Game Of European Thrones: An Essential Guide To Management Styles In Europe
UCD Smurfit School Professors Federica Pazzaglia and Karan Sonpar reveal traits of Irish managers
By Matt Symonds
Cherry blossom is a glorious announcement of the arrival of spring, but as any Game of Thrones fan can tell you, "Winter is Coming." As we impatiently wait for this month’s final season to begin, and find out whether the Mother of Dragons or the Night King will unseat Queen Cersei on the Iron Throne in Westeros, I’ve been trying to follow another fantasy epic currently on our screens, "Brexit – A Song of Mice and Liar."
But the tragi-comic plot line in Westminster, and a perfidious cast of self-interested pretenders who seem immune to the sort of fate dished out by George R.R. Martin in his books has made for frustrating and often incomprehensible viewing. So I’ve turned to a Norwegian series (fortunately for me in English) on Netflix called Norsemen. Set in the Viking era, it starts off feeling like a Game of Thrones wannabee, but quickly develops into a satire on modern Scandinavian society whilst managing to be very clever and very funny, albeit in a rather dark way. These people are Vikings after all, so the back-stop solution to any challenge or problem tends to be a fairly violent one.
Given that business education is never far from my mind, I was particularly taken with the series’ view of the Scandinavian approach to management. I’d heard in a recent interview with Professor Ciara Sutton of the Stockholm School of Economics how Scandinavian leaders are always keen to empower employees, perhaps to a much greater extent than in other areas of the world and how there is an assumption in the business culture that leader and subordinate are fundamentally equal despite differences in formal rank. Consequently, disagreements are rarely addressed head on and unsatisfactory performance is often just met with vague suggestions for improvement. The series parodies this in a sequence where a chieftain asks for 360 degree feedback from one of his people, listens politely and intently and then, because this is set in 8th century, puts a spike through his head. But then they were probably more wedded to the concept of "pour encourager les autres" back in those days than they are now.
Of course, if you put the satire to one side, the Scandinavian approach to business must have something going for it given the success of a wide range of enterprises the region has produced from IKEA and ABBA to Spotify and the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund.
Which got me wondering what lessons other European countries could teach when it comes to the art and science of management.
For a wider European view I began with Frederik Anseel, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Vice Dean (Research) at King's Business School. In addition to Anseel’s research expertise, he also has a personal perspective having worked, and been involved in leadership development in Belgium, France, Italy, The Netherlands and the U.K.
I asked him if there is such a thing as a European leader?
“No, there are still cultural differences in leadership styles between European countries,” says Anseel. “Some of these differences conform to national stereotypes; Scandinavians and the Dutch are measurably more direct, but some of it doesn't; there's actually more autonomy in countries like Switzerland or Germany, which are seen as being very rule-bound, than in the U.K.”
For Professor Anseel it is easy to forget the profound changes seen in Europe in the last 30 years. “For a short while after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a tendency to think 'we are all Europeans,' but in practice managers quickly saw that there are different cultural identities within Europe.”
He believes that this diversity should be seen as a strength, not a problem to solve. “Leaders learn to adapt instead of demanding their employees adapt to one cultural model. That leads to a personal challenge though - how can you retain your own cultural identity and be versatile and open at the same time? This is an important challenge for leaders and an important focus for business schools.”
European business schools such as King’s Business School are renowned for providing a diverse international study environment. “This is not so that they all end up the same,” explains Anseel, "but so that they learn from each other and see the value of different perspectives. The result is leaders who are grounded and trustworthy, and have the flexibility to navigate a global and sometimes polarized environment.”
Grounded and trustworthy – hardly the character traits that come to mind in Westeros or Westminster. For a country-by-country perspective I asked management experts at some of the continent’s leading business schools for their views on European management style. By no means exhaustive, how do their perspectives compare with your own?
Let’s start with the country that, despite possible looming problems, is still host to the most successful economy on the European continent. “Perceived professionalism on the part of a leader is absolutely fundamental in Germany,” says Konstantin Korotov of ESMT Berlin. “There is a high expectation that a leader will dedicate themselves to a task, show a strong work ethic and not waste time, but will instead strive for perfection in terms of processes and systems. And in return the leader will be entitled to expect the same from their team. There is also an emphasis on humility. German managers are less likely to seek the limelight than some of their peers in other countries. They tend to have their feet firmly planted on the ground rather than rely on personal charisma or painting exciting visions of the future.”
Long before it became a nation, what is now Belgium has been over-run and occupied by many foreign powers in its history. Katleen De Stobbeleir of Vlerick Business School explains that, as a result, Belgians learned that in order to survive and thrive they needed to exhibit modesty, not rock the boat too much, and be open to external influences. “On the bright side,” she says, “this means that Belgians are unlikely to act offensively, but are rather flexible and tolerant. And when they don’t agree or their tolerance reaches its limits, they will rather engage in peaceful resistance or under-the-radar criticizing, rather than engage in very overt expressions of dissent. This gives Belgians the reputation of being very diplomatic. Of course, the flip side of this is that some may interpret the modesty of Belgians as a lack of ambition, or even a lack of identity.”
She cites the example of the man who is arguably the most famous Belgian leader of modern times, Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council from 2009 until 2014. He was applauded for being a humble, open, pragmatic and diplomatic leader, but opponents criticized him for not leaving a clear mark.
Perhaps not surprisingly for anyone who has lived or worked in or even visited France, French management style is heavily focused on the "people factor." “French managers tend to be people oriented and pay special attention to the nature of their relationships with subordinates,” says Frank Bournois, dean of ESCP Europe. “Consequently they tend to avoid reliance on process, but instead demonstrate a lot of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps that is why entrepreneur is a French word despite what George W. Bush apparently said! However this also means that anyone operating in France or even dealing with French companies needs to display a high degree of ‘emotional intelligence.’ A lot of rules aren’t explicit and the French don’t always explain subtleties so you need to be able to pick them up if you are to understand what is really going on.”
Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, the people factor also figures strongly in the Italian approach to business management. “The idea of the ‘humanistic leader’ is very popular – and productive – here in Italy,” says Raffaella Cagliano, a professor at MIP Politecnico di Milano. “This type of leader pushes social welfare within their companies, they value local communities, respect the rights and opinions of their workers and encourage them to share their ideas. And you see this approach in companies of all sizes, but the unifying factor is that most of them started as family businesses and, in one form or another, they still adhere to family values.”
At the western edge of the continent in Portugal, a key feature of managers seems to be their ability to adapt quickly to changes, to rapidly switch tactical direction in response to unexpected circumstances. “It’s a great skill, but in a way you could argue this is forced upon them,” says Joao Silveira Lobo at the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon, “because Portuguese managers tend to focus more on the immediate horizon than on medium or long-term planning.”
When one considers the pace and scale of economic and social changes that have taken place in Ireland over the last few decades, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Irish managers place an emphasis on pursuing aspirational and transformational goals that push the envelope. According to Federica Pazzaglia of University College Dublin they tend to be entrepreneurial and comfortable with ambiguity and to show remarkable resilience when setbacks occur. Consequently, they don’t rely heavily on rules and procedures that would reduce flexibility, preferring instead to leave room for innovative solutions to emerge along the way. Federica’s colleague, Karan Sonpar, adds that there is also an emphasis on stimulating contributions from the team and enabling a climate that is conducive to new ideas. Irish managers do this by taking the time to build consensus and by displaying fairness and empathy in their interactions with their people.
Any people that can create and sustain a successful economy despite the slight disadvantage of large parts of the country being below sea level must have something to teach the rest of the world. But what? “There is a strong belief in the Netherlands that everyone is capable of making their own way in a social system which allows equal opportunity,” says Hannes Leroy of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). “Our own version of the ‘American Dream’ if you like! Consequently we value openness and transparency in leaders at all levels. And we like them to do things in their own unique way, to be no-nonsense, pragmatic, straightforward.”
Despite its small size, Denmark has an impressive range of global companies, many of which are either partly owned by industrial foundations or families, which are long-term owners. “This ownership has enabled Danish managers to balance the long-term issues with the need to stay competitive in the short-term,” says professor Majken Schultz, Copenhagen Business School. “Danish managers are particularly good at combining the development of long term business opportunities, as we see for the moment in their focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and leverage their pragmatic ability to adapt to the ever changing marketplace also through collaborations. Danish leaders have an ability for team-play and navigating unknown waters. Many leaders also find it important to articulate the ‘Purpose’ of the company, knowing that this is increasingly important to both employees and customers, but they often do it in their own subtle way.”
The unprecedented economic and social crisis that has hit Greece in the last decade has highlighted Greek society’s long-lasting preference for charismatic leaders who can inspire hope and resilience in times of adversity. Dr. Charalampos Mainemelis of ALBA Business School says, “Historically, leadership practices in Greece reflected deeply ingrained social values related to intolerance of ambiguity, a mistrust for individual excellence, and a generally conservative business outlook. In recent years, however, we’ve seen among the younger generations of Greek professionals a rapidly increasing preference for more creative, more daring, and more open-minded leaders.”
The city of Barcelona has just hosted the latest Mobile World Congress, and is attracting more and more innovation centres for big companies, a strong indication of the local and international talent they can find in Spain. According to Jordi Diaz, Associate Dean at EADA Business School in Barcelona, Spanish leaders tend to be quite passionate and usually put more emphasis on "why and what" and less on "how." “This can be very positive from a creative perspective but sometimes presents a challenge at the time of implementation,” explains Diaz. “That said, in today’s disruptive world the Spanish creative and innovative leader is coming in to their own due to the desperate need for reinvention that both start-ups and established companies are experiencing.”
“In Slovenia we look for professionalism, innovation, inspiration and charisma in a manager,” says Professor Danica Purg of the country’s top business school, IEDC-Bled. In the former Yugoslavia leading a company was a political function ,with the director appointed by the workers council from candidates that had the right political credentials. But Slovenia had a special position in the Yugoslav economy,because of its capacity to produce high quality products for western markets, so Slovene directors often had one foot in the world of market economy. “We value an ethical approach as well as an open mind-set, particularly when it comes to assimilating ideas from the wider world. And Slovenia definitely stands out in my opinion as a country that really appreciates the need for diversity and the role of women in leadership.”
Given its ability to keep out of the wars that have raged around it over the past two hundred years of so, it’s perhaps no wonder that the Swiss culture of respect and pragmatism spills over into the boardroom. As Dr Omid Aschari of the University of St.Gallen explains, “As concerns decision-making processes, a collegiate approach is highly valued, where decisions emerge by means of discussing them along peers over a period of time. It is less of a top-down approach where one ‘charismatic’ leader takes the decision alone. This can cause decision processes to slow down at first, but has the big advantage of concerted implementation and wide acceptance.”
Flat hierarchies seem to be the key to the Finnish leadership style, leading as the do to a short ‘power distance’ and relatively light organizational structures. And communication is consequently direct and straightforward – from both ends. “Communication is a two-way street, and initiatives can come from the grass root level as well as from the top tiers of the organization. Discussions are often open and frank, and decisions are typically made quite fast” says Dr. Pekka Mattila, Professor of Practice at Aalto University School of Business. “Finnish companies and organizations tend to perform very well at times of crisis and ambiguity. Resilience and perseverance – ‘sisu’ as we call it in Finnish – is in the DNA of the nation. Hard times and obstacles unify rather than separate Finns.”
Norway’s business landscape is also characterized by the relatively short "power distance" between leaders and employees. The country’s transformation from a commodity-based industrial landscape to a knowledge-based international business society brought a new set of challenges, forcing leaders to continuously adapt and develop their skillset to avoid losing their competitive edge. Inge Jan Henjisand of BI Norwegian Business School believes that trust is the essence of the interaction between businesses, government and unions. He advises Norwegian business leaders to create confidence and strengthen internal motivation through dialogue and by giving their workforce freedom and independence.
If there is one country in Europe whose managers need to constantly deal with change and uncertainty at the moment, it has to be the U.K. “The ability to lead change is vital at any time, but given the combination of technological innovation, demographics, big data and, last but certainly not least, Brexit, we have something of a perfect storm going on here in the U.K.,” says Dr Julie Hodges of Durham University Business School. “And if British managers are to cope with all this then they will need to take on the qualities that the very best of them already display – visions and mission, optimism and positivity and, perhaps most important of all, empathy.”
Of course, what the U.K.’s possibly soon to be ex-partners make of all this is up for debate. Perhaps the confusion and exasperation that the leaders of the EU 27 seem to feel about the British government? As Frederik Anseel of King’s Business School in London says, “Many Europeans see the Brits as a bit ‘middle of the road’ – neither very direct, nor overly reluctant to get to the point, neither micro-managers, nor laissez-faire.”
Given the sheer amount of diversity crammed into such a relatively small space, it’s perhaps not surprising that Europe’s managers can provide their peers with a very wide range of ideas to try out in their own workplaces.
But just remember that, no matter how appealing it might sometimes be, the "spike through the head" approach to management is no longer an acceptable option.
Federica Pazzaglia is a Full Professor in the UCD School of Business and Subject Area Head of Management. Karan Sonpar is a Full Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School.
This article was originally published in Forbes on April 5, 2019.