The outsider's view of British management style is provided by that relatively rare breed, the Continental manager in the UK. By Nigel Cope.
Serge Ravailhe, an ebullient Frenchman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Alf Garnett, remembers the first meeting he chaired in Britain. It was in 1991 and he had just moved from Toronto to London to take up the post of managing director of Novotel, the mid-market chain owned by French group Accor. "The meeting was in the afternoon, and it got to about 3.30 and everyone stared looking at their watches," he recalls. "I didn't know what was going on. I turned to my secretary (who was English) and she said, 'I think they want to break for tea.' I couldn't understand it. In France we just carry on until we have finished. Now we always break for tea."
Dieter Schultz, a German manager with IBM in Portsmouth, found he had to be a little tougher. Schultz took up his post as product manager in 1986 and found that most lunchtimes and particularly on Fridays the vast majority of his management team decamped to the pub. "I stopped that right away," he says. "Now they are not allowed off the premises. It didn't make me very popular at the time but it is not good for efficiency. There is no way we would do that in Germany. No way."
Such stories are common parlance among Britain's select band of Euro-managers - a core of multilingual, multi-cultural executives now working in the UK. Some are working for multi-national corporations like IBM and ICI, others have moved from their native country to the British subsidiary of a home-grown giant - an Italian working for Fiat UK, a German working for BMW in Bracknell, for example. Others have come simply as a career move, taking advantage of the greater worker freedom offered by the EC.
But though they may be here for different reasons they are all in a unique position to offer an outsider's view of British management style. As British companies gradually become more European, with increased sales operations, joint ventures and acquisitions on the other side of the Channel, a better understanding of how Continental managers operate and how they perceive us, could prove instructive. The first point to make is that Euro-managers in Britain are still a relatively rare breed. Headhunters moving in these high octane circles report an increase in interest but not necessarily in appointments. "We are increasingly being asked to do pan-European searches because clients are now seeing the benefits of having someone who has actually lived in a country rather than someone who has just been there on a day trip," says Anthony Bampfylde, a director of executive search consultancy Saxton Bampfylde. "But companies often seem to prefer he home-grown candidate." Ann Lawrence of Korn Ferry agrees that the numbers are small. "It's fly fishing rather than trawler stuff," she says. Andrew Kelly, a consultant with headhunters Jameson Scott, feels one reason for the slow progress in the UK is that British companies still lack real commitment to Europe. "Very few companies have been able to reach the point, where, like some American companies, they have truly significant European operations," he says. "And until they do that they will not be able to attract the high quality management."
Kelly says the bulk of his clients are US multinationals which are looking for Euro-managers to staff their European headquarters on the Continent or their UK subsidiaries. He says that those Euro-executives, who might consider working for UK companies are currently looking askance at British companies' commitment to expand in Europe. "They say, 'Is this British company really going to do this?'"
Even so, things appear to be changing. One good sign is that, at board level at least, some of Britain's biggest companies appear to be becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. Flick through the annual report of a FT-SE 100 company these days and the chances are you will find some distinctly non-British sounding names: Franz Humer at Glaxo, Hilmar Kopper at Pilkington, Ellen Schneider-Lenne at ICI, Bernard Arnauld at Guinness. BOC, the £2.8-billion conglomerate looks like as good a model as any for a UK board of the future. The chairman of the board (Richard Giordano) is American, its chief executive (Patrick Rich) is French but speaks five other languages. Only two of the five other executive directors are British.
There is currently no specific pattern which a Euro-manager might follow. Multinationals like ICI, IBM and Guinness, foster global, or international managers rather than merely Euro-managers, moving people around the globe as a matter of course to build up experience. "We need people who can operate in a variety of different cultures," says Guinness management development director John Dunne. Banks like Schroders and Hambros, which have reasonable numbers of French and Italian managers, tend to recruit them straight from business school and university.
But while Britain's Euro-managers may follow a variety of routes on their way to UK plc, their observations reveal many common threads. One is a very definite view of the decision-making process. Alan Peeters, a 43 year old Belgian, remarks on the difference. Peeters was headhunted by Guinness two years ago to join Guinness Brewing Worldwide. "Decision-making is much faster in the UK," he says. There is very little emotion. Only facts and figures are discussed. On the Continent more energy is lost in trying to defend our own views. The Italian vote goes the same way. Tiziano Lazzeretti, the 32-year-old administration manager with Fiat UK, says: "It is more structured here which saves time. In Italy it is more chaotic. People stick to the agenda here." Another Italian, Angello Dell' Aquila, 60, MD of London-based Pignone Engineering, agrees. "The cool approach of the British can be an advantage. Sometimes our emotions create a problem". Frenchman Yves-noel Derenne has noticed differences in the role of the meeting. As human resources director of Eurotunnel, the Anglo-French Channel Tunnel consortium, Derenne will be recruiting over 2,000 people over the next year. "Decisions are made quickly in the UK," he says. "But they are also made in a different way. British managers leave a meeting with a clear decision whereas in France is not so clear-cut. The meeting is just one part of the process. Also, when a Frenchman says 'no' it might mean just the opening of negotiations. But when in the UK when someone says no, they mean it."
There is some disagreement over the style of decision making, however. Guy Reinaud, a Frenchman who joined ICI agrochemicals five years ago and is currently business director says: "Structures are looser in the UK and there is more freedom to act. It is less formal and there are a lot of collective decisions." Gotfried Bruder of Commerz bank jumps the other way. He joined the London branch 20 years ago because "London is the bankers Mecca whereas Frankfurt is Medina at best", he says: "In Germany we are far more used to a collegiate, committee style of decision-making. Our style is more immune to your 'star culture'. The British style, looser with much more responsibility for the top managers lends itself to people running away with things." IBM's Dieter Schultz sides with the Italians. "British managers often just stick to procedures. They seem to have one for everything they do. It's like working with a cook book."
Another criticism is the British propensity for meetings. As Frenchman Claude de Jouvencel, a manager with United Distillers puts it: "I'm fighting against meetings mania here." But the chief criticisms of management in Britain are not levelled so much at the managers themselves but the system they operate within and the cultural and educational background they carry with them.
One common complaint was against the British preoccupation with profits, which the Continentals felt led to short-termism. Peeters says: "My first impression on coming here was that profit seemed to be the most important thing". De Jouvencel echoes this: "In France there is less pressure on the bottom line."
Many of the Euro-managers have also noticed that the breadth and scope of abilities of the British managers are slightly different to what they are accustomed to. Says Peeters: "I'm working in a world of experts. We don't have enough generalists, everyone is a specialist. I feel I can provide a different dimension. I think it is due to the education system. At 16 people are making choices that will affect their careers." Ravailhe goes further saying that when he first moved to Britain he found that the hotels being run by French mangers were more profitable than those run by the British but "now they are improving".
Reinaud is also critical of the British education system. "In France all the secretaries, or personal assistants as we call them would have degrees. You wouldn't consider recruiting one without a degree. So, that means you can delegate much more to the secretaries in France. in the UK, you cannot do that so much."
One thing the French and the Germans all agree on is that the great British class system is still alive and well. "It is still very evident," says Bruder of Commerzbank. "People will disavow the class system and acknowledge that it is a hindrance to progress and then two weeks later you will overhear them discussing a colleague and saying: 'Well, he is not very well-spoken, is he?' The 1980s did something to change these attitudes but they are still there." The class gaps translate into big gulfs in the pay league too, says Schultz. "In Germany I might earn three times more than my secretary. Here it is five times."
Peeters sees obsession with status rather than class. "A director is God here. They respect him and think that he is right even when he is wrong. It's quite difficult to have an open conversation. People will not say 'I disagree'." But it is not just the major issues the Continentals notice, they are struck by minor points too. "People do not laugh as much here," says Carlos Fuentes, a manager with the London-based European office of advertising agency J Walter Thompson. "In Spain we have more fun." Fuentes is one of the few in this country who seems to lead the Euro-manager life to the full. He spends his weeks in London where he lives in an apartment in Mayfair and then travels back to Madrid every weekend to be with his family. He also used to have two BMWs, one right-hand drive for London and a left-hand drive version for the weekends in Madrid. "But I don't bother with a car in London any more because I live so close to work." Fuentes also thinks the British manager lacks a bit of sartorial flair. "It's a bit boring," he says. "The only thing with any colour seems to be the tie." Peeters, obviously something of a snappy dresser, has found this too. "At a conference I can spot the Brits," he said. "I'm not exhibitionist but I have a lot of shoes I cannot wear here. Everyone just wears black." Peeters has found the same problem with shirts. "I have light yellow, pink and green ones but here it is just white or blue."
But the comments are not all negative. Ravailhe admires the poise and professionalism of the British manager and would like his French managers to learn from it. Yves-Noel Derenne likes the respect the British appear to have for each other. "The team really means something here." Lazzeretti likes the punctuality. "Everyone is here at 9 am and they just get on with their jobs." Indeed they are at pains to point out that their comments are intended to be constructive. Without exception, they like it here. Schultz says that he would much prefer to work here than in Germany. "It's better fun socially. The relationship is friendlier," he says. He has even been converted to English beer and is partial to a pint of Wadworth's 6X from Devizes (though not at lunchtime of course).
But, good times aside, the fact remains that there are still precious few Euro-managers currently working in Britain, something many of the managers themselves feel must change. Says de Jouvencel: "It is critical for international companies to appoint foreigners to the top jobs if your management is to feel properly incentivised."
In 1989 Saxton Bampfylde published a report entitled, "The search for the Euro-executive", but three years on, has since found the search a little harder than it anticipated. Anthony Bampfylde feels that British companies must expand their horizons. "It's a business imperative," he says. "But I think given another five years there will be more. There are signs of a younger generation in their middle to late 20s who are more keen on acquiring this kind of experience, so this should help."