Soft Skills for Hard-Hitting International Execs?

I keep mulling over the PR mistakes that the BP execs made in handling the Gulf oil spill (yeah, I know – if you’re looking for fast-breaking news, you are at the wrong blog!).   I’m not the only one still thinking about this – Peter Goldman dissected the PR mistakes at BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs just last week in the NY Times. One of Haywood’s egregious gaffes,  “I’d like my life back” [so I can go sailing on my very expensive yacht] is not going to be forgotten any time soon!  But let’s also not forget their chairman’s comment with a mis-translation of a Swedish idiom – “We care about the small people” – that made them sound like the world’s most arrogant large corporation (which some would argue they are).

And that is precisely what keeps coming back to me: that in the business world, huge amounts of self-confidence and even arrogance, a hard-hearted, “take no prisoners” style, are usually seen as positive, even essential elements to becoming a successful executive.  Yet in this situation, what the business really needed was an exec at the helm with excellent “soft” skills – humility, empathy, cross-cultural communication skills.

Are these skills only needed in crisis situations?  I don’t think so.  In fact, I think these soft skills are an essential requirement for any businessperson who operates in a multi-national environment (which, increasingly, is all of us).  Check out these notes from and about two very successful global business executives:

An article in Businessweek about Dominique Senequier who leads AXA, one of Europe’s largest private equity firms, noted that:

Senequier…spends 240 days a year in Asia and North America raising money. She says that in her business, being French is more of a handicap than being a woman, because her country is not known for its private equity industry. “Our investors don’t understand that we can be French and succeed,” she says. “I tell them being a minority forces us to be more open to other cultures and forces us to be modest.”

Her mission now, she says, is to persuade people to invest in Europe…That will open the door for private investors and sovereign wealth funds from developing nations with budget surpluses, particularly China. “We’ll have to try to capture this flow, and this will be possible only if we show our willingness to invest” in those countries, too, she says. “It has to be a win-win game.”

And from an article in the WSJ about Craig Naylor, an American heading a Japanese company, Nippon Sheet Glass Co., a big glass manufacturer:

I decided …that if I was ever running a global business, I would create a multicultural, multiregional team that would have input into the strategy —not just for implementing the strategy, but for creating the strategy

Some people believe that the onus is on the Japanese to learn English, but in the meantime the responsibility is on the English-speaking people to make yourself understood. You need to meet them more than halfway. When I first came to Japan I tried the idioms and spent 15 minutes explaining why this idea doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.

Modesty? Creating a win-win strategy? Soliciting input into the strategy? Meeting people more than halfway? These are not buzzwords you often find promoted in the American business press, but I think they are sage advice for businesspeople seeking to build success across cultures.  And it’s too bad Svanberg didn’t take note of Craig Naylor’s advice about idioms before he talked to the press…

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1 Response to Soft Skills for Hard-Hitting International Execs?

  1. Pingback: Soft Skills for Hard-Hitting International Execs? | Global Sales … |

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