodation and expenses. They work for three months and then return to their home office.'

I did it 18 months in San Francisco

Carolyn Dealey, Senior associate, Burson-Marsteller

'Seventy per cent of our clients are international and a number of our offices work on one particular brand, which provides more opportunities for people to move between different offices. It's about building closer ties.'

THE UK AGENCY

Kerry Hallard, MD, Buffalo Communications

'This summer we had someone over from a Spanish agency for three months, arranged through the PR Network. Her agency paid her wages and we gave her desk space, and she spent half her week working on Spanish clients and the other half on Buffalo clients.

We definitely benefit; the whole aim of the PR Network is to share best practice and look at how different agencies do things differently, and take that back to the various offices.'

I did it three months in the UK at Buffalo

Tamara Martinez, Account manager, Aleph Communicacion (Madrid)

'I had a really good experience. I learned a lot and I increased my contacts - I didn't have a lot of holiday, but it was worth the trouble. If I had the opportunity again I would not turn it down.'

THE EXCHANGE SCHEME

Paula Green, HR director, Waggener Edstrom

'The exchange scheme is for those who don't get the opportunity to travel, especially those who work in smaller offices with only six or seven people.

Employees apply and we select people to spend two weeks on exchange in one of our international offices. A person from the international office also comes to the UK for two weeks and they act as "buddies" to each other.

It has turned out to be a retention tool. People, especially the younger generation, want as many opportunities as they can get.'

I did it two weeks on exchange in Hong Kong

Rosanna Hill, Senior account executive, Waggener Edstrom

'I had been to Hong Kong before as a tourist and thought I knew what it was like, but the office was in a very residential area and the experience was much more realistic than being a tourist.'

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