Unlocking Potential: From Underperformer to Asset

Canadian employers share a problem: You hire an internationally educated professional who has the right skills, degree, and workplace experience, but who under performs without explanation.  This is where Business Edge, a bridging program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Mangement, enables and empowers skilled immigrants to move back into jobs where they can fully utilize their skills, education and professional experience. 

(In the next few month we will have guest experts comment on the story. Please note student names used in this article have been changed for privacy reasons.)

By Dana Wagner, Maytree

You hire qualified people with the right skills and experience. You expect that some will thrive and some will not because they simply don’t fit your workplace. However, if a new hire does under perform somewhat curiously, and particularly if that person was educated and perhaps raised outside Canada, there is a strong case for a slightly different outlook. Is she truly a bad fit? Or, are you about to fire an asset to your company?

Sarah’s case

In the eyes of her employer, Sarah was doing something wrong. She was not meeting her project targets and she was not getting much internal visibility.

Sarah is a mechanical engineer educated in Iran and for the past four years, she worked
as a manager in engineering in Canada. When she was moved from a management role because her employer thought she was better suited to a technical position, Sarah decided to resign. Although she knew management was right for her, she wasn’t excelling and she didn’t know why.

“I tried to gain confidence in my job, but after each mistake it became harder, especially because nobody explained what went wrong,” said Sarah.

A unique program at the Rotman School of Management identifies the problem as an inability of some employees to navigate intercultural dynamics in the workplace. Professionals who are new to Canadian workplace culture often find their soft skills are no longer working, like their communication, networking, and ability to advance. Over time, internationally educated professionals (IEPs) can lose confidence and stop engaging.

It’s a particularly disruptive problem in the workplace because culture is difficult to recognize as a root cause. “It’s very often attributed to the person,” said Sabina Michael,
Program Manager of the Business Edge for Internationally Educated Professionals at Rotman.

IEPs can be fluent in English, overqualified for their position and, on paper, poised to advance. But their inability to navigate a new culture can come across as a language problem, or worse, as a lack of interpersonal and other soft skills.

Intercultural barriers limit opportunities to gain visibility in a company and harm relationships with colleagues and management. Since underperformance frustrates managers, the underperformers will either stagnate or be fired.

Employers lose when IEPs experience career-limiting, intercultural challenges. Companies invest in hiring international talent, but when IEPs don’t show initiative, they don’t contribute in meetings, or they don’t give feedback effectively, “it doesn’t help them, it doesn’t help the employer.”

Delivering the Business Edge

In response to the glut of overqualified and underperforming IEPs, Rotman developed a program to strip the guesswork from navigating Canadian business culture. Business Edge targets men and women who are underemployed but determined to advance.

Participants in the six-month program learn skills needed to gain visibility and build networks. Communication is emphasized, for instance, how to decode subtle messages and manage difficult conversations.

The premise is that awareness unlocks potential. Michael encourages employers to think about the cultural shift employees experience when they switch companies, and imagine that magnified when someone has switched countries. From this perspective, it’s clear that people are able to adapt to a new culture, it often just takes awareness.

“When you are raised in a particular culture you are attuned to the signals of what is okay and what is not okay. Thrown into a new culture you don’t see those signals,” said Michael. “The program really trains you to be a cultural detective.”

A unique program element is its gender focus. Separate courses are offered for men and women because, while problems they face may be the same, the ways they deal with them can be very different. For instance, men and women may take a different approach in negotiating style, networking, and relations with a manager.

An assessment of participants at the one year mark after completion indicates the approach is successful. Over 70 per cent of Business Edge graduates in the last cohort advanced their careers, whether by landing a new position, a promotion, or achieving a lateral move where they negotiated additional responsibilities.

A graduate of the program, Sarah is now employed in a new management role with a global automotive manufacturer, with an even broader scope of responsibilities than in her previous job. She impressed her new employer during interviews and when she asked for better terms, they agreed right away.

“I know myself better and I know my strengths better,” said Sarah.

Intercultural dynamics in your talent management strategy  

If it is rare for IEPs to recognize intercultural barriers, you – the employer – are even less likely to have the ‘aha’ moment.

To recognize if IEPs underperform because of an alien workplace culture, Michael points to performance reviews as a strong indicator. If interpersonal, communication, or other soft skills are sub-par, the source may be cultural, not personal deficiencies. Another sign is a person with high potential who you want to see take on roles of greater responsibility, but who is simply not changing and not adapting.

You may also need to shift your thinking on investment in international talent to the medium-term. One such investment is in providing additional support structures for IEPs. Often, workplaces have internal support like one-on-one mentoring with management, but managers are not right for intercultural coaching. Michael emphasized that IEPs will not openly discuss vulnerabilities with a manager, and in addition, most managers do not have the time or competencies to coach on soft skills, especially those linked to culture.

If you are unable to provide additional support for IEPs, managers can be trained on recognizing intercultural barriers and how to better communicate from their end. “Canadians tend to be very indirect in our feedback,” said Michael, pointing to a common problem where managers give feedback that someone is underperforming, but the person simply has not heard it.

“Integration is much harder than people anticipate and if they don’t have the support systems for integrating, it becomes very hard,” said Michael.

An inclusive talent management strategy enables IEPs to identify and overcome barriers to their success, and you, to capitalize on the talent at your fingertips.

Learn more about Business Edge, funded by the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario.

 Tips for employers

  • One-on-one coaching remains a highly effective tool to identify and overcome barriers that prevent IEPs from reaching their full potential
  • Coaching for IEPs should be an additional component to one-on-one professional development with management, since they are less likely to openly talk about problems to a supervisor
  • A starting point to identify the IEPs who underperform because of intercultural dynamics is to look at performance reviews, especially results on interpersonal and other soft skills
  • Managers should be trained on recognizing career-limiting errors linked to culture and on ways they can help, for instance, by improving their own communication style

Business Edge for Internationally Trained Professionals – learn more about the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto program from participants, employers and faculty.

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