Magazine article Management Today

Home Truths

Magazine article Management Today

Home Truths

Article excerpt

In a world increasingly dominated by politically correct strictures, few in business are happy to dwell for long on the subject of racial and national barriers. You hear the occasional euphemistic reference to 'clashes of culture', but big company bosses prefer to talk more about the benefits of globalisation and world networks than the difficulties of dealing with foreigners.

It's a bit like the Fawlty Towers sketch, where Basil is faced with some German tourists and rushes around screaming at his staff: 'Don't mention the war!'

Avoiding the issue, however -- as Basil discovered -- does not make it go away. Look around the multinational scene and you will see plenty of examples of severe corporate problems directly related to attitudes that can be summed up as 'we don't like them' and 'they don't understand us'.

Whether this can be ascribed to ignorance, tribalism or basic prejudice does not really matter. The fact is that the world is not one big happy family and doing business with those whose attitudes, behaviour and beliefs are at best irritating and at worst offensive poses a serious test for management.

Nobody, it seems, is comfortable talking about, much less analysing, national characteristics. Yet only a fool would say that the Russian mindset is the same as that of the Burmese. Nevertheless, inside many big companies it is just not politically acceptable to categorise certain peoples as lazy or aggressive or untrustworthy -- even if it is true.

Take the Germans. Their swaggering style, which works so well for them inside their own country, has run into tremendous difficulties overseas. Three examples come to mind: Deutsche Bank's purchase of merchant bank Morgan Grenfell; BMW's acquisition of Rover; and Daimler's so-called merger with America's Chrysler (it was really a German takeover).

Each case is different, but the theme running through all three is that German executives thought they could impose German business methods on foreign managers and workers. This led to misunderstanding and deep resentment.

At Morgan Grenfell, a much-trusted City brand name was blown away as Deutsche insisted on standardising behaviour. The flourish with which Morgan's Masters of the Universe used to execute deals was lost in an ill-starred search for Teutonic efficiency. A former Morgan director told me: 'We learned to detest the Germans; they were so one-dimensional.'

At Rover, BMW's ruling Quandt family nearly wrecked its fortunes before throwing in the towel. A simple but misplaced conviction that German engineering excellence could be bolted onto a venerable, albeit flawed, British marque resulted in a commercial fiasco. …

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