Avoiding Landmines: What Corporate America Can Learn From the Military When Taking Their Most Valuable Assets Overseas

Avoiding Landmines: What Corporate America Can Learn From the Military When Taking Their Most Valuable Assets Overseas

12.7 min read

Jeanne M. Mc Donnell

“It’s not just work, it’s an Adventure! There are 250,000 U.S. service members stationed overseas. What did the military do to assist them as they entered a foreign land and what can corporate America learn from it?”

Going Global? With over 70 percent of the world’s purchasing power outside of the United States, more and more U.S. companies are jumping on the bandwagon.[1]The reality of opening or moving a business to another country is that it can be a daunting task.

Language barriers, cultural nuances, government regulations, politics and more all contribute to the challenge of going global.  Some American companies who overseas efforts have gone down in flames because they neglected some of these issues include Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and DaimlerChrysler.[2]Although they recovered, it was not without frustration, missed opportunities, and billions in sales.[3]How can your organization avoid some of these pitfalls? A good place to start is by examining how you handle your most valuable assets when going global – your people.

The U.S. military began setting up permanent bases in foreign countries in 1903 when the first overseas base was established at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. By 2010, there were 662 U.S. military bases in 38 foreign countries.[4] These bases range in size from over 50,000 Americans to less than ten. Countless service members and their families have made the move to a new country and many lessons were learned throughout the decades. This article will examine some of those “lessons learned” to see if there are pitfalls or best practices U.S. businesses desiring to make the move overseas can learn from.

Who Should Go?

Living and working in a foreign country can be an exciting prospect for anyone. However, through experience, the military has discovered even if someone wants to take an overseas assignment not everyone is cut out for it. As a preventive measure, the Navy, like the other services, has developed a detailed screening process which service members and their families must complete prior to heading out for that new adventure. First the service member must be qualified to perform the work. Beyond that, before an overseas assignment is finalized, the service member is screened for an acceptable level of physical fitness, performance, discipline issues, financial stability, individual and family characteristics, and drug and alcohol issues. If someone is taking their family, those family members must also be considered. Family members are screened to ensure no special medical, dental, community or educational requirements exist which may not be available at the duty station and could place undue stress on a service member and their family. The military has found when mismatches like these occur there can be significant costs to both the organization and the family. Consequences include increased absences from work, poor quality of life, unplanned expenditures, and service members and their families being sent home before the end of their tour.[5]

Making a Smooth Move

Once screening is passed, it is time to get ready for the actual move. Moving to a foreign country can be a daunting experience for anyone but especially if a company is just establishing a presence there. Are visas required, how do personal belongings/furnishings get there, what parts of the city are not safe to live in, are there English speaking schools, what is the cost of living, is temporary housing available and where, what medical facilities are available – the answers to these questions and more should be provided to any employees before they leave. In this regard, the U.S. Navy tries to ensure success for service members and families moving overseas is by providing an Overseas Transfer Workshops for family members 12 years old and above. During the workshop information is provided on moving household goods and cars, financial planning, travel arrangements, legal documents which should be completed or hand carried vice shipped, pet quarantine requirements, country information, passports, and more.[6] How-to guides and checklists are provided to facilitate the many details which must be handled for the move. Personal security and culture shock are also discussed during the workshop. Welcome aboard packages are provided to service members and families which include information about the new country such as places to visit, monetary exchanges, shopping, transportation options, schools, important phone numbers, and where to find help if needed.

Straight from the Source

Since moving to a new country and culture can be overwhelming, the U.S. military has developed sponsor programs which allow service members to hear the “real deal” from someone who is already there. If there is an established presence in a country, service members are assigned a sponsor to help them before and upon their arrival at the duty station. Sponsors contact the service member and guide them through the move process, and help orientate them to the new location and culture.  Additionally, large foreign duty stations have Family Service Centers to assist service members and their families. Depending on their size, they can provide assistance in job searches for a spouse and information on churches and religious services,   childcare, continued education, afterschool care, volunteer opportunities, social activities, medical and dental facilities, and more. Some duty stations with families also provide sponsor programs for children from seven to eighteen who are matched by age, gender, hobbies, etc. This has been found helpful in reducing anxiety for children moving to a new country and culture.

Culture Matters

Not understanding the culture of a country different from the United States almost guarantees failure. The military learned this during the Vietnam War when the U.S. tried fighting a conventional war. The communist insurgents fought the only way they knew how using guerilla warfare. As the Americans approached, they withdrew and waited for them to pass by.[7] This cultural misunderstanding contributed to lengthening an already costly war in money and lives. On a more tactical level, after the U.S. Army went into the Middle East, they discovered the OK sign was considered an obscenity to Afghans and the thumbs-up sign was offensive to Egyptians.[8] Obviously, these are some lessons corporate America would rather learn from others rather than discover personally!

Like the other services, today the U.S. Army takes culture issues seriously. The Army wants their soldiers to possess a cross-cultural competency to include cultural learning and cultural agility. Experts have reported cultural learning enables people to quickly gain an understanding of the socio-cultural context of operations and cultural agility provides the ability to respond effectively in situations of cultural diversity.[9] The Army Learning Concept for 2015 calls for a blended approach of social and contextual learning with guided traditional learning to develop cross-cultural competencies through continuous learning over a soldier’s career.[10] Currently, before a soldier deploys to a specific area they are provided what has been called “cultural training on steroids” which includes anthropology, language, heritage, history, and cultural no-nos.[11] The goal is for the soldiers to be able to “form relationships, build trust, communicate, and collaborate with people of greatly different backgrounds.”[12]

As the military has learned, cross-cultural training and education can be invaluable to corporate personnel sent overseas to work and yet many organizations fail to provide it. Sometimes companies are unaware of available resources or feel it is not necessary especially when dealing with another Western culture or English speaking country.[13] Other times, employees feel they don’t need it or with all the pressures of moving overseas, this training falls off their plate. The U.S. State Department has long recognized the importance of cross-cultural training and encourages corporations going overseas to take advantage of it by listing reputable sources of non-governmental training on their website.[14] Additionally, the State Department website has detailed information on embassies, country profiles, political issues, security issues, economics, transnational issues, and more. Other helpful websites available on cultural issues include the Central Intelligence Agency’s World FactBook and the Hofstede Centre’s National Culture Dimensions. All information on these websites can be sorted by country and in the case of the Hofstede website two countries cultural dimensions can be compared and contrasted.

How do you say…?

Although English is considered the universal language of business, there are times when not speaking a language can become a definite disadvantage.[15] Within the military, commanders leading troops overseas have suggested a soldier’s ability to speak the local language is just as important as his skills with a rifle.[16] Learning a new culture becomes much easier when the local language is understood. However, because learning a new language such as Pasto or Dari is difficult and there are few native speakers in the military, commanders have experienced much frustration.[17] To combat this, the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) offers military members over two dozen languages in a resident program and through immersion programs. Included in the language training are cultural considerations for the each country. Similar to the CIA and Hofstede websites, DLIFLC provides numerous language and cultural resources on their website which can be sorted by country and do not require any special access. Included are helpful briefings, tutorials, pamphlets, and “cheat sheets” on language survival kits, language pronunciation, cultural orientations, myths and folklores, country perspectives, and more. [18]

When expanding into other nations, corporate leaders should plan what language skills are needed at each level in order to communicate effectively with the local workforce. Given the time it takes to learn a new language or find native speakers, these requirements need to be identified early. Fortunately today there are many resources, such as Rosetta Stone, in addition to those already highlighted to help businesses going overseas.

Lessons Learned from the World’s Mightiest Military

Through the decades, the U.S. military has uncovered several keys lessons which today’s leaders can use to their advantage when going global:

  1. The costs of sending the wrong person or family member overseas can be enormous both to the organization and the people involved. In order to increase the chances of success, employees and, to some extent, their family members should go through a review or screening process to ensure there are no existing circumstances which could prove problematic in a foreign setting.
  2. The actual process of moving overseas is complicated in the best circumstances. Providing employees with detailed “how-to” information or guides on getting passports or visas, making travel arrangements, moving household goods, finding lodging and transportation, and such will lessen delays, frustrations, and unnecessary costs. Providing this information through workshops or seminars will allow questions to be answered on the spot and allow for sharing other helpful tips.
  3. Establishing a sponsor program where employees are matched with another employee already in the foreign country can facilitate a smoother transition. Having a sponsor to bounce questions off can help employees avoid false starts and ease apprehensions.
  4. Avoiding culture shock is another key to a smooth transition. This is done by preparing employees and their families for the cultural differences they will encounter instead of them having to learn it the hard way. Providing employees with formal cultural training and awareness on the country they are heading to can facilitate assimilation and help avoid awkward situations.
  5. Addressing language issues early on can provide employees with an advantage upon arrival and prevent unnecessary misunderstandings. Although most people cannot quickly learn a new language, providing them with key phrases and learning resources will make the transition easier.
  6. Companies and corporations should also take advantage of the wealth of information on almost every country in the world which is available on the internet via the websites identified within this article and elsewhere.


Going global can be an exciting time for a company or corporation, but it can also be fraught with difficulties and pitfalls. The U.S. Armed Forces has over 100 years of experience in sending people into foreign lands and establishing a presence there. Through the years, the military has noted their mistakes and what things facilitated a smooth move overseas for service members. Those things which worked were formalized into programs and policies which now guide overseas transfers. Screening service members and their families and providing them with information on what they need to accomplish before they go, how to get there, and what they will find there saves time, money, and frustrations for both the service member and the organization. Each company or corporation which enters the global market will have issues to address which are specific to their industry. However, when moving Americans overseas, many of the issues are universal to any organization. Corporate leaders going global would do well to look to the military to avoid some of the landmines discussed herein. After all, this is not the first time the military has stepped on landmines, it would be a shame if no one learned from their sacrifice!

Additional Resources

Preparing the Battlefield!

These resources provide information on culture, language tips, myths and folklore, politics, economics, security concerns, country perspectives, and more.

  • https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/english.html
  • https://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html
  • https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html
  • https://famdliflc.lingnet.org/productList.aspx?v=language

About the Author

Captain Jeanne McDonnell (ret.) served on active duty for over 25 years. Assignments included command of Naval Support Activity Norfolk and Transient Personnel Unit Norfolk, and service on the Joint Staff, the Navy Staff, Commander Surface Warfare Atlantic Staff, and Joint Forces Staff College. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Regent University.

[1] Department of Commerce, International Trade Commission. (2013). Exporting is good for your bottom line. Retrieved from International Trade Commission website: https://www.trade.gov/cs/factsheet.asp

[2] Zweifel, T. (2013). Culture clash 2: Managing the global high performance team. (p. 147). New York, NY: SelectBooks, Inc.

[3] Zweifel (2013). (p. 147).

[4] Department of Defence, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment (2010). Base structure report fiscal year 2010 baseline. Retrieved from Department of Defense website: https://www.acq.osd.mil/ie/download/bsr/bsr2010baseline.pdf

[5] Department of the Navy, (2006). Navy military assignment policy (OPNAVINST 1300.15A). Washington D.C.: Chief of Naval Operations.

[6] Department of the Navy, (2007). Fleet and Family Support Center Program (OPNAVINST 1754.18). Washington D.C.: Chief of Naval Operations.

[7] Linh, N. (2010, April 30). Culture clash and communication failure. The Washington Times. Retrieved from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/apr/30/culture-clash-and-communication-failure/?page=all

[8] Cohan, J. (2013, January 13). ‘Smart power’: Army making cultural training a priority. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/01/12/us/troops-cultural-training/

[9] Caliquiri, P., Noe, R., Nolan, R., Ryan, A., & Dasgow, F. Department of the Army, (2011). Training, developing, and assessing cross-cultural competence in military personnel. Arlington, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for Behavioral Sciences.

[10] Caliquiri et al. (2011). (p. 4).

[11] Cohan (2013).

[12] Cohan (2013).

[13] Mohn, T. (2010, March 8). Going global, stateside. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/09/business/global/09training.html?_r=0

[14] U.S. Department of State, Under Secretary for Management. (2013). Cross-cultural training and consulting. Retrieved from website: https://www.state.gov/m/fsi/tc/79756.htm

[15] McCall, M., & Hollenbeck, G. (2002). Developing global executives. (p. 81). Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

[16] Thompson, M. (2011, August 24). The Pentagon’s foreign-language frustrations. Time, Retrieved from https://nation.time.com/2011/08/24/the-pentagons-foreign-language-frustrations/

[17] Thompson (2011).

[18] Department of Defense, Defense Language Institute. (2014). Country familiarization. Retrieved from Foreign Language Center website: https://famdliflc.lingnet.org/productList.aspx?v=language

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