It was "the same old story", declared Terence Brake, in whose new book, The Global Leader, the anecdote appears. "No planning ahead on the part of the organisation. No concern with capturing the learning of those years in Europe. Just more bad feelings that no doubt spilled over to others considering an international assignment. Yet more dilution of global strengths."
The British-born Mr Brake, who now lives in the US, points to this as an example of American business's "inability to capitalise on international learning and expertise". But the problem is probably far more widespread.
In organisations all over the world, highly-thought-of young managers are sent off on assignments that are supposedly career-enhancing but often end up having the opposite effect. These people frequently concentrate on getting the right "package" for the duration of their stay, and ensuring that there is a definitive end to it. Just as many managers are suspicious of project-based work (leaving their home department can lead to being forgotten), so there is also a feeling that a foreign assignment can stall a promising career.
However, Mr Brake, who is director of TMA, a human resources consultancy with offices in London, Paris and Princeton, New Jersey, feels it does not have to be this way. "Senior executives are recognising the importance of developing core competencies that support both the formation and the implementation of global strategies," he says.
Moreover, globalisation is not just a matter of multinationals becoming bigger and more powerful. In the past, those - chiefly US - organisations that had international operations imposed their own cultures wherever they traded. Now, that does not work: there has to be at least a blend of cultures.
This point is drawn out by Arun Maira, of the consultancy Arthur D Little, who is co-author of The Accelerating Organisation.
He says that to achieve globalisation, companies need to be able to manage alliances; to create effective teams that cut across geographical, functional and market structures; and to develop leaders who can appreciate the beliefs and values of people from other cultures, and can lead by influence rather than controlling through power.
Such organisations as the consumer goods manufacturer Unilever and the Swiss-Swedish industrial group ABB are grappling with these issues by adapting their organisational structures and adjusting their recruitment policies.
What all this means is that there are opportunities in modern organisations for people who probably would not have been welcomed in the past.
As Mr Maira states, large companies "have often required conformity, and they have generally believed in the power of 'the one best way'. Managers steeped in these attitudes naturally go into new markets convinced that it's their duty to spread the gospel," he writes in a recent issue of Arthur D Little's journal, Prism. He adds: "They interpret any resistance on the part of local colleagues or business associates as slowness to learn, or even insurrection, rather than as an occasion for themselves to learn."
He believes that pioneering organisations, including Honda, and Coca- Cola and General Electric in the US, have already begun to change, using management teams that produce results by cutting across organisational boundaries, integrating technology to enable "group working" and introducing new reward systems.
Consequently, it is clear that in the coming years global leaders will not just be captains of industry; they will be present throughout organisations.
But, to return to the hapless former Belgian exile, they will grow only if their employers have a clear plan of campaign. High-fliers who are constantly sent on "fire-fighting" missions should be suspicious of their organisations' future plansnReuse content