Changing the narrative - an interview with Simon Mason of Graebel

Simon Mason, Senior Vice President in EMEA & APAC at Graebel is a regular attendee at FEM's events and as any panellist will tell you, is the master of the complex question. He says we need to change the narrative on mobility - why?

Feb 20, 2019
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Often, as I am moderating a discussion on stage I can see that Simon Mason in the audience is about to make a shrewd observation – and I know that it will quickly be followed by an intricately crafted question. In my role as facilitator, I am always aiming to ask questions of our panellists that will draw out the ‘nub’ of the issue, and I know I don’t always succeed, so I am always grateful to hear from those who do pose the kind of questions that delve a little deeper and push the discussion a little further.

It has often struck me that Simon, despite his deep involvement in the global mobility industry, nevertheless often seems rather like a detached observer, so I wanted to know more about him and his background – what shapes his particular approach to the key questions that exercise us all so often?

I met Simon at Graebel’s offices in The Shard, just next to London Bridge. The views from their 25th floor space are spectacular, and so I deliberately positioned myself so that I wouldn’t be distracted, but I needn’t have been concerned – we were quickly absorbed in conversation.

An academic approach

Simon studied International Business at Manchester University and as part of that degree became immersed in Human Resources and award-winning academic research into expatriate management. After graduating, he spent some time travelling, studying and working in both Australia and the US.

Though I knew his academic career had been focused on Human Resources, I asked what had drawn him to global mobility in particular:

“I just loved to travel and I was interested in senior leadership roles. Global mobility had it all – the opportunity to learn about other cultures, to get deeply involved in business strategy and to meet and work with people from so many interesting backgrounds. I just fell in love with it. It seemed to be an industry of great charm, magnetism and infinite variety.”

A year was spent as a Junior Board Director at the British American Business Council in Chicago before Simon was approached by Graebel while he was at an industry conference in Australia.

Pragmatic solutions

Simon has now been with Graebel for more than four years. He leads the business development function for the EMEA and APAC region while working closely with Graebel’s account management and advisory practices. Simon has clearly embraced all aspects of global mobility, but what interests him most?

“The main driver for me is to work with the community to increase the value of global mobility to the business as a whole. I think there are three key ways in which we can do this:
1. Refine the mobility strategy and process
2. Find ways to realistically measure the return
3. Define which stakeholders need to be engaged and how

He adds, “I think it’s a more mature market now, but we mustn’t be complacent – we still operate in a volatile environment and so we constantly need to re-evaluate and update strategy, policies and process.

There is a tendency too (an understandable one in the economic climate of the past decade) for mobility to look at everything through the lens of saving money, but there is another way to do this – and that is to look at ways to add value.

Changing the narrative

Often, the mobility team or the individuals involved in it can feel slightly powerless, so a key question that I often ask is ‘How does your GM strategy align with the views of your company’s CEO?’ Global mobility professionals have an amazing array of skills, but technical ability is not enough by itself, and advanced communication skills (sales and marketing skills really) are increasingly vital if you are to get those key stakeholders onside.”

If you can gain a thorough understanding of the business itself, he says, then you can build a mobility team that truly reflects the company’s goals. Return on Mobility (aka ROI) is clearly another area of interest. Many senior industry figures like Rob Lesser in the United States challenge this idea and suggest that it is a fallacy to try to gauge a financial return and that by doing so misses the true benefits of a mobility program. 

Simon has some sympathy that point of view and agrees that historically it has been difficult for mobility to demonstrate its value because it is judged in the wrong terms. He thinks it is important to change that narrative, that organisations need to take a more pragmatic approach and that Graebel’s own take on ROI, ROM should be defined by a different set of metrics.

“This isn’t something that can always be achieved easily or quickly. Many companies try to look at rates of promotion and retention in the context of assignments, but in most instances, it’s impossible to make an accurate assessment.

A new set of metrics

I have a number of friends in medical research and so I’m interested in applying similar techniques. The problem with trying to measure mobility and those who go on assignments is that unlike medical research, there is no ‘control group’. As was pointed out to me by a well-known FEM supporter Anja Vahldiek of EY, those employees who often go on assignment tend to be either people who volunteer (who are highly motivated to go and make a success of it anyway) or those who are selected – but on the whole, they are identified for mobility precisely because they are high potential individuals.

I think business needs to go much deeper and companies should measure before they start to implement a policy – to ask more granular questions about strategy and establish longer, more appropriate timelines. There’s an interesting study into the value of internal mobility by Matthew Bidwell, Professor of Management at the Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania that I would highly recommend.”

There, I think is the answer to the question I put to myself at the start of this interview about the character of Simon’s questions: it’s his interest in academic study and the protocols it follows that enable him to hone in on a topic with a forensic eye. However, Simon operates very much in the practical world of business and obviously enjoys applying that clear-eyed logic to everyday problems. 

"A refreshingly progressive conference"

He’ll be speaking at FEM’s Amsterdam Conference on March 7th and will be one of the panellists discussing: A strategic approach to managing talent and demonstrating real ROI so he’ll have the opportunity to debate some the issues we’ve touched on in this conversation and take some searching questions from the audience.

I ask Simon if he is looking forward to taking part in Amsterdam and his answer echoes many of the things that I think about this particular conference too:

“I’m really excited to be involved at Amsterdam in 2019. I think it’s a refreshingly progressive conference, with a really vibrant audience, and speakers who engage in open and frank conversations. I think it’s something that’s unique to The Netherlands and I’m quite sure that nothing will remain unsaid.”

Come and put your questions to Simon and the rest of the panel on 7th March at our Amsterdam Conference:

14:00-14:40
A strategic approach to managing talent and demonstrating real ROI

Speakers:

Wim De Paepe, HR Director, P&G
Efrat Konforty, Vice President of HR, Leisure Group 
Simon Mason, Senior Vice President, EMEA & APAC, Graebel
Nils Stegemann, Head of Career and Talent Management Operations and International Assignments, Deutsche Bahn 
Nitzan Yudan, Founder & CEO, Benivo

Register to attend

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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