Adjust your bearings: integrating internationals is a two-way street

Signe Biering Nielsen, an advisor and leadership coach for international professionals, outlines the challenges faced by companies onboarding new employees from overseas

Sometimes in the rush to recruit and sign all the paperwork, the employers and authorities neglect to tell international professionals how appreciated they are. This can be even more pronounced in a time of crisis.

Fortunately, they can turn to Signe Biering Nielsen. As her name suggests, she’ll help you find your bearings, sending out a signal that you’re valued.

As an advisor and leadership coach for international professionals, both Danes and non-Danes, she has both knowledge and experience in abundance.

Armed with an MA in European politics, she worked for the Foreign Ministry as a diplomat for 20 years, serving as the deputy ambassador to Israel in her last posting.

And not only that, she’s also a qualified lawyer who specialises in international law. It’s safe to say that you’re in safe hands with Signe Biering Nielsen.

Why did you settle in Denmark as a leadership coach – why stop being a diplomat?
I got a coaching degree more or less by chance in 2013 and found out I made a real and tangible difference to the people I worked with. And – when coaching – I felt a purpose I had never felt to the same degree in my work as a diplomat.
It sounds so simple now, in hindsight. But in the beginning it was very hard to acknowledge even to myself that I wanted to work with people. I thought I’d had a perfectly good purpose as a diplomat. I mean, how about “doing good in the world” for a purpose? Pretty powerful. And I had a good career – why stop? My family liked travelling, in spite of all the challenges. I felt a strong connection with my colleagues and the ministry. I had grown up in that organisation and felt at home there. On top of it all it was a very prestigious place to work. I am not proud to admit that it made a difference – but it did. Leave international politics to work ‘with people’? It did not sound very sexy at the time.

But I guess with age comes another kind of strength: the strength of admitting you have changed. Or that life is not straightforward. Or that some things were important and now they do not seem that important anymore. Or that life is short and you have to dare.
Still it took years – five years to be precise – before I left the diplomatic service. Luckily, I’m now not in doubt that I made the right choice. But the process has given me a deep understanding of how incredibly challenging it is to change yourself. It has given me an even deeper sense of purpose: I want to help others overcome resistance to change as I have overcome it. I know change is possible – but I also know that it is very challenging to make deep changes and that we all need someone to support us along the way.

We understand that you are currently coaching health professionals – and without charge?
I have teamed up with a number of professional coaches on the platform ‘Heart-to-Heart’. We offer free coaching to health professionals at this crucial time – both Danish and English speakers. Our focus is not necessarily the people on the frontline but the people challenged by changed leadership, organisational setup, work content etc. We want to ensure that the health professionals do not get dispirited as they are more needed than ever – during and after the current crisis. The coronavirus may pass – in due course – but we need the health professionals to remain in the health sector and keep their sense of purpose. This is where professional coaches can contribute. I look forward to the meetings I have lined up in the weeks ahead.

Why work with international professionals?
I have worked with diversity and leadership all my working life. Many do not realise this but embassies are very diverse. The vast majority of Danish embassies actually only consist of a handful of Danes at the most – the rest are locals or other internationals. It is now a deep part of me: knowing what it is like to live and work in a place that is not your own – to work with colleagues from other cultures. From my first job, working in The Gambia as a lawyer, to my last, as deputy ambassador to Israel, I have enjoyed the challenge both professionally and personally. My experiences in India, China, Israel, Brussels, New York differed – naturally. But they all had common leadership challenges.

What challenges do you normally face?
When I started out as an advisor and coach I soon discovered that the challenges met by the international professionals in my practice only partly depended on the individual. I saw a need for a systemic approach to international talent.
Companies have to make themselves attractive – via good onboarding – to new hires.

Therefore, I advise companies on how to onboard international professionals. It is an issue that spans HR/P&C, R&D, strategy and management, and covers such areas as:
The Coronavirus Crisis has only made that insight more urgent. Irrespective of the crisis, Denmark needs international talent. International competition regarding top talent will be even fiercer in the future as companies strive to regain territory with an eye for new opportunities. Companies have to make themselves attractive – via good onboarding – to new hires. This is an issue at the forefront of leadership: how to ensure you have the right people on your team particularly now. Danish companies know they have to look to the outside world – but they feel the competition from other countries, such as the Netherlands, Sweden, when trying to attract the most talented. The edge is ensuring an attractive offering – for the young generation this includes being a part of the team and feeling you contribute from the get go.

Another issue is how to postpone the need for a new hire. If the newcomer feels at home, feels there is a purpose with their presence in Denmark, feels that they contribute from Day 1, they are much less likely to leave the job early. Even in light of other challenges they may encounter in Denmark such as the current crisis. There is no doubt they need extra attention during this time and I am afraid they are not getting it. The crisis is compounding what can be interpreted as a lack of friendliness among Danes – to give one small example.

A third issue is information sharing and networking: being new to Denmark, the company has to ensure that you get the network necessary – both internally in the company and externally. Without a network you can get very little done in a country like Denmark where networks are created at a very early stage in life and people are unlikely to be open and friendly to others – let alone to strangers. Companies forget this.

A fourth issue is the need for companies to consult with their international employees about how they view their business, Denmark and the future. What do the internationals think of the company culture? Is it truly international? Does it need to evolve? This will give you the option – as a leader, manager, company administrator – to develop in the direction you choose rather than being led by circumstance.

Looking at these four reasons it does sound like a challenging task – to invite the newcomer in in such a way. In my experience it is not, if leadership takes the responsibility. HR cannot carry the agenda alone. Many new hires are very willing to contribute with their view and their ideas – especially if they are treated with respect from the beginning. But it does require the different departments to co-operate – and it in particular requires leadership acknowledging the need for a true internationalisation of the company, including an openness towards the ideas and insights coming from the international professionals.

Signe Biering Nielsen