The language of leadership is not always English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Sep 10 17:48:31 UTC 2004

Forwarded from Swissinfo,  URL of this story

The language of leadership is not always English

swissinfo   September 9, 2004 5:45 PM

Over the past few years, Swiss firms have flirted with high-profile
executives who were brought in to turn around their flagging fortunes
during the economic downturn. North American and British executives were
given top posts at the national airline, Swiss, the two big banks Credit
Suisse and UBS, as well as Zurich Financial Services, Lonza and SGS.

But most have been replaced recently by low-key Swiss executives or
managers from neighbouring Germany, raising the question whether the
English-speaking bosses were able to adapt to Swiss management culture.
swissinfo: Why were Anglo-Saxon executives suddenly in vogue and why did
they fall so quickly out of favour?

Fritz Fahrni: I dont think its a question of fashion. We have to realise
that for international companies, North America represents at least half
of the worldwide market and thats a very obvious reason why
English-speaking managers have a certain advantage. There are times when
there are lots of changes at the top, and times when there are fewer.
Right now, its probably the latter, which may have something to do with
the upswing of the economy. But there will be more again when the economy

swissinfo: During the bubble years, it seemed the only thing that mattered
was increasing value for shareholders. Has that changed?  F.F.: Without
shareholders you cant run a company. But without success with customers
you cant satisfy the requirements of the shareholders. You have to have
success with your products or services, so you can generate enough profit
to ensure a return on equity, and you have to rely on a workforce which
generates new ideas and can develop innovative products.

The combination of abilities  leader, manager and communicator  makes for
a real and successful entrepreneur.

swissinfo: What qualities does one need to run a Swiss company
successfully insofar as these may be different from those needed to run a
company in North America, or a business in the EU?

F.F.: A manager needs to have the ability to ensure a high degree of
satisfaction with customers, co-workers and shareholders. He has to be
able to formulate and stick to long-term goals visions - to motivate his
people, his customers and shareholders. You have to be a doer and an
organiser a true manager - who can allocate resources, set up structures,
who is able to run things on a day-to-day basis. You also have to
communicate your intentions and your products to the customers, to your
workforce and to the shareholders.

This combination of abilities  leader, manager and communicator  makes for
a real and successful entrepreneur. One specific requirement in
Switzerland is that you have to cross borders  in language, politics and
culture  almost from the very first day whereas the US market is
sufficient for many companies during their whole existence.

swissinfo: Is there such a thing as a Swiss or European management
culture, and if so, how does it differ from Britain or the US?

F.F.: There are cultural differences between countries and they are
reflected in the different management systems in these nations. On the
other hand, most large companies are international, usually global.
Therefore the requirements are global but you still have to act locally.
There are cultural differences such as language. German has a reach of
about 100 million people, English about one billion. There is no specific
Swiss way of managing a company, but generally US managers tend to be
better communicators in their broad language area while Swiss tend to be
better organisers and more multilingual.

swissinfo: What are the benefits of running a Swiss company?

F.F.: Its the entrepreneurial challenge from a small base, making use of
the potential and taking advantage of the conditions which are somewhat
special for Swiss companies, for example, building international networks
into different areas. This is true for banks as well as companies like
Novartis, Nestl or ABB, but also for smaller ones such as Schindler,
Hilti, Serono, Phonak, etc.

swissinfo: Executives worry about their market value as much as investors
do the value of stock. Is running a top Swiss multinational company like
UBS or Nestl as prestigious as heading Citicorp or Kraft Foods?

F.F.: Yes. I think prestige or the value of the company depends a lot on
its size. If you take rankings of best-known companies or best-run
companies, one of the dominating factors is the size of the company, and
its branding.

The latter is the case for Nestl. Its large and has a well-known brand.
Its in the food business so everybody can identify with its products.

On the other hand, General Electric, which is a much larger company, sells
either investment goods or abstract financial products. Therefore its
degree of public recognition is substantially lower, even though in
certain aspects it may be a much better company.

This kind of public awareness is then automatically reflected on the CEO
because the media usually wants to identify a company with a person and
vice-versa. What matters is the value creation for customers, co-workers
and shareholders. And this is teamwork. The CEO happens to be the captain
and the coach.

swissinfo, interview Dale Bechtel


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