Addressing barriers to global mobile talent brokering

By Olivier Meier, Mercer

As the traditional form expatriate management gives ways to a more integrated, globally distributed workforce model, mobility teams are increasingly switching their focus from relocation activities to a broader talent brokering role. Talent brokering is an exercise performed within companies to help match talent between business units and functions across geographies. In practice, this means that a talent owner (a business unit) can temporarily lend or permanently transfer talent to another business unit needing more resources or having skill gaps.

However, this vision of integrated mobile workforce will become a reality only if mobility — and especially geographic mobility — is better connected to talent management.

We have heard for years that mobility teams need to talk to talent management teams and build bridges with other parts of HR and management. The traditional divisions between HR functions and teams operating in silos partly explains the slow progress. However, beyond organizational issues, the barriers to global talent brokering are related to pending mobility questions.

It starts with mobility drivers and strategy.

How strategic does mobility management need to be?

Opportunistic vs strategic mobility

International talent management is about ensuring your business has the international talent it needs to be successful by predicting the future demand (quantity, quality, and location) and planning to match this with supply (internal and external). The mobility function is, however, often relegated to the administration of relocations, with only limited links to the broader business context. The sum of these individual moves does not always constitute a consistent strategy.

Should mobility be just a response to ad-hoc business needs — an opportunistic way to address talent shortage — or is it a long-term approach to build an international talent pool? The answer to the question will inform of the degree of implication of talent management.

A comprehensive talent mobility strategy should clarify career development opportunities — e.g. “Mobility is a condition to reach top management.” However, such an explicit talent mobility strategy comes with the risk of making empty promises. Mobility is supposed to be beneficial for employees but sometimes assignees fail to see any career value (no evidence of faster progression) or even fear losing their business network at home by moving abroad – out of sight, out of mind, a major risk in organizations where office politics plays a big role. Strategic talent mobility implies providing clear career paths for mobile talent but also that the agreed talent decisions are actioned.

A reflection on mobility should also include other elements:

  • Selectivity: are mobility programs designed for a broad talent pool or more focused on selected high potential individuals?
  • Flexibility: in this context, the willingness to accommodate requests from employees to foster attraction and retention.
  • Cost management and how the value is generated.

Different paths are possible depending on the priorities of the organization. They do not have the same priorities in terms of talent management.


Selective Mobility

Budget is allocated in priority to business essential moves

Segmented policy addressing short term business needs and talent building for selected high potential talent

Partial link to talent management for selected profile/developmental programs

Value is generated by maximizing ROI on selected moves

Integrated Mobility

International mobility is embedded in the career paths offered by the organization and reflected in its employer branding

Mobility is an part of long-term business planning

Mobility and talent management are fully aligned

Value is generated by the long-term optimization of the talent pipeline


Reactive Mobility

The focus is on addressing urgent business needs through affordable talent mobility

Moves are driven by ad-hoc business requests rather than talent planning

Link to talent management is limited

Value is generated by containing costs and efficient short-term allocation of resources

Flexible Mobility

Flexibility for management or employees to request an assignment

Mobility is driven by requests received rather than rigid long-term planning

Flexibility is part of the employee value proposition

Talent management issues are addressed on an ad-hoc basis

Value is generated by attracting and retaining of key talent

Cost focus
Talent focus

Action points

Clarify the talent mobility drivers and map priorities for the organization. In practice, all mobility programs include a degree of reactivity, selectivity, flexibility and integration — but not in equal proportion. It is also tempting to strive for the most advanced forms of talent mobility – the word “strategic” itself sounds more appealing than “reactive”. Yet, a well-designed and highly reactive mobility program might sometimes be more appropriate than a cumbersome and poorly implemented integrated strategic program. Like with many things mobility, the main danger is the disconnection between the official goals and the realities of the mobility program.

The perception of the mobility team is not enough. Are all stakeholders in agreement with the mobility approach? Are they telling the same story to line management and assignees?  The elements of language used might reveal misunderstandings. The mobility team needs to master the narrative.

A talent management view

on the value of mobility

If mobility are about managing a series moves without overarching framework, it could create a frustrating experience for the employees and limit business benefits over the long-term. We are used to measure the success of assignments in terms direct costs and short terms effects (assignment completion.) Organizations need to integrate the talent management aspects of mobility. Talent mobility is a source of opportunities for both employees and the organization but also potentially a disruptive exercise. It deserves more than superficial judgment about mobility being a great opportunity for all or on the contrary an unnecessary source of costs.

Examples of talent management value creation Examples of talent management issues
Developing talent pipeline /skill development Potential disruption in team of origin
Flexibility to respond to urgent business needs Business continuity disruption (e.g. client networks)
Ability to attract international talent Assignment  career disruption (e.g. upon repatriation)
Succession planning issues
Employee retention/motivation Performance issues due to poor adaptation
Skills allocation/efficiencies Uncertain long-term value for receiving teams

A cost effective move to solve a short-term business issues could have detrimental effect over the long term from a talent management perspective. Integrating this talent management angle could share a new light on the value of mobility.

The question of career value is essential for assignees. What do they get out of the assignments? A first step to answer this question is to identify the factors driving career progression and understand how they relate to mobility.

Action points

Clarify what can accelerate a career — i.e. is there a preferred path to the top in your organization?

This path can be cross functional (candidates need experience in different departments) or siloed within one function, internal (building up talent) or external (buying talent), and linked to specific geographies (being in the right place).

A career progression analysis can be performed to monitor the progression of mobile and non-mobile employee. This will help identify possible discrepancies between the official message (mobility is good for you) and the reality (it depends).

Performing more detailed comparisons of assignees groups (personas) can uncover gaps and point at diversity & inclusion issues: mobility may generally boost the careers of employees but not all employees benefit from the same assignment opportunities.

The question of value is not limited to geographical mobility.

Connecting the different forms of mobility

In a global distributing workforce model, mobility is a wider resourcing exercise that cannot always be synonymous with traditional expatriation. The solution to a given talent resourcing issues can be about

  • Internal moves (between business units) or external (gig workers, talent exchange, peer talent pool).
  • It can involve cross-border moves (traditional long-term expatriate assignments, rotator and commuter assignments, and short-term assignments) or not (locally-hired foreigners).
  • It can be about moving across functions (lateral moves) or constitute a promotion within the same business (vertical moves).
  • Finally, talent brokering can also be about moving jobs to people in the form of remote working.

Not all forms of mobility fall under the traditional purview of mobility teams and that limits their influence in the decision process. Yet, without weighting in on all forms of a mobility, mobility teams cannot realistically perform their talent brokering role. The pandemic and the rise of international remote working requests has forced many mobility teams to move out of their comfort zone and provide input for new forms of assignments.

Action points

Expand your mobility decision trees and processes. Traditionally decision trees have been used to differentiate between type of long-term assignments and type of compensation approach. They need to encompass the wider range of choices available for the organization.

Even if the mobility team is not managing some forms of mobility, identify the touch points where it could add value. These touch points might be related to feasibility, practical set up and compliance in an international setting — that’s where the mobility teams can complement the work of talent management and other parts of HR.

Fixing the internal market place

Are organizations really tapping into the wider talent pool or just fishing in a small candidate pond? Numerous inefficiencies can lead to an imperfect internal market place for mobile talent.

We should not assume that all employees are aware of all mobility opportunities and that all potential candidates feel concerned by assignment offers (lack of diversity and inclusion support or role models often lead candidates to dismiss themselves.) The existence of informal recruitment short circuit can defeat official talent selection processes and increase diversity gaps.

We should not underestimate the asymmetry of the information flow about internal jobs and opportunities: employers lack full information about labor availability and quality and employees lack full information about job availability and quality.

Mobility teams are often not involved in the assignee selection process but the impact of a flawed selection reverberate on many aspects of mobility.  Relying on just a few candidates could lead to higher costs, lack of diversity and even performance issues.

Action points

Mobility teams do not control the full recruitment process but they can rely on a mix of push and pull approaches. A “push” approach is about promoting existing mobility opportunities, amplify the communication about international jobs initiated by local HR teams and specifically targeting groups who might be interested in a job abroad. The “pull” approaches would be about communicating success stories and promoting role models (essential to promote diversity and attach under-represented employee groups) as well as making sure that mobility is integrated in the employee value proposition and overall employer branding.

Organizations with integrated mobility strategies usually rely on a “pull” approach and make mobility an important part of their employer branding. Organizations with reactive mobility may be reluctant to create excessive expectations and focus on more targeted “push” approaches for selected jobs/categories of employees.

Developing a new mindset

Mobility managers often ask themselves how to be strategic and have a seat at the decision table. This reflection is valid but it relies very much on the fragile assumption the idea that top management will finally open their eyes to the many virtues of traditional mobility.

Global mobility, in the narrow sense of expatriate management, has been traditionally a fractured exercise — i.e. managing a series of individual moves with only limited alignment with talent management practices and the broader longer-term business strategy. The focus has been on addressing practical issues linked to expatriate moves already decided by management as opposed on reflecting on the wider talent mobility and staffing options. This tactical focus has reduced opportunities for mobility teams to participate in strategic business discussions.

Top management is above all interested in allocating talent to the right place and addressing skill gaps. Contributing to the global brokering exercise is a way for mobility teams to position themselves at the heart of the talent process as opposed to try to elevate mobility relocation issues that are bound to remain purely tactical in the eyes of top management.