01 May 2009


British jobs for British people? Not anymore. In big business, as in football, it’s no longer where you’re from but what you’ve done that counts. And international experience is a major advantage.

Remember Dr Jozef Venglos? Unless you’re an Aston Villa fan, probably not. Yet the good doctor had an extremely distinguished career. Not only did he play for and manage what was then Czechoslovakia, taking it to the 1990 World Cup finals; he also changed the face of English football.

It was his move, in that same year, to Aston Villa that broke ground. When he accepted the job as Graham Taylor’s successor, he became the first foreign manager to take charge of an English football team.

It was the beginning of the globalisation of the English game. Within ten years of Venglos’ appointment, a French manager had led Arsenal to a domestic league title; a Dutchman had triumphed in The FA Cup as coach of Chelsea; and a Swede was ready to take over as England manager. Followed by an Italian.

It reflected a desire by those in charge to look overseas for different skills and international experience in an effort to improve their business performance.

One of those to take advantage of the trend, as a player and manager, is West Ham’s Gianfranco Zola. He says the experience of playing in England certainly influenced his decision to accept the east London post. “I remember when I first came to play in England, I thought it was fantastic that football was so engrained in the culture; how it was lived and breathed,” says Zola. “I saw that it would be a great opportunity to manage here.”

He also realised that to do so would be good for his development as a coach. “Managing abroad can give you an edge, as you experience different styles of play,” he says. “The wider your knowledge of these things, the easier it is to improve your abilities as a manager.”

Things beyond the immediate work environment can also make a positive difference, says Zola: “Experience abroad is important not just as a manager but as an individual. You learn another language, culture and mentality. As a wise man once said, ‘When your brain expands it never goes back to its previous position’.”

Global boardroom

As in the football world, so in the boardroom. At the time that Venglos was making waves on the English football scene, the leading British companies in the City were populated largely by British chief executives. Homegrown talent was seen as an advantage.

However, as economies have become progressively more international, businesses the world over have widened their horizons to recruit the best people.

“Globalisation has broadened the search map,” says Dr Elisabeth Marx, a partner at recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles. “Whereas, once, you would only look in your own country, you now search globally, looking for the very best person to do the job.”

The international nature of business today and the exchange of talent around the globe means experience of work abroad is now a major selling point for a manager. “The skillset that comes with that has become a business requirement,” says Professor Monika Hamori of the Instituto de Empresa Business School, Madrid.

“People who have managed staff overseas are seen as having more sophisticated management skills, and the ability to deal with higher levels of complexity and problem solving.

Research by Hamori examined the career paths of the top CEOs in Fortune 100 companies over a 21-year period from 1980. It found that international experience was a rising priority when making senior appointments. And this experience was in growing supply. According to the study, in 1993 only seven per cent of CEOs in the US had lived or worked in another country. By 2008, that figure had grown by over 500 per cent to 44 per cent.

A study by Marx found the same to be true this side of the Atlantic. By 2005, nearly eight out of ten CEOs in the UK had spent time working abroad, double that of nine years earlier.

Marx, herself a German working in central London, says globalisation in the boardroom has been especially successful in the UK. In particular, the reputation of companies here as operating a meritocratic system – rewarding the best performers – has drawn talent to senior positions.

At the end of 2008, just half of the top 16 companies on the stock market were run by British CEOs. Some of the biggest corporate names in the country have, like the major football clubs, proved adept in looking overseas to fill senior management positions. Take Dutchman Jeroen van de Veer at Shell or Marius Kloppers, the South African CEO at BHP Billiton. Although homegrown Andrew Witty now heads up GlaxoSmithKline, the company was led for several years by Jean-Pierre Garnier. The Frenchman was one of the bosses to lead the invasion of British boardrooms from Europe.

Elsewhere, Tom Albanese, an American, heads up Rio Tinto and Frenchman Patrick Cescau is CEO of Unilever, working under Swedish chairman Michael Treschow. Unilever, in particular, seems to positively encourage multinational expertise. Its top 100 managers hail from more than 20 different nations.

A spokesman for Unilever said, “We have operations in more than 100 countries, so it is hugely helpful to us to have a board and management that reflects the diversity of our customers.”

The next round of talent may originate from the east – Europe and Asia. There is already an Indian CEO at Vodafone, and some predict it’s from that region that the next wave of global CEOs will come.

Exchange of power

The moves have not all been one way, of course. Among the many British CEOs to have taken up positions abroad is David Pyott at Allergan. Pyott has successfully transformed Allergan from being an eyecare company to the producer of one of the great cosmetic discoveries of the modern age: botox. Such has been his success that he was named one of the most influential British businessmen in the US. Possibly an even greater honour, Pyott has earned the nickname Mr Botox.

The same has been true in football. While there were British managers who worked abroad before the globalisation of the game, they were rare. Among them were Barry Hughes, who went to Holland in the 1970s, Roy Hodgson, who managed Inter Milan from 1995 to 1997, and Bobby Houghton, who is lauded with transforming the Swedish game in the 1980s and 90s and now leads the Indian side.

In recent years, managers have increasingly recognised the invaluable experience they can gain by managing a foreign team. Among them are Steve McClaren, Chris Coleman, Peter Withe and, more recently, Peter Reid, currently manager of the Thai national team.

“When you manage in England you have numerous responsibilities, from dealing with transfers and facing the media to the commercial and marketing aspects of running a club,” says Reid. “My job here in Thailand, however, is purely about coaching the team. I saw it as a great opportunity to get back on the training field – back to basics, if you like.”

The experience has, so far, been very positive and has enabled Reid to expand his range of management skills. “Not only is this international football, but it’s a different style of football and a different way of life. I was able to start with a blank page and view it with a fresh eye,” says Reid.

“In Thailand, for example, it is important not to be seen to lose face, so you have to handle things differently. I know which players can handle a firm approach and which to put my arm around.”

Reid believes that his experience of working abroad will hold him in good stead should he return to England. “As a manager, you are always learning. Not even the greatest managers have all the answers,” he says. “But the experience of working with different people in a different culture and making contacts is an invaluable string to your bow. It can only make you a better person and a better manager.”

Dark clouds?

The current economic crisis could shake the tree when it comes to globalisation and so have a knock-on effect on the flow of talent around the world. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 11th Annual Global CEO Survey, chief executives believe the biggest risk to their business is the global recession. While this might be unsurprising, it is the first time since the survey began that an economic downturn has taken the top spot, above threats such as over-regulation and terrorism.

One victim of the recession could be the desire of companies to recruit from abroad. The PwC survey found that when CEOs were given a list of the skills they considered critical to their organisation, they ranked global experience last.

The need to recruit from overseas, indeed to recruit at all, may also decrease, as profits contract and the number of senior management roles available falls.

Protectionism at the lower levels – which has seen calls for jobs to be allocated to local workers in several countries in Europe – could be matched by similar demands in the boardroom. If that happens, it could slow the march towards the globalisation of the CEO.

Others, including Marx, argue that the recession could turn out to be a good thing for globalisation. For one thing, as the global economy contracts and there are fewer job openings at home, senior executives are likely to widen their search even further.

And, Marx points out, as competition becomes ever fiercer, it will become even more important to appoint the very best talent available – regardless of where they are from. Big business will need senior management with an edge – something that international experience can undoubtedly provide.