Matthew Burns - recipient of FEM's Americas EMMA for an Outstanding Contribution to Global Mobility

When Matthew Burns’ name was announced at the Americas EMMAs ceremony in Denver, May 4, the whole audience rose to their feet to give him a heartfelt standing ovation.

Go to the profile of Claire Tennant-Scull
May 08, 2017
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Unlike all the other EMMAs which are solely assessed by a team of independent judges, this award, for the Outstanding Contribution to Global Mobility is in the gift of FEM and so it is particularly special to the team. Our nominees are always carefully considered by the senior members of the FEM team and we sometimes have differing suggestions, but this year, there was immediate, unanimous agreement.

Matt has been a judge at the EMMAs and a revered speaker at FEM and other global mobility events for a number of years. He was formerly HR Operations Director for Lockheed Martin Corporation, where he worked for more than eleven years with eight years in direct responsibility for the global mobility program during which time he managed over 3,000 international assignees across 60 countries. He is now practising as an independent global mobility and international HR consultant and is well known in the industry as a generous and engaging leader.

A genuine Thought Leader

Thought Leadership is a term that I fear is often overused – but in Matt Burns’ case it is entirely accurate. Matt has an authority borne of many years of experience, but he is also natural communicator and teacher. Many of our members and attendees saw him in action as a speaker at FEM’s Global Mobility Conference in Houston in February, and we have just had the benefit of his expertise at a number of sessions at our Americas Summit in Denver too.

Once on stage at the EMMAs, Matt gave a typically gracious speech and accepted the award on behalf of the people he has worked with – and who have helped him. The warmth of feeling and respect for him in the room that night was testament not only to a great talent, but also to his tremendous charm.

Before his name was announced, I teased the audience with a few facts about Matt that they might not have known, but here, I want to share some more in-depth information about him in the following interview:

CTS: How did you begin your career in global mobility and did you know that such a thing existed when you started out from university?

MB: I wasn't really thinking of a career in global mobility during university. My over-riding goal was to explore the world and travel. I was open to any job that offered me the opportunity to visit new places. That fascination with exploration started in elementary school. My uncle Lawrence, my Dad's older brother, was a Maryknoll missionary in Boliva for nearly 30 years. When I was in elementary school, I would devour his periodic letters home and his trip reports of visits to the outlying villages in his district. National Geographic and the shelves at our public library supplemented my uncle's letters.

Then in high school, I had to choose a "modern" language. To graduate from my high school, one had to take three years of Latin plus three years of a modern language. I had taken French in middle school and found it very hard. The Spanish teacher at my high school had a reputation of being really tough. The only other modern language offered was Russian. Joe McCarthy, the Russian teacher at the time, was a very kind, scholarly man. I figured I could mess up Russian just as easily as French or Spanish so I chose Russian. While there was nothing organized, one or two Russian students from my school had been attending a summer study course in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in Russia between their third and fourth years of high school. At some point in my second year of high school, I announced to my parents my intention of studying Russian in Leningrad the following year. My parents didn't share until decades later the angst they experienced but, after talking with friends, ultimately decided to support my ambition. I worked extra jobs to raise the money, got accepted into the program and flew over to Russia.

After studying in Leningrad, the organizers took us to Moscow for a couple of days sightseeing. The itinerary included attending a diplomatic reception at the U.S. Ambassador's Residence. During the reception, I met this distinguished American diplomat who was probably in his mid-thirties at the time. He told me that Foreign Service Officers got to travel the world. In addition to paying for your travel expenses, they also paid you a salary. Imagine that! You could get paid a salary to explore the world. I was hooked. My focus, from that day on, was getting into the U.S. Foreign Service. Of course, if I had run into the representative from a multi-national company or relocation management company that was willing to pay me to travel the world first, I would have been hooked on that. It wasn't about the career, but the chance to explore. The global mobility element came much later.

First-hand experience of dangerous assignments

CTS: You spent 26 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, including assignments to Nicaragua, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, the Soviet Union, Italy and Israel - how did your experiences during that time inform your global mobility career?

MB: Beyond the ability to explore the world, the defining theme of my career has been service. As a Boy Scout, I learned about service to others. I also learned the importance of being prepared. The latter is something that was critical in the Foreign Service and continues to pay dividends in practising global mobility. In the Foreign Service, I got the chance to not only serve my country but also serve the employees and families posted to the U.S. embassies I was assigned to. A lot of the jobs that I had over the years weren't the kinds of glamorous activities people imagine when one says the word "diplomat." I helped incoming employees find housing, get their shipments through Customs and delivered to their apartment or house. I went to markets and surveyed the cost of groceries, auto fuel, hotels and restaurants. I rewrote and edited publications about the embassy and host country that the State Department provided to employees interested in applying for jobs at overseas locations. I helped employees navigate the regulations in the Foreign Service versions of corporate global mobility policies.

At other points in my career, I oversaw the team that provided information to new arrivals and supported families on assignment, coordinated medical evacuations and a lot of other things that, outside the government, are considered "Global Mobility." When Lockheed Martin offered me the opportunity to be their Director of International Human Resources which later morphed into Global Mobility, I continued to serve men and women working around the world to keep us all safe. I saw myself as an advocate for assignees around the world and did my best to serve them during my years at Lockheed Martin. So, while I changed employers in moving from the Foreign Service to Lockheed Martin, the over-riding theme and much of the activity stayed fairly constant.

CTS: Which have been the most challenging destinations for your assignees and how do you manage the expectations of the business and the employee?

MB: What is a challenging destination? Sometimes, I think it is the next one. There are a lot of unknowns in a future destination, and none of us can ever be sure how well prepared we are to face the challenges down the road. I've concluded after a lot of personal experience, talking with colleagues and listening to assignees that the really challenging destinations are ones that employees think are going to be easy. Lockheed Martin assignees supporting the U.S. military and host governments in Afghanistan and Iraq knew before they left that they were going to tough, risky assignments. While it was hard for me to imagine my first hostile fire situation (the Nicaraguan revolution), my expectations ahead of time were pretty realistic. Being shot at is scary.

Assignments to "easier" locations in the developed world, particularly where the assignee expects a shared cultural background (my family came from there) or language (i.e. English of one type or another), can be tough in part, I suspect, because the assignee figures they don't need to prepare as much as someone assigned to a "tough" location. This psychological orientation can, unwittingly, be reinforced by friends or colleagues that worked or visited the international location and forget, as we all do, some of the initial challenges and focus on the high points. An employer and commercial partners providing cultural and language training can, and should, provide assignees with as much information as the assignee will accept. At the end of the day, the assignee is the one that decides how much he or she will invest in getting ready for an assignment. The sense an assignee has that a destination is "easy," will probably be a bigger influence on their approach than input from the employer or outside experts. When one arrives at a destination under-prepared, that's when an "easy" assignment can become "challenging" and will be more of a shock because it is so unexpected.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”

CTS: How do you think issues surrounding Duty of Care have changed?

MB: Technology has had a real impact on people's expectations about Duty of Care as well as the capabilities to help. My approach to Duty of Care is colored by the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Avoiding a risky situation is always better (and less expensive) than trying to mitigate the risk after an assignee is in the middle of a bad situation whether it is a robbery, heart attack, traffic accident, storm or terrorist incident.

Before my first assignment to Nicaragua, the security awareness training course was multiple days and took place only in Washington. I was an attentive student for once in my life and searched for any piece of news about the fighting underway in Nicaragua. The information I was able to obtain via newspapers or the evening news was always hours behind reality. Today, one might argue that we suffer from too much information. With the internet, cable TV and social media, one can get information that is minutes or seconds old from a variety of on-the-ground sources. That influences people’s expectations about Duty of Care in different ways. We can deliver effective training virtually that assignees can take at times convenient for them and can repeat if needed. In one sense, assignees should be better prepared today than they were when I went on my first assignment. However, everyone seems to be even busier than ever and, coupled with the sheer volume of information we all face, it is challenging to pay attention to training or individual Duty of Care risks. The volume of information also, I suspect, has influenced expectations about what an employer or government can do to help an assignee that finds himself or herself in a risky situation.

At the same time, an evacuation still relies on an open, available air field and open roads between where assignees are located and the plane. Technology has made risks more visible, impacted expectations and improved, in some cases, our ability to help assignees in tough situations but some physical constants remain the same which makes it as important as always to avoid getting into trouble in the first place. That's why I think the most cost-effective thing an organization can do to protect the investment in their employees and their brand is to provide good and mandatory personal security and safety training to every assignee and accompanying family members.

CTS: When you first arrived at Lockheed Martin - or took on your first very senior role there, what did you see as the most pressing issues and how did you deal with them?

MB: In my first weeks at Lockheed Martin as Director of International Human Resources, I was given results from a survey of the international assignees that clearly communicated we had room for improvement in global mobility. A couple of global mobility employees, accompanied by colleagues from our new tax firm, had just returned from multiple international locations and brought feedback that supplemented the survey results. The small Global Mobility team was working hard, but needed more resources and better technology to meet the CEO's challenge to grow international sales which led to a larger assignee population in some countries.

There was no shortage of feedback about all the shortfalls that needed attention. The challenge was pulling together a strategy to guide how we tackled the issues, made the case for affordable investments in the Global Mobility program and then squeezed every bit of juice out of the resources we were given.

The importance of collaboration - and improvisation

I was blessed to be surrounded by supportive leadership, a talented, hard-working Global Mobility team and caring peers that brought me help, in some cases even before I had the chance to ask them. I recall one situation where an IT Director, someone I knew from Boy Scouts, brought me an application Lockheed Martin's IT had been using for their help desk. He loaned me some IT resources to re-purpose it for Global Mobility. We used it to manage policy exceptions, coordinate communications with our commercial partners and ensure closure on assignee requests. In another case, the partner in our tax firm suggested a change to payroll that simultaneously removed a major assignee irritant and reduced the risk to Lockheed Martin of over-advancing tax payments. There were countless instances when employees and colleagues stepped forward, offered solutions to problems and helped implement them.

CTS: What were your greatest challenges while you were at Lockheed Martin? - And what would you see as your key achievements there?

MB: I would say the greatest challenge at Lockheed Martin was recognizing the changing needs of the different businesses and developing solutions to help them as quickly as we could. Global mobility is a dynamic area. That's one of the elements that make it so interesting. It's never dull or boring. At Lockheed Martin, global mobility supports a large number of individual programs. Some are exploring new markets. Others are growing in response to changing customer requirements. At the same time, there are programs that are finishing their mission or downsizing because customer requirements evolved. Each of the programs had individual needs and, if we didn't meet them, would let us know - as they should.

Listening to and meeting diverse needs

The team's greatest accomplishment, in my view, was that over the eight straight years I was part of the team, they increased satisfaction among assignees every year, using the 2005 survey as the base, and increased satisfaction among key business stakeholders for seven of the eight years. There was a dip in satisfaction among the business stakeholders one year when we instituted some program changes that increased their workload. The Global Mobility team focused hard in the following year on addressing business concerns and saw client satisfaction increase again.

CTS: At our Americas Summit in Denver, you led a discussion about increasing opportunities for female mobility. Why is this topic important to you?

MB: First, I saw the benefits of increased diversity as the U.S. Foreign Service changed over the years. I joined when the Service was much less diverse than it is today. It was only in 1973 that the State Department clarified that a woman who married no longer had to resign her commission. Efforts to increase recruitment of women and minorities resulted in a Foreign Service that better represented our country. It became a Service better able to interact with a diverse, complicated world. At Lockheed Martin, diversity and inclusion are valued throughout the organization, starting at the top. Lockheed Martin promotes diversity and inclusion in multiple ways including support of employee resource groups and the promotion of STEM education at the primary and secondary levels for girls and minorities.

"Lack of diversity = lack of competitiveness"

Finally, I believe inclusion is critical to success in global mobility. Whether one likes it or not, the world is a very diverse place. To be successful, one needs to have an open approach to the variety the world offers as well as the ability to interact with people that may be very different from oneself and one's formative experiences. Assignees that all come from a single gender or societal group, that all approach challenges the same way and that all can see only one solution, will collectively be less competitive and less able to deal with all the diversity in the world. They will be hard-pressed to help diverse customers devise solutions that meet their needs. It is difficult to work in international affairs and global mobility for an extended period and not see the value of diversity and inclusion.

CTS: You moderated a panel discussion on using global mobility technology to support business strategy. Do you really think that this a viable proposition and what are the most valuable insights that can be gleaned from data? Do you think that global mobility professionals are ready to fully embrace technology?

MB: Technology was late in getting to global mobility because the most fruitful opportunities for automation are activities where there is high volume and low complexity. Global mobility is low volume and high complexity. At the same time, international assignees are among an organization's most expensive talent. Assignees often are talent that the organization is applying to a need because it didn't have a more cost-effective alternative. So, improving the ability of an organization to understand how it is utilizing a valuable segment of its talent and better focus its future application has to contribute to the organization's strategy.

I see three challenges for global mobility down the road. The first challenge is identifying truly strategic data. One of the first things automation does is increase the supply of available information. It is easy to get swamped by what is easy to count and overlook what is truly critical to future outcomes. The second challenge is that so much of global mobility is intertwined with the overall organization. Take, for example, retention of international assignees. Technology can help an organization track former assignees and calculate how many remain with the organization after three or five years and what their career achievements have been. The quality of the global mobility program will influence retention but that is only one factor among many. Changing assignee retention in material ways will require engagement not just of global mobility but also multiple partners throughout the business. Third, global mobility professionals will need to expand their vision of our role to including technology and its use.

There were times in the not so distant past when a global mobility professional might cite among the top three or four key experiences such things as knowledge of immigration laws, relocation issues, tax laws, compensation, social security or employment laws. Those certainly remain important today. I suspect that now more global mobility professionals would include knowledge of technology, data and how it can be used to improve our ability to address strategic business needs. I bet the number of global mobility professionals that feel that way will increase in the years ahead.


Risk goes beyond the obvious hazards

CTS: You also presented a session where you took a more detailed look at the findings of FEM's 2017 Policy in Practice Report: Risk Management & Compliance. What were the results that struck you most forcefully - and why?

MB: In an era when one doesn't go very long between reports of hacking and the loss of customer and employee personal information, I was surprised that privacy and protection of assignee data wasn't one of the top risks cited by global mobility professionals. Where in an organization is there the greatest concentration of personal information about an employee - and usually an expensive and important employee? The answer for most organizations is global mobility.

Sending someone on an international assignment involves collecting and processing, usually across borders, an incredible amount of sensitive information. The immigration process involves employment, educational and, in some cases, criminal history for the assignee and all of the family members. Processing the tax returns for international assignees, in many countries, involves not only the assignee's personal financial details, well beyond the scope of his/her employer relationship, but can also include the income and assets of family members. Medical screenings and medical evacuations frequently include sensitive information about an employee or family member's physical and mental health. I could offer additional examples. The point is that global mobility is the protector of a large amount of sensitive personal information about a significant group of employees and, if not already seen as a source of risk, should be.

I think the reason that many global mobility professionals have been late in recognizing this risk is that privacy is a dynamic, emerging area that traditionally has been a responsibility where IT or Legal or, more recently, a Chief Privacy Officer took the lead. One of the emerging trends is an increased penalty for failures to properly protect employee personal information. The European Union's General Regulation on Data Protection was adopted last year, takes effect in May of 2018 and includes maximum fines of 20 million Euros or 4% of an organization's annual worldwide turnover - whichever is greater. That makes privacy a significant source of risk for an organization, one that could result in fines that would be financially material, not to mention damage to an organization's brand, potential loss of business, and other risks. If an organization suffers a mishap involving assignee personal information, a global mobility leader might not see privacy as a traditional focus. I would be surprised, however, if a senior executive failed to include global mobility on the list of responsible managers that he or she calls to be part of the solution. It is important for global mobility leaders to be prepared when the phone rings even if the issue involves privacy, not tax or immigration.

CTS: How have the expats and assignees changed over the course of your career so far?

MB: I am far more impressed with the similarities than the differences. Picking up oneself and, in some cases, the family and moving to a foreign location to work and live is still a pretty formidable challenge. It took a lot of courage to do that when I went on my first assignment and, today, it still takes a lot of courage. Technology, of course, has made some things easier. I remember how much easier my first computer made balancing my checkbook when I had dozens of checks somewhere "in the mail." Now, with wire transfers and internet banking, distance is largely irrelevant. Internet shopping means not having to wait for the next catalog to arrive - but also did away with the anticipation and awe when opening a catalog for the first time.

Skype and social media make it easier to stay connected to family and friends around the world. But an international assignment still involves adapting to a new place, making new friends, learning to work, shop, and socialize with people who often are quite different and see the world in very different ways. Successful assignees, then and now, need to have the fortitude and optimism to adjust their approach to culture and learn the benefits and joy of a different way of living. That has stayed pretty similar over the years and, I suspect, will be an enduring element of global mobility for quite a few years to come.

The key qualities of a global mobility professional

CTS: What are the most important qualities of a global mobility professional and how would you describe the role to someone considering a move into the industry?

MB: Among the most important qualities of a global mobility professional, I would list curiosity, vision, communication, leadership and delivery. We live and work in a dynamic industry. There is real value to the curiosity to look over the horizon, identify emerging trends, perceive changes in your organization's business and customer base, learn about new tools or approaches and network with people who can offer novel solutions. Vision involves taking what one has learned and organizing it in a way that addresses strategic priorities and building the case for action.

Communication is critical to getting leaders, peers and team members to buy into the vision, adopt it and carry it forward. Leadership gets the vision from a wonderful idea to a reality while overcoming the hurdles that inevitably occur. General Helmut von Moltke, a 19th century Prussian Field Marshall, observed that no battle plan survives initial contact with the enemy. It takes leadership to shepherd a vision through the unanticipated changes, new developments, resistance, change management and other elements that arise once a team begins work on a project.

Finally, there is the ability to deliver - the persistence to see something through to the end. Starting a project isn't really hard, although many people probably disagree with me on that. What's really tough is finishing something. A global mobility professional that can finish things and deliver results is one who will be sought after and valued. Technical competence in a specific field is missing from the list on purpose. Technical dominance of a single field like compensation has real value. Many of us often start with mastering a field of knowledge. As we move into the future, however, global mobility leaders will face needs and challenges from so many diverse directions, dominance in a single field is unlikely to be enough. Aspiring to a more strategic skill set will better equip us to succeed with a more strategic global mobility role. To someone considering global mobility as a career, I would encourage them to focus on the fun, the adventure, the dynamism and complexity. It is hard to imagine being bored if one sees all the opportunities global mobility offers. It beats the heck out of working for a living!


CTS: How do you think the discipline has changed and how do you think global mobility can gain more recognition as distinct 'profession'?

MB: We already have moved well beyond the traditional long-term assignment to encompass commuters, rotational employees, one-way moves, and other approaches that organizations need to use as they focus key talent on strategic needs. Our understanding of what global mobility means has changed to include such things as talent sourcing, talent development, Duty of Care, technological innovation, diversity, or return on investment. Organizations that understand the role talent plays in their strategy care about how a global mobility organization contributes to effective sourcing and management of talent. International assignees have always been expensive. In times of increasing business pressure, and business pressure seems to increase every year, the ability of a global mobility organization to improve a return on a significant investment should be valued. Ultimately, though, how we see ourselves and act is key. If we see ourselves as playing a strategic role, address strategic business needs and deliver results, successful organizations will notice and recognize the contributions. That, in turn, will give global mobility practitioners and the profession greater recognition.


CTS: What do you enjoy most about your job?

MB: Helping people. Whether I'm helping an assignee, one of their family members, a business stakeholder or client, a colleague or a friend, I rejoice in a day when I can say at the end that I made a difference for one or more people. The Boy Scout slogan is "Do A Good Turn Daily." That means helping at least one person each day. I'm a Boy Scout leader today and aspire to pass that sense of service along to new generations of young people. Service can add real meaning to a role whether others recognize it or not. The global mobility profession offers countless opportunities to help someone every day. Sometimes the biggest challenge is juggling competing opportunities given limited time. When I'm having a tough day, I take a few seconds to think back on the people that we've helped. Employees or family members that became ill or were injured on assignment and needed an evacuation to get medical care. An assignee that needed help getting on a flight to reach a seriously ill relative's bedside. Getting a critical employee to a job site to meet an urgent deadline. The list of examples is a long one. A significant number of our assignees thanked the team. Whether we were aware of their gratitude or not, we knew we had helped people time and again. That can make a role real and provide a lot of gratification if one only takes time to recognize the impact of your service.

CTS: Finally, what does this FEM award mean to you?

MB: Actually, I think I’m still in shock. It’s a great credit to those who mentored me and the people I worked with. . If I were to sum it up in a sentence, I would say I’m hugely honored, excited and grateful.


Read Matt Burns' article about managing risk; Global mobility and crisis management

To see the full list of FEM's Americas EMMAs winners see Oh what a night at the Americas EMMAs!

Go to the profile of Claire Tennant-Scull

Claire Tennant-Scull

Head of Content & Events Director, Forum for Expatriate Management

Claire Tennant-Scull is Head of Content and acting Events Director at the Forum for Expatriate Management (FEM). She chairs all FEM’s Conferences and Summits in the Americas, APAC and EMEA. Claire also leads FEM’s London Chapter and manages the FEM website and associated reports. Claire has more than 20 years’ experience in publishing, working as a managing editor, writer, journalist and broadcaster, both in the print and digital world. She has worked for major publishing houses and was previously the Online Editor at a respected global mobility publisher. Claire is always keen to meet new members and to broaden the FEM community.

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