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International careers: how history has shaped your boss’s management style

Ideas about how a good manager should lead and conduct themselves vary between countries and regions.

International careers: how history has shaped your boss’s management style
Photos: Getty Images

As it turns out, what you consider to be a strong, effective leader in your country may have its roots in the distant past, with civilizations such as the empire-building Romans and seafaring Norse. The Local spoke with two experts at the prestigious ESCP Business School to find out about such differences – and learn about a 21st Century model for better leadership.

With six campuses in six major European cities, cultural diversity and awareness is crucial to the learning experience at ESCP.

Interested in studying management in a cross-cultural environment? Find out more about ESCP Business School and your chance to study in cities such as London, Paris, Madrid, Turin and Berlin

The cultural roots of consensus seeking versus dominant leaders

Should a manager use direct communication with employees or let people read between the lines? Should they be a bold decision-maker or carefully build consensus? If you think there’s a simple answer to these questions, think again. 

The answer is likely to depend on where you live and work. Some of the biggest differences are between more ‘horizontal’ societies (such as Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe) and cultures that prefer clear hierarchies (such as in Italy, Spain, and East Asia).

The globalized business world can be a maze to navigate for managers and employees alike. But national differences in terms of what we expect from managers have deep cultural roots that go back thousands of years, says Professor Justin Byrne. Based at the Madrid campus, he teaches intercultural skills on ESCP’s Bachelor in Management (BSc) and some of its Masters courses. 

Expectations of a more level workplace environment in Sweden, Denmark and Norway stem not just from the post-war love of social democracy but from “the Vikings being an egalitarian culture”. In countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, he says expectations of strong individual leadership can be “related back to the Romans”. And in China, Japan and South Korea, Confucius’s ideas about roles, rules and responsibilities, remain highly influential 2,500 years after his death.

Lead on your own or listen to all?

These complexities mean the very things that make someone a good manager in some cultures make them utterly unsuitable in others, says Professor Byrne, who has lived in the UK, Spain, Italy, the US and Ecuador. Such differences are explained by models such as the ‘power distance’ index element of Hofstede Insights and in American author Erin Meyer’s book ‘The Culture Map.’

“In more hierarchical countries, managers are expected to take decisions as leaders and have answers,” says Professor Byrne. “The difference in their status and authority is manifested in how they dress, how the office is set up, and how, when and what they communicate.

Want to study in three major European cities in three years? Find out more about ESCP and its Bachelor in Management (BSc)

“In less hierarchical societies, a leader is more of a facilitator. In Denmark, it’s great if the manager turns up on a bicycle as it shows they’re like everybody else. In China, if a manager doesn’t look the part, it’s bad not just for them but for everybody.”

Culture clashes are also common within Europe. “It wouldn’t work for a Danish manager to come to Spain and expect people to express their individual opinions and have them taken into account,” he says.

So, what of his students on the Bachelor in Management (BSc)? Professor Byrne says many have lived in several countries, speak three or four languages and start off “sceptical about national differences”.

“We show there’s clear evidence that they’re still relevant and that cultural values change rather slowly despite changes in behaviour and consumption patterns,” he says.

“We live in a globalized world where you can expect national cultures to be less homogeneous. That said, I’d maintain that there are still significant variations in national attitudes that are relevant in work and management.”

A cross-cultural journey: find out more about studying at ESCP and download the brochure for its Bachelor in Management (BSc)

Total leadership: finding ‘four-way wins’ 

Wherever your notion of a good boss originated, following a fast-paced career can leave you struggling to reconcile your ambitions at work with your personal life. It may seem almost impossible to achieve success and still be the person you want to be in your working and home life.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Professor Carlos Casanueva. As well as teaching finance at ESCP, he has been working to develop the practice of ‘Total Leadership’ in Europe since 2008.

While we increasingly hear talk of the need for work-life balance, Professor Casanueva says Total Leadership has a different perspective. “It’s not about equilibrium,” he says. “It’s about synergies and harmony. If you do the right thing, you grow in all areas.” 

Professor Carlos Casanueva

He says the most important concept in the philosophy is four-way wins. This refers to acting in a way that enables you to achieve wins at work, at home, in your community, and for yourself. Three key principles must be followed: be real (acting with authenticity about what’s important); be whole (acting with integrity by respecting the whole person); and be innovative (acting with creativity by continually experimenting).

“Some people destroy their personal life because it makes sense for their professional life,” says Professor Casanueva. “I’ve been very clear since I was 18 that my personal life was more important than my professional life. I always wanted to be ethical. Plenty of people were the opposite and were very successful.”

But now he says Total Leadership principles are warmly welcomed in diverse cultures, as well as by students on the ESCP Bachelor in Management whenever he mentions the concept. “Human beings are very similar in the wiring of our brains,” he says. 

Training for cross-cultural careers

While that wiring unites people everywhere, our cultural expectations do clearly differ. If you’re pursuing or planning an international career, you’ll face considerable challenges as a result. 

But studying at an institution that promotes cross-cultural understanding could prove hugely helpful – and ESCP stands out in this regard. Students on the Bachelor in Management (BSc) can study in three cities in three years, from Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid and Turin. “If ESCP has a USP, it’s the cross-cultural dimension,” says Professor Byrne. 

Find out more about studying at ESCP Business School – and download the brochure for the Bachelor in Management (BSc).

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BUSINESS

Who was the Austrian billionaire behind Red Bull?

Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, who died Saturday at the age of 78, built a sports and media empire around his Red Bull energy drink, ensuring its global fame and wide-reaching legacy.

Who was the Austrian billionaire behind Red Bull?

Mateschitz achieved huge wealth by taking a drink already popular in Asia and adapting it to Western tastes.

He was named as the Alpine EU member’s richest person by Forbes in 2022 with an estimated net worth of $27.4 billion.

From cans to riches

Born in 1944 in the southern province of Styria into a family of teachers, “Didi” studied economics in Vienna.

After his studies, he started out as a salesman marketing detergents for Unilever, but quickly achieved success in business and later became the marketing director of German cosmetics company Blendax.

His legacy — the Red Bull energy drink — was born during one of his many business trips when at a luxury hotel bar in Hong Kong he was served a sweet beverage common in Asia.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: What are the most attractive employers for students in Austria?

Immediately fond of it — and with the drink reportedly helping him overcome his jet lag — he decided to partner up with the beverage’s developer Thai businessman Chaleo Yoovidhya.

The two men founded Red Bull in 1984. Based in Fuschl-am-See in a verdant Alpine valley, the brand slowly but surely conquered Western taste buds.

Today Red Bull employs more than 13,000 people in 172 countries and sells nearly 10 billion cans a year, creating a turnover of around 8 billion euros.

As a marketing whizz, Mateschitz was obsessed with his brand’s image, massively investing into it and seeking to boost it by sponsoring extreme sports, driving its commercial success.

Red Bull did not leave any opportunities unexploited: Besides forays into music and aviation, the company sponsors athletes, including Austrian record-setting skydiver Felix Baumgartner, and has gradually penetrated the world of mainstream sports. Besides its involvement in Formula One, Red Bull bought the football club of the Austrian city of Salzburg in 2005 followed by Leipzig in Germany, which has become one of the Bundesliga’s leading clubs thanks to the company’s investment.

READ ALSO: Housing, food and nightlife: What life in an Austrian village is really like

In his drive to create the event, but control the message, Mateschitz also founded Media House in Austria in 2007, providing various digital entertainment and thousands of hours of images to interested broadcasters.

He used his riches to buy the paradise island of Laucala in Fiji besides several other properties in his native Austria.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on June 30, 2018 Red Bull team owner, Dietrich Mateschitz, arrives to the paddock ahead of the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix in Spielberg, central Austria. (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP)

Behind the scenes

For all its public events, Red Bull itself has blocked scrutiny.

In 2021, Austrian magazine Dossier published an investigation on Red Bull lobbying that aimed to dampen down criticism that energy drinks when consumed too much can be harmful to health.

Very little is also known about Mateschitz’s private life.

Known for dressing casually — preferably in jeans and sunglasses — he hardly ever gave interviews to journalists and managed to keep a low profile throughout his life.

In a rare interview with the Austrian daily Kleine Zeitung in 2017, the billionaire criticised the lack of control over migration in Europe, sparking a backlash from those advocating open borders.

READ ALSO: Vienna vs Graz: Which city is better for foreign residents?

His media, notably his Servus TV, has also been criticised for biased reporting, particularly for trivialising the Covid-19 pandemic.

He never married. His son, Mark Mateschitz, was born in 1993.

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