06 April 2008

Beer Beer, Smurfit Beer

A tall tale of cultural storytelling, the value of drink for business, and why MBAs are particularly useless, with apologies to Father Abraham.

I was out late on Friday night and spent most of yesterday recovering. I am not as young as I used to be, and long gone are the days when I can head straight from work to the pub and arrive home after closing time, and expect to achieve anything of substance the following day. It's been a while since I went out with my fellow department heads, and every time we do so we all agree that it's something we need to far more of, and yet never seem to get around to. This is probably reflective of the fact that to a person we all seem to put "Improve Time Management skills" as an Area for Development(tm) in every self-assessment we've ever done.

The other observation that we always seem to make is that we swear at the start of the evening that we're not going to talk about work, and then we proceed to spend the next six hours moaning and complaining about all the ills of our working world. While this is obviously not a scenario unique to us, what is interesting is that fact that as the senior leadership team of our business we (theoretically) are the ones in a position to actually right all the wrongs that we are complaining so bitterly about. I suppose if we managed to fix Problem A above (Time Management), it would lead to improvements in Problem B (stuff doesn't work the way we want it to).

Many of the challenges we face revolve around areas that are actually outside of our control. As in any international branch of a multinational there is always a struggle between functional and regional autonomy and control; what gets decided at the Head Office and has to be consistent across all locations, versus what is developed uniquely in country to reflect local culture, challenges and opportunities. In fact most of the challenges any group in our situation faces boil down to communications issues arising from different cultural approaches to business. Over the course of the evening two situations were discussed at length, and as they were reflective of ideas that I have had for some years, I thought it worth taking some time to write about them.

The first revolves around the role of storytelling in Irish communication. When I first started in my current role I remember a conversation I had with a fellow manager on how she adapted to Irish culture. A Scandinavian by birth and upbringing, she had spent most of her college days and early working career in the US. She said that Irish people take ages to get to the point, and start each conversation with a story. She had been used to a US environment where a meeting had almost no small talk, and discussions took place in bullet points. Irish business meetings are almost indistinguishable from small talk, and a rambling story is used to illustrate every point.

The more I thought about it the more I agreed with her, and would go a stage further. Not only is storytelling an integral part of our communication style, we tell stories that almost always portray us in a bad light. Our Friday night pub talk moved from one tale of "come here to me, you'll never believe what an eejit I was last week..." to another, each designed to outdo the previous with tales of humiliation and woe. While business meetings might not be so colourful, they often follow a similar pattern either with friends or strangers, and we tell such tales of self-deprecation to put everyone else around us at ease. We are consummate ice-breakers.

In contrast I would describe American storytelling, where is happens, as epic and self-aggrandising. In general when an American illustrates their point with a story or example, it is carefully chosen to portray them in the best light, to let them strike an oratorical heroic pose, and leave the audience in no doubt as to who is the best. Particularly in a business context it is unthinkable for an American to show any weakness, or holes in their armour.

Ironically being self-deprecating for an Irish person is not about admitting weakness. Beyond initial icebreaking it is also about acknowledging flaws publicly and showing no fear in the face of those flaws. Our storytelling is the linguistic equivalent of the Scottish Highland Regiment marching over the Khyber Pass, kilts a-flowing in the wind with their collective manhood on show to the world, proudly proclaiming to all that you though you may see our innermost secrets, we still have no fear of you.

A second major, and possibly more controversial, difference between Irish and American business cultures, revolves around the perceived value of an MBA.

As with most organisations that scale we reached a point where we needed to balance the strong internal product, process and customer knowledge that had been amassed by managers that had been internally promoted with the real-world experience of different industries and environments of external candidates. We needed to bring in new dna to our corporate gene pool, and so in addition to hiring seasoned veterans we also took a chance on a number of newly-minted MBAs. In the US they went through a similar process, though hired many more MBAs than we ultimately did, and by and large their hires had far less pre-MBA experience than ours. They placed far more value on the MBA degree itself, whereas we looked for just as much real-world experience in our candidates as in non-MBA hires; in Europe the MBA was a 'nice to have', but it was not the reason we were making an offer.

Within US and Global business culture, the MBA is an increasingly obvious form of capitalist elitism. I spent a number of months travelling around European Business schools (INSEAD, LBS, Bocconi, etc, as well as Smurfit and Trinity here in Ireland) and met with well over a hundred MBA students from across the world. One interview question that I always asked them was to explain the most valuable thing they have gained through doing their MBA. Almost none identified the actual course work itself, or the lecturers they were taught by, as the true value of the program; for most it was the interaction with other people on the course, exposure to different business cultures and perspectives from different industries, and the contacts that they made that will carry on with them over the coming years. essentially the value of the MBA was the business network that it created for them, the academics were irrelevant. In effect the MBA is a Businessperson's Club, and prospective students choose their college based on the membership of that club and what that network can do for them, rather than on the value of the academics within that institution.

And here in lies my problem with the MBA. The cost of an MBA is prohibitively high for most people, so you have two options if you want to join the club, you either come from a privileged background, or you go into massive amounts of debt. Either way you are expecting to come out of it with a highly paid job, so in essence you are buying your way into an elite business position. This is the 21st century equivalent of a Napolionic gentleman buying himself a commission as an officer. Talent has nothing to do with it, its purely a matter of money.

Secondly MBAs are like Tribbles, they replicate at an alarming rate with disastrous consequences for your operational structures. To justify the expense of their MBA, a graduate places more value on the MBA in and of itself, and so their hiring practices tend to favour others with MBAs. They reason that as they are an amazing leader partly because of the MBA, when an organisation needs more amazing leaders they naturally look for more MBAs exactly like themselves. This then leads to an organisational leadership with little real world experience, all conditioned to approach a problem in the exact same way, and all with the exact same blindspot.

Diversity of thought and action is essential for a business to function and develop. I'm not alone in this view, and was comforted to find Henry Mintzberg's 'Managers Not MBAs', wherein he argues that:
"The MBA trains the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences...using the classroom to help develop people already practising management is a fine idea, but pretending to create managers out of people that have never managed is a sham"
In the Crimean War the prevalence of officers with bought commissions led to one of the most disastrous military campaigns, immortalised in 'The Charge of the Light Brigade", and I believe that the increasing emphasis of inexperienced MBAs in the current US-led business environment could lead to something equally disastrous for many companies.

Aside from these two cultural differences, the true lessons of my Friday night were that all problems can be solved in the pub, and to always write your business plans on the back of a handy beer mat.

That way you can still remember what your great ideas were the next morning.

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