Founder and Managing Director at Chris Debner LLC
Chris Debner is the Founder and Managing Director at Chris Debner LLC, an organization which provides strategic global mobility advisory and expert services that improves the employee experience of mobility teams, international assignees and their families. Debner has worked in various organizations in different countries. He has 17 years of Big 4 experience in five countries (Germany, India, Turkey, Switzerland and the Czech Republic) and has served numerous clients worldwide. In 2015 he decided to start his own thing.
In this in-depth interview, Chris discusses lessons he has learned at every stage of his career; reveals his belief that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”; explains that in future mobility will be fully integrated in HR; highlights the importance of a better employee experience because if people don’t feel welcome they will quit right away; shares his perspective that the older generation has more patience than the Millennials; and admits that you never get bored in mobility.
Brian Friedman: Hello and welcome to the season two of The View from the Top, a podcast brought to you by Benivo. My name is Brian Friedman and I am the Strategy Director of Benivo, the world's leading welcome as a service mobility tech company.
I'm delighted to say that my guest today is Chris Debner. Chris is one of the most well known global mobility thought leaders working in our industry. A German citizen by birth, Chris is now based in Zurich in Switzerland, but has clients throughout Europe and beyond. Chris is a well-known author and a frequent speaker at mobility events globally. He also won the highly coveted EMMA Award in 2015 for Global Mobility Professional of the Year. Chris has advised on more than 100 mobility strategies and policies from various industries, and has nearly 20 years professional services experience working out of no less than five different countries. He has developed specific strategies for localization, repatriation, outsourcing, and effective, exceptional management, and has advised clients in 34 countries, including, astonishingly, some 20 of the DAX30.
Chris is also the founder and coordinator of the Swiss SMI Mobility Network. He's also a lecturer for global mobility at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and at HWZ Business School Zurich. A busy man indeed is our Chris. So Chris, welcome to the View from the Top, and many many congratulations on your impressive achievement and your career to date.
Chris Debner: Many thanks Brian and I appreciate to be here.
Brian Friedman: Well it's certainly great to have you. So Chris let's kick off. Can you just tell us a little bit ... I know I've done some introduction, but just tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do today, your current role.
Chris Debner: Right. Happy to. It was now since nearly four years independent after working for 17 years at the Big Four.
And right now, my business is around four things mainly. I mean, I'm still an advisor, and I'm advising corporate mobility functions and becoming more strategic but also advising providers nowadays with go to market strategies.
Another big part and important part to me personally is education, as you mentioned, on the academic side I do some education, but I'm also delivering trainings to service providers in understanding better the challenges of the mobility world and what's happening in the market.
The third pillar I would say is my events or my marketing, where I'm a speaker and publish some articles.
And last but not least, I'm a very curious networker and have a large network of people in the industry, both on the provider side as well as on the mobility side. And that has developed after four years with, well, with the usual startup challenges into something that I really enjoy doing, and I'm passionate about.
Brian Friedman: That's brilliant, I mean obviously Chris, you and I know each other well, we've worked together in various organizations throughout both our careers. But tell me about the early days, how did you get first get into mobility? What made you decide to become a mobility professional?
Chris Debner: Right, it was basically, it was a few coincidences. I mean, you can start off that I specialized in human resources because that was like the major in Business Administration which I found to be the less mathematical of them all. And then I was very active in student organization which was already then in the 90s during a lot of traineeship exchange programs and sending trainees around the world, which got me my first job, which was actually as a foreign local hire in India. And I was there as the executive assistant to the CEO of a software company, and very quickly realized that I have an HR neck somehow, and maybe, maybe in charge of sending out and helping them to send out Indian software engineers at that time to the Silicon Valley but also into Europe.
And after the foreign local hire, you know, went on. I had my, it wasn't really as a foreign local higher in India, you might imagine, that it's not very profitable and so when I realized that I have to use up my savings to fly home for Christmas, I chose to join Andersen, Arthur Andersen and Dusseldorf. So I worked as a local for one year in my home country in Germany, which was then already 99.
The next international experience was a one year commute to Istanbul and Ankara for a large project.
Brian Friedman: Together I seem to remember.
Chris Debner: Yes we did, we did indeed. And after a short return to Germany I had my first real assignment, home based tax cost, cost equals x, equalized and cost of living adjustment assignments to Prague in the Czech Republic, where I worked for two years.
And after the Enron scandal with Andersen, I localized and followed my then time, the time partner to join EY in Switzerland, where I ended up in 2002, and have been there since then.
I mean, so you can see the different types of assignments, I mean from foreign local hire to commuter real assignee being localized. I then became another issue for HR for mobility that was I was a frequent traveler, where already some compliance issues came up when I traveled to often to one country.
And last but not least, I was also naturalized in the very end so I also have a second passport now with a Swiss passport. And I have to say, I mean, it was a fantastic experience for myself to experience these forms of mobility, while all the time advising mobility.
Brian Friedman: So clearly, if there's pitfalls and traps or minefields, minefields is maybe the best analogy, you've walked through them all, all the ones you're talking about from short term business travelers to localization, to local hires et cetera. But just generally, you know, you've learned an awful lot, probably good and bad through the things that have happened. What learnings would you pass on to other people now entering the profession, what would be your key learnings that you'd like to share?
Chris Debner: I think one of the biggest learnings that I had with this opportunity to look into so many different organizations in different countries as an advisor is that I realized that each and every company is truly unique, and the uniqueness is typically based in their culture, in the way that things are done in these organizations, and one saying from Peter Singer, which is "the strategy eats" ... "a culture eats strategy for breakfast". That is certainly the one that resonates very well with me.
Now when you think about someone who starts in the profession, which is a fantastic profession I find because it's so diverse, it's always new challenges, you never get bored in mobility, is certainly to be curious, to be ready to adapt quickly to changing circumstances being a lifelong learner. I have to drop this fashion word, this buzzword, having to be "agile", and when it comes to developing yourself, I think a focus nowadays, where a lot of the knowledge is at your fingertips virtually on the internet, is really to develop soft skills, because that will also be the differentiator for people in the future. That's what I strongly believe.
Brian Friedman: Okay, so we talked a little bit about the future and I'd like to just follow up on that theme. But starting, if you like, in the past, and the way I want to frame the question is like this. What would you say the biggest changes you've seen if you compare the world you're working in now to the world you started working in 20 odd years ago. So what are the biggest changes you've seen, but also, and maybe more importantly, what are the biggest changes you think you're going to see over the next 10, 15, 20 years?
Chris Debner: All right, let me first take a market perspective what I have experienced as a change. While already back in the 90s, every annual report of a company was talking about, you know, telling this our most valuable asset.
The process is still going on. And I do believe that now it's slowly really becoming into focus, this talent centricity that organizations really think not only financially, they have to think financially, but they also consider that there is really a very, very valuable asset in the people that they hire, attract, retain engage, and make perform for them.
And you ask the question, I mean, "what will it be in the future", I think this game will play out and it will become really a differentiator that the organizations who can attract and retain the best employees and engage them in a good employee friendly culture, those might be the winners in the future. That's what I strongly believe.
Brian Friedman: So you think the future is all going to be about talent management and how you sort of, well I would say "win the war for talent" but you can't actually win it because winning implies it's over, but how you do better than others in that war for talent?
Chris Debner: I strongly believe in that, because it is a differentiator. There are many differentiators between organizations, but ultimately it comes down to, if you can't attract any more of the people, if you can't retain them and engage them on the job, you will have, you will have an issue.
Brian Friedman: Okay, let's just talk a little bit about different ... carrying on this theme, talking about differences between one generation, and another. You've talked about the future, and I know technology is an issue, we will come on to technology a bit later in this conversation. For the moment I want to talk about people. And a lot of people say that the current generation, the millennials, are very different to previous generations, being generation Xers or baby boomers or what have you. What would you say, if anything, do you think are the main differences between today's new starters, and your generation of people who started work at 20, maybe 30 years ago?
Chris Debner: Right. I happen to talk about this topic frequently and have a few greats in my network, a few great partners I'm discussing this with. And one thing that mostly resonated with me when I realized that pure stereotyping does not get us any further, is like three commonalities that I see, which is that the people, that the younger people, the "next gen" as I call them, to generalize millennials, Gen Z and so on.
They expect things to be more instant, to be more flexible and also to have more clarity in what they receive and in what they do. So, the difference for our generation is probably that we, my generation has more patience. So, we were used to wait, sometimes for things and, you know, you had to move a book from an encyclopedia out of the shelf to look something up and now you have Google answers in milliseconds. It's just one of those examples.
The flexibility, I grew up in Germany with three TV stations, and the younger generation they had hundreds of TV stations and streaming offerings at their fingertips forever. So, more patience is what the older generation has and probably also the ability to live with less of a choice, versus the flexibility and the options that the younger generation grew up with.
And also, last but not least, probably, we were able to live with less clarity. Now, turning that around is as a matter of fact, all what they demand which comes closely out of customer experience, instant flexible and clarity, is something that if companies adopted, if companies are using to increase their employee experience through these things to also appeal to the younger generation, that is also something that has an appeal to the older generation. So the good news is, whatever you do for the younger generation, which makes things more instant, more flexible and creates more clarity, something that everybody appreciates nowadays.
Brian Friedman: You've talked about customer experience and employee experience and clearly that's very much, both a buzzword but something, when I look at it from my perspective of Benivo, it's very much at the heart of absolutely everything we do, and we are at the end of the day, a play welcome company. But what do you do in your consulting work, how often does it come up in your consulting work, this whole question of employee experience or in particular, I suppose, an assignee experience? What do you do when you're working with clients to enhance employee or assignee experience?
Chris Debner: Well, first of all, I mean I'm strongly convinced about the link between the two, because really the customer experience that people, especially the younger people had experienced in the past years which got better, better and better and is increasingly getting better, is something that they now expect from their workplaces.
While it's a buzzword, while it's talked about a lot, what I see is when I talk to HR leaders, for example, and to whole organizations of HR, I heard already that the awareness for creating a better employee experience is already there. It's not there everywhere, I've also heard others, but it is there.
Now what do I do about it? Obviously, what you can do is to learn from others, what have others done to create these better employee experiences, and when it comes to talking to HR, for example, a great argument is if they look at the HR lifecycle from hiring to retiring and all the processes where an employee has a touch point with HR, and they have as their top priorities for 2019 to increase that, they will have to admit that the most impactful employee experience, or as some call it, "one of the moments that really matter" is certainly the moment when someone is asked to, you know, uproot your family, move to another country, changing a culture, your role, your job, and so on and so forth. So, this shows the importance of mobility in creating a better employee experience.
And with this argument, I mean, HR sees it increasingly therefore, that mobility needs to be taken serious for that.
Brian Friedman: Yeah I was talking to one colleague a little while ago, and he used the term "the forgotten joiners". And what he was saying is that, you know, a lot of effort goes into new joiners in terms of inductions and welcoming them on board, but actually assignees tend to be very much "the forgotten joiner", that they sort of somehow go under the radar, and indeed when they go back home, they're probably doubly forgotten, they were forgotten on the way out, and they're forgotten quite a lot on the way back. Is that something that you've come across?
Chris Debner: Yeah, absolutely. You're touching two points here, I mean I see a lot of large organizations going through either agile transformations for the whole organization, or just through HR transformations. And the big players out there who are typically involved when you talk about multinationals is the IBMs, Accentures, Boston Consulting, McKinsey's and so on.
Interestingly, they never touch mobility. They touch all functions of HR but not mobility. The argument, they say is, obviously wrong, that they see that as a purely an administrative function which has no strategic meaning. The truth is often they do not have the experts in their organizations to properly deal with that, and this big disconnect between HR and mobility is one of the challenges that I see that needs to be overcome.
But the other aspect of course as you say is also the retention post repatriation. I think it was in 1999 that I wrote my first article about repatriation called "out of sight, out of mind", and the topic is still a current one, it's still an issue. And it will remain a challenge, which challenges companies to create actually better talent paths, better experience for employees, better ways to reintegrate them, and that up front, but also as you mentioned, very much upfront not only after the return but also up front when they are hired, during the hiring process. Because people are not staying anymore for the two years to have something on their CV if they don't feel well and welcome. They will quit right away.
Brian Friedman: Absolutely. I want to move the conversation on a bit. You and I both grew up in an era where globalization was generally considered to be both a good thing, that company's globalized. But not only was it considered a good thing, it was also considered inevitable. The, the world just was globalizing and that was the way things were going.
We're in an era of a backlash against globalization, that globalization is not necessarily a good thing. And what we're seeing is an era of rising populism of nationalism, and other countries really trying to put up barriers to say that "actually, we don't think globalization is a good thing". And elite people saying that, "well, globalization may be good for creating jobs, but actually it's not creating a job for me. I'm someone who's losing a job and my job is being outsourced to somewhere in some low cost, local tourist destination".
And obviously we've seen most notably the Make America Great Again a philosophy of Trump and his supporters, and obviously we've seen Brexit in my country in the UK. And we've seen the rise of popular starters throughout continental Europe.
How do you see all this as conflict between nationalism and populism, and globalization, how do you see that impacting our world, impacting international HR and employee mobility?
Chris Debner: Right. I mean, I have a strong belief and I'm living here in Switzerland, a very multicultural in the city of Zurich, a very multicultural city with where people from all over the world are working.
We have, like in some, some parts of Zurich has like 30% foreigners, for example. I do not believe that globalization is reversible.
Starting from that, there will be certainly an impact, which will make it more difficult to move people from an immigration perspective. So higher challenges but at the same time, you see those surveys about the talent crunch and talent shortages that are expected for highly skilled people, which will demand cut from companies that they move the people, that they see their labor market not anymore as just a local one because they can't source the skills there, but they have to look at a larger labor market, a global labor market. And when they want to bring in people from other countries, they face the immigration challenges, but it will not end.
And with certain challenges in thinking directly what happens with mobility, the flows of people around the world, they might change, and it's not easy to predict how it will be. I mean, there is a risk with whatever form of Brexit is reached that people will move out of Britain, and less investment going into Britain. There is certainly India which turns out millions of graduates every year, which can supply a lot of the skilled workforce needs around the world. You have the demographic time bomb, as they call it in Japan, where a lot of people will need to go into Japan, if Japan wants to stay competitive.
And at the same time, because companies will always they are for profit by definition, we look for ways actually to manage mobility in a way that is cost efficient so there's already, you can see that some shared service centers are moving further east.
So let's say instead of having your shared service center in Budapest or Prague, set it up in India, like in Pune or in Indonesia. At the same time, a lot of the talent management will move to the cloud, actually. So, that's another geographical category that you have to almost implement, and a lot will be helped through technology and run in an automated fashion.
But different moving, I mean different moving parts from the directions, where people are moving with the challenges of immigration which will be there, but not a chance that actually globalization will be reversed. And maybe the next round of elections might change things.
Brian Friedman: Okay, so you think that globalization, will continue, it is remains inevitable. And the numbers of people moving will continue to increase or do you think that will be reduced by other factors like technology and people working from home, as well as problems with immigration? I mean, do you think the actual, the absolute numbers of people moving from country to country will continue to rise or do you think there's a risk we've passed global mobility?
Chris Debner: There are a few pointers that help to answer this question. I mean, one is when for example, Skype came up, I mean there was a lot of talk "this is the end of business travel".
When other forms of communication, which are now there, if you look at the figures of business travel in our world, year on year there are increasing. And don't be fooled by a few airlines who go bankrupt. I mean, the global world travel is increasing, very much.
At the same time, you have the new generation where there are very high percentages, who say that they are willing to change a country, where they are interested in travel, where they're interested in working in different cultures, and in different markets. So, taking those two things together, in addition, with shortages that you might have in a certain talent, for example, the STEM talent, engineerings.
I was in western Sweden with a company, who is bringing in the people from all over the world because they see on the local market they can't bring in anyone in, and whatever there is in limitations for immigration, I mean, if they want to be competitive they have to continue and try to get two people in.
So, in general, there might be changes in the form of assignments, there might be more local to local transfers and host based approaches that we might see, there might be much more flexible approaches to mobility, voluntary mobility will increase. But all in all, I would rather see that the role of the mobility function gets more important rather than less important.
Brian Friedman: I certainly hope so. I have heard that there do seem to be an extraordinary number of different views on this. I even heard people say that they think that, actually, because short term travel is so important and increasingly people working cross border are short term travelers, that at some point, mobility will actually sit within the travel department, rather than travel sit within the mobility department, which quite shocked me at the time. Who knows.
I want to just carry on the conversation actually, we talked a little bit earlier about what you think is going to happen over the next, you know, 20 years or so and I know right on top your agenda was this whole question of the management of talent.
But I want to get on to the question of technology, which I think, you know, we all know, technology is coming into an increasingly rapid pace, and it's changing our lives. Pretty much year on year if not week by week.
But my question to you is this, and I'm going to put it very broadly, which is, how do you think technology will impact your organization over the next 10 years? I know that people, you know, when we talked to technology, they will automatically go and talk about things like virtual reality and robotics, and artificial intelligence, but I'd like you just to look at it in the round, in the bigger picture, and say how do you think technology is going to impact the way mobility works so the next 10, 15 years or so?
Chris Debner: Right. I mean, the real big picture is that we are currently experiencing a speed of innovation, a speed of change, that is unprecedented. And the risk is if you think about this, this market adoption curve, you know, about the early adopters and the people who are late in the game.
This curve is still valid but if you nowadays allow yourself to be late in the adoption of technology, of innovation, you can be out of business very quickly and we've seen those examples: Kodak, Nokia missed the, the mobile phone game, and so on, where companies were not open enough actually to open themselves to technology.
Now, going a bit more into detail, what does it mean actually for mobility? Technology always plays on the interfaces, I mean when there's an interaction between different players. And if you see the benefits that it brings, some bring an administrative, of course, help in the administration. The bye bye to the old Excel sheet for example, when you think about assignment management platforms for example, but also some bring cost savings. Some might bring more compliance and some are actually and there's a whole lot of that out there, especially in the HR space, even more so than in the mobility space, help to increase employee experience.
And at the same time while this market is growing at an enormous pace, the technology market, there's so much investment going into that.
It's very, it's a very fragmented market and it's very difficult actually in identifying "what's the technology that has the right fit for me?", and this is a challenge.
I mean I liken it, I can tell you a situation I was speaking with someone from a mobility manager from a Dutch company. And they told me they were about to acquire one of the big assignment management platforms. And so I asked him if they have also talked to the other big players in the market and he looked at me and said, "Are there any others?". And so I liken it to this experience. You go into a BMW dealership and you're about to buy a car, and throughout that whole process, you're completely unaware that there are choices like Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar out there that you could compare and find the one that suits you best.
So, from ability to challenge will be actually to inform themselves properly in this fragmented market, and to make strategic decisions of what technology has the best fit, what fits my agenda best? Am I driving around cost is one of my priorities, compliance, is it employee experience? Is it maybe all of the above? And then to identify which is the investment that I can make to achieve my objectives in a better way.
So, it is a challenge but is a challenge that needs to be taken up because if it's not taken up, we face a problem.
Let me just add one thing. Already 10 years back, companies could differentiate their offerings by offering to clients more technology, and that is valid up 'til today.
Brian Friedman: So you're saying that, the technology they have will still be a differentiation future, or is it less of a differentiator going forward?
Chris Debner: Technology will be a differentiator in the future and towards in two directions. I mean, first of all towards your clients, if you think the whole mobility world, I mean, it's very provider rich as we know. They need to take care not only about customer experience but also to provide technology which can make them more attractive than another one. And at the same time, the next generation, they will also expect, not to fill out big paper forms, they expect actually to see apps to see stuff, which is on the web, in the cloud, that they can access from everywhere.
So from an employee experience perspective it's also important to invest in technology.
Brian Friedman: Okay, I mean, investing in technology, obviously is expensive and you touched on service providers there. And to my mind, it's not that easy a time sometimes for service providers because they are having to invest in ever greater technology, but at the same time, procurement is out there giving them sometimes a bit of a hard time over pricing. And then companies are quite often moving away from, if you like, the generous full whipped cream version of balance sheets and keeping people whole towards a sort of a lump sum approach. What do you think is going to happen in our industry on the service provider side? Do you think we're going to see contraction or consolidation rather amongst suppliers? Do you think we're going to see new suppliers coming in, you know, if you look out for five, even 10, 15 years, do you think all the current suppliers are going to be there? Do you think there's much happening in the market, and is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Chris Debner: Right. There a whole bunch of trends in that area. I mean, let me start off with the one that relates to technology. When you're a provider who does not have the means to invest millions into developing something, it's not about that you automatically need to develop because there is in this fragmented market so much technology out there, so you can partner, you can license, you have various ways of teaming up with the technology provider as another provider, and going jointly with them to market.
Brian Friedman: So in the same ways, technology is becoming cheaper, because you can partner with it?
Chris Debner: Exactly. Technology doesn't mean that you have to invent it because it's out there, and the collaboration between companies will increase. At the same time, you have certainly, I expect, some more consolidation on the technology market but as well on the provider market if you take the long term look. But it also has to do with what's happening in the long term, with mobility functions, I mean my picture, you mentioned already before, that they might merge with the travel function. My future idea when I talk with some HR thought leaders is that mobility will be fully integrated actually in HR, whatever HR will be called by then, and so will be travel management, that there's much more collaboration happening inside of organizations, which then needs to be replicated also on the market, between providers and their customers.
I mean, just think about the whole freelance industry, which is also like sort of a provider client relationship. All that will become, those will become more of partnerships and there will be more inclusion and collaboration. It's a tearing down of the silos, the working together.
And one last point, technology specific so far, HR platforms, ERPs, the Oracles, SAP Work Day and so on, they will very likely absorb some of the players in the assignment management technology space and offer that as one package, and the real future of technology lies in having a layer, which connects you in the background, to all the applications and programs and stuff that is running there, so that the employee experience of technology is really streamlined.
Brian Friedman: Absolutely I fully understand where you're coming from. Unfortunately we are now pretty much out of time, so that all that remains just for me to thank everybody who's listened in today for listening in, and hopefully you'll join us again for our next episode coming up shortly, but in particular, I'd like to thank Chris Debner for his fabulous insights and a fascinating conversation. It's always good catching up with you, Chris. So, thank you so much for taking part in The View from the Top. Thank you, Chris.
Chris Debner: Thanks, Brian. It was my pleasure and it's my passion talking about these topics as you might see right here. And, great to have this opportunity to be on your View from the Top.
Brian Friedman: Great, thank you very much and thanks everybody.