Management: Performing in style

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Being flexible, sensitive and adaptable to different styles and cultures, coupled with a working knowledge of at least one other language, are the often quoted desired attributes for managing internationally.

However, the Cranfield European Top Teams survey provides different insights. In-depth analysis of senior executives from more than 2,500 companies representing the UK, Ireland, France, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Spain and Austria clearly highlights no common European management style but, instead, four distinct styles of strategic management, three of which bear little relationship to ethnic origin or national culture. Fluency in one or more foreign languages is, in itself, insufficient.

Interestingly, the styles do not just refer to differences in conducting managerial work. They also touch on how business success can be achieved or business damage incurred, if such styles are well practised or mishandled.

In essence, getting the styles wrong does not just mean calming down over-sensitive foreigners, but more likely lost business, rising costs and/or the demotivation and resignation of key personnel.

Directive leadership: Spanish, British, Finnish and half of the Irish companies strongly displayed the characteristic of strong, bordering on autocratic, leadership. Qualities of determination and a passionate belief in the vision being pursued, coupled with a people orientation, characterise how strategies are formed and initiatives implemented.

The dialogue within such teams is likely to be varied. Straying off the agenda if a topic of interest is being discussed, is acceptable. Gaining 'credits' requires displays of 'being able to take it' or at least not being a 'wimp', especially when being cross-examined for achieving poor business performance.

For example, the managing director of a subsidiary was under scrutiny at an operations committee meeting by the chairman for not meeting business targets. He had to present his case and justify his performance while standing for three hours. The chairman told the other team that no one else would have to 'stand up for themselves' as their results indicated they had already done so throughout the year.

Consensus-driven: The senior managers of Swedish and the remaining Irish companies would go to considerable lengths to ensure clarity of communication and shared understanding of policies and operational concerns through considerable discussion and attention to detail.

Talking is not enough. The road to agreement and positive displays of commitment requires tending to what some might consider minutiae, as people know exactly what is happening and where they stand. It is crucial to get issues on the agenda as deviation from the agreed course would not easily be tolerated.

Striving for the common goal: Emphasis on professional skills coupled with a strong leadership drive and a discipline for effective follow- through helps clearly identified ends to be met. Not surprisingly, the top management of German and Austrian companies fall into this category. Surprising, however, is the degree of friction and poor personal relationships exhibited. Blaming and stereotyping are all too common. The goals and the system take precedence over individuality and sentiment.

Managing as elites: The French stood out - as the only ones who as a nation display a particular management style. Surprisingly, no other European companies showed similar characteristics.

The predominant influence of the Grandes Ecoles is obvious, as displays of autocracy, drive, debating qualities and considerable intellectual sophistication are linked to personal styles of being distant and communicating on a 'need to know' basis. Individualism is coupled with intellectualism. Attention to detail and compliance with systems and procedures is evident. The discipline for 'follow through', however, is lacking.

Imagine the dons of an Oxbridge college being asked to run a multinational company. Common room intellectualism would merge into boardroom behaviour, with each of the team expressing profound views, and critical comments being addressed as theory, not executive practice.

The resentment of even French subordinates lingers only just below the surface. For the non-French, the reaction is bewilderment. However, the depth of analysis and sophistication of dialogue among the elites is outstanding.

Many Francophiles have expressed the view that if only the best of the French and the British could be combined, the pairing would be unbeatable. Evidence now strongly supports such sentiments.

It also suggests that getting it wrong in a senior international management team means the business suffers.

Mishandling relationships where there is autocratic leadership may disrupt team relationships and lead to demotivation. The corrective action is to pep people up so that they want to perform better.

Upset people in an elitist culture like the French and a misunderstanding of business requirements may occur. The sales and marketing needs of different markets may not be understood. And the market data fed into the business plans that strongly determine future cost and revenue targets may be wrong.

A French multinational operating in Eastern Europe set a modest country revenue target of Fr550m. What was achieved in that financial year was Fr46m. Although there was 'hell to pay', the same database was used in forming the next year's revenue targets, because it was felt the shortfall was due to local incompetence.

The implications of such findings for mergers, acquisitions and the running of multinationals, are fundamental. Similar symptoms in one context could mean morale concerns and in another a misunderstanding of market circumstances. Getting the styles right is a serious business.

The author is professor of management development and head of the human resources team at Cranfield School of Management.