Success: High Flying Kiwis – Why our managers succeed overseas

The image of New Zealand as clean, green, conflictfree zone does more than help attract tourists – it has spin-offs for Kiwi corporate high-fliers working internationally.

Geographic isolation means that history hasn’t lumbered us with heritage of hate or bitterness from ancient conflicts or raw, new wars. And that, says Richard Mathews, is distinct advantage when it comes to building cross-cultural business relations.

“If you look at other parts of the world, neighbouring countries have invaded one another and done some pretty unpleasant things – and that baggage remains, even in business. In some countries and cultures, people don’t want to be managed by certain other nationalities.”

Mathews should know. As senior vice president for international software solutions company JD Edwards, he’s spent the past couple of years visiting one or two other countries week from his base in the United Kingdom.

Thirty-eight-year-old Mathews reckons Kiwis culture hop with greater ease because they can’t be classed either in global or local pecking orders. “People don’t have any particular expectations when they meet you. So you can start with clean slate and it’s matter of what you can make of that in terms of your own relationship or leadership skills.”

If anything, there’s the impression that someone from New Zealand may be tad naive and need little extra coaching in the ways of the world. That, grins Mathews, is very helpful. “You sometimes get the impression people think we’re still in grass skirts… but it does give you an advantage at first meeting because it means you can ask lots of questions without risk of [giving] offence.”

Finding out as much as he can about other cultures is all part of fairly steep learning curve for Dunedin boy who started his career in accountancy at the local branch of Deloitte Touche. But he wears his present status as an international management high flier with disarming modesty. “I sometimes look at my [business] card and think yeah, that panned out pretty well.”

Mathews didn’t exactly shine academically while at school in Brighton, and then amazed himself by achieving degrees both in science and commerce from Otago University. “Really, my education has been more about getting on with and understanding people than about great marks.”

Those people skills are what he now applies to picking the best leaders for JD Edwards company branches in more than 100 different countries. “The things you look for in terms of people’s abilities to run companies and manage others don’t vary much but it’s sometimes hard to get through those language and cultural barriers to understand them.”

Experience has whittled the kinds of questions he asks about particular country down to three primary topics – its political system, its tax structure and its history.

“Once you’ve got those three things sorted, you start to get feel for the country, what drives it, and how people see their role in the economy.”

For instance, an 80 percent tax rate in Sweden means there’s no incentive for workers to do overtime so if extra hours are needed for special project, it probably pays to fly other nationals in to do them.

In global terms, he sees the business culture in Australia and New Zealand as pretty similar while those of France and Germany, for instance, are very different. And although Middle Eastern countries appear very “westernised”, their economic drivers, legal structures and even their working week (Saturday to Thursday) are quite different.

Mathews visits the Middle East frequently. In fact, in terms of picking world hot spots his record hasn’t been great, he says ruefully. “We put new operation into India this year just as India/Pakistan relations flared up. Then I was in North Korea when its arms policy became big issue. Seems I’m leading indicator of global conflict…” Which makes the time he and his family regularly spend with relatives in rural New Zealand an even more precious sanity check.

While Mathews credits Kiwi classlessness and do-it-yourself willingness to tackle range of tasks for their ability to do well offshore, his own record of managing the Australia/New Zealand branches of JD Edwards helped him earn his present role.

He’d got to know the company product when he was running both sales and accounting operations at Cadbury’s. Then came an opportunity to buy into the company’s Auckland-based New Zealand distributorship.

“We built it up into quite large organisation here, bought the Australian business and started building that. Then in 2000, JD Edwards bought that off us and asked me to stay on to look after the business in New Zealand and Australia.”

The business model he established here was very customer-centric, combining previously separate sales and service aspects. “In New Zealand, of course, you need to be bit self sufficient and having those two operations closely intertwined means you give customers the solution they want and ensure there is service back-up when it goes in.”

Because this was model the company liked, he’s now introduced it globally.

“We’re more or less cookie cutting that model in around the world. So in some countries, we’re expanding the services side, in others we’ve bought the services company.”

His accounting background comes in handy when it comes to that kind of merger and acquisition work. “When you’re doing due diligence, you need to have good idea of whether or not they’re making money. I also buy companies in different countries because I really believe in that company leader.”

He also advocates having each of the various national branches run by local. The only exception at the moment is the UK branch which is run by, wait for it, another New Zealander. Consulting is also run by Kiwi as is the translations and localisation service for all the company’s 5000 employees and 6000 customers.

Mathews employs “almost every nationality you could think of” in his own management team. “So in many ways, I have the tough job in terms of making sure that relationships and communications between me and the guys who run South Europe or East Asia are okay. Those [relationships] are harder work than the relationships they have with their own staff because they have shared language, shared culture and shared history.”

Mathews also reckons that it helps that New Zealanders tend to be plain speakers.

“Compared to other cultures, I reckon our vocabulary is quite small – or maybe, it’s just me. In the UK some PAs use words I don’t even know. So I ask, to make sure everyone is quite clear about what is being communicated.”

The feedback he gets suggests that keeping communication plain and straightforward works. “Managers I work with say that they know exactly what I want from them because I make it very clear. There are no hidden agendas. I think most Kiwis are like that.”

Visited 4 times, 1 visit(s) today

Business benefits of privacy

Privacy Week (13-17 May) is a great time to consider the importance of privacy and to help ensure you and your company have good privacy practices in place, writes Privacy

Read More »
Close Search Window