- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2009




By Bruce Alan Johnson and

R. William Ayres

St. Martin’s Press. 214 page. $24.99

Reviewed by Peter Hannaford

This may be the ultimate how-to/how-not-to book for American companies selecting men and women to represent them overseas.

The authors claim, “Every year, American corporations send thousands of employees overseas. Around 75 percent fail. Because it costs roughly $300,000 a year to maintain an employee overseas and the average assignment runs four years, this means they are spending $1.2 million per employee sent abroad.”

Bruce Alan Johnson and R. William Ayres have half a century between them of doing business overseas and counseling companies on how to succeed internationally. “Carry a Chicken in Your Lap” is a distillation of what they have learned over the years.

They illustrate their points with real-life examples of just how wrong things can go if a company hasn’t sent the right person (or has sent an ill-trained one) overseas. Reading these may make you smile, but the events cost the companies involved a great deal of money to correct.

In 14 short, readable chapters, the authors deal with major considerations in selecting executives to take on overseas assignments. Because much money is at stake, don’t pick someone for the wrong reasons, they say. For example, they write, “Overseas assignments are often made for foolish bureaucratic and political reasons - because it’s ‘Fred’s turn’ or because he’s somebody’s cousin.” Or, because so-and-so was great at marketing widgets at home, he’ll be equally good overseas.

There are plenty of pitfalls in choosing the “right” person, they say.

While candidates do not have to be skilled linguists, knowing the language of their destination helps and, failing that, so does willingness to learn some phrases to use in daily dealings to show one’s respect for the host country.

Overseas-bound executives also should be tutored in such things as customs, manners and the politics and economy of the host country.

It’s important, too, the authors say, that the people doing the selecting know enough about their candidates to be sure they are not racist and do not have a tendency to be “imperial Americans.” They point out, “The United States may be the ‘sole remaining superpower,’ but this should not be confused with omnipotence.”

It’s also important to be able to spot a “missionary,” the authors say. They are not talking about religious missionaries, but people with a zeal to change the world in what they think are better ways. The authors contend that doing this on or off company time nearly always proves to be a mistake.

The book takes up in detail the matter of overseas partners and facilitators, emphasizing the need to carefully vet any person or firm being considered for such a role. “Business really isn’t a blind date - you’ve got to know whom you’re working with.” Tied to the matter of local partners is a discussion of the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act and how some American executives overseas have inadvertently found themselves afoul of it and been accused of bribery.

Also, if time is money, knowing how to work across several time zones can enable your overseas executive to be fully effective in his or her new assignment. Chapter 6 (“It’s 8 a.m. Somewhere”) tells you how.

Much of what the reader will find in this book adds up to common sense (a la “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”) but as the authors point out, too often people are picked for the wrong reason or are sent overseas without proper training - with very expensive results.

The title, by the way, alludes to the kind of initiative Bruce Johnson says works overseas. In one South American country, he was trying, among several competitors, to get a contract for his company, but the executive he had to persuade was never in. Finally, he took a long bus ride to the man’s country place, holding a chicken the woman sitting next to him had plopped in his lap. When he met his prospective client, he scarcely had time to begin his presentation before the man said he had the contract. When asked why, the man said, “Because you came all the way out here to meet me.”

This slender volume is full of good advice for anyone involved in selecting people for overseas assignments.

Peter Hannaford, in the course of his public affairs and public relations career, has worked with clients in 20 countries outside the United States.

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