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Subject Area: International Business
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Article citation: , (2012) "Interview with David McRae", Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, Vol. 19 Iss: 3, pp. -
David McRae is a retired international banker with 50 years experience in 12 countries throughout Europe, Asia, The Middle East and North America with a career spanning a 37 year formal banking career followed by 13 years in related consultancy activities. Specialties have included trade finance, corporate, commercial and SME lending, strategic planning, business development and risk management. His “second career”, i.e. consulting, has consisted of team leadership roles on projects for Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) – in Poland, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) – in Czech Republic and European Investment Bank (EIB) – in Egypt. David holds British and Canadian citizenships, is married to a lovely Greek lady, has one son and lives in Northern Greece. His current location allows him to follow a keen interest in the history and cultures of the region – aside, of course, from following intently current political and economic matters – much in focus at this time, of course.
What are some of the current cross cultural management challenges within your industry?
International banking, by its nature, means that cross cultural aspects of management are of paramount importance – both within one’s own organization and in terms of the interface with clients or customers. Much depends on whether one is operating out of a home or head office environment or physically “in the field” on an overseas assignment. There can be a tendency to forget cross cultural aspects when conducting business by phone, video conference or by e-mail – and slights sometimes occur without the activator realizing it. Woe betide if this happens when in the recipient’s country as this can lead to a frosty relationship extending for an extended period of time, i.e. the us and them complex. When I talk about “recipient” this can mean a bank client, a bank trainee or – even more critical – a senior bank executive whom you may be in the process of coaching. I remember an incident where a European consultant working with me on a banking project in Egypt referred to Egyptians as African, then Arab – before I stepped into say that Egyptians look at themselves as Egyptians – full stop! Needless to say, that consultant – not having read the tea leaves correctly – was virtually persona non grata thereafter.
In your opinion, what are some of the major cross cultural challenges your industry will face in the future?
Again, I will reference International Banking. One of the most critical challenges will be the very muddied reputation of “Western Bankers” vie a vie the fallout from the 2008 Financial Crisis in terms of perceived greed and, irresponsibility to the community at large. This perception is bad enough within one’s own community – but how will this be taken across cultures? It can certainly put doubt, not only in the minds of (entrepreneur) clients in developing markets – but also fellow bankers in those areas, people who have grown to respect western expertise over many, many years.
In my view, the extension of the 2008 crisis into what is happening today – a permanent shift from western economies to what I would call “the already advanced developing world” – will result in a much more complicated cross-cultural experience. Sensitivity – both ways – will become of the essence. In other words International banking will no longer be a one way street from West to East.
Please share an interesting anecdote or case you experienced in management across cultures.
Oh, there are many given that I have lived and worked in 12 countries over such a long period – but let me concentrate on a particular favourite of mine – my 5 years in Poland running a Canadian Banking Project geared to financing and training Polish Small and Medium Sized Entrepreneurs in conjunction with a partner Polish Bank (whose relevant officers we also trained and coached). This project was essentially on behalf of The Canadian Government – with the active support of The Polish Government.
First, there was the issue of reporting – a total of EIGHT stakeholders – both Polish and Canadian – and eventually also Italian and Irish (through ownership of Polish banks). When things went wrong – as they invariably did for the first two years (trying to overcome the initial us and them complex!) – the stakeholders were on my back like you would not believe. But, as co-operation within Poland dramatically improved and the project became a major success, guess what? That is right, no pressure at all as the stakeholders claimed credit to their various powers that be!
Second, what inter-personal tactics eventually worked to the advantage of the project? There was a need for the Canadian expatriates to understand the history and culture of Poland and the Polish people – and then to make some effort with the language. I must admit that this last need was never really met – but such was the build up of effective cooperation – and friendship – that it did not negate our joint success. I remember in the early days though that both the Canadians and the Poles made mistakes, e.g. one of our expatriates was discovered driving across the border to Germany to buy milk and other simple foods from supermarkets there. Our Polish colleagues were deeply hurt – what is wrong with Polish milk, they asked?! On the Polish side there was suspicion about the intention of the Canadians – why are they providing so much money?
Third, the success of the project was predicated on not only the financing of entrepreneurs but parallel training/technical assistance in such areas as marketing, business planning and financial controls. One method used with both the entrepreneurs and bankers was to float an idea to the other person and have it come back to you as their idea.
Finally, I am pleased to report that eight years after the handover of this project to Poland, it has continued and expanded nationally under very effective Polish management, i.e. it has passed the key test of sustainability.
What are some subjects or cross cultural themes that, in your view, could benefit from additional academic research?
I believe that there needs to be a focus on cultural inter-relationship in the context of organizational structures on the ground, in either a formal institution or project management viz the Polish example above. Has anyone thought of cross checking past and existing structures in order to perhaps provide more effective pre-training of the prospective expatriates about to sally forth to be immersed in new cultures? As we have discussed, such preparation would be invaluable in narrowing the “credibility gap” in the early stages of involvement and thus potentially bring earlier success to cross cultural involvement.
Finally, you have given us a very vivid description of your project involvement in Poland – and with your varied experience of different cultures at their point of origin, you must have had some rather unique occurences from time to time?
Absolutely. I could probably go on for hours about many of them but, by way of example, I will give you a few:
In Southern India in the mid/late 1960s, my bank branch was host to a hardcore Communist Trade Union – the leader of which – and the President of the All-India Bank Trade Union – who was also on our staff – were trained in Moscow. Dealing with them was not for the faint – hearted – but we survived “lock-ins”, i.e. management was effectively sealed inside the bank for sometimes up to 48 hours – in addition to strikes, of course. Extreme patience was required and one learned to ride with the storm – even accepting their English language magazines which were effectively 180° different to, say, Time Magazine! – and all of this at times in the Indian summer with 120°F, 100 percent humidity and no air conditioning! That will test your cross cultural skills!!
In Lebanon at the end of the 1960s – dealing with staff members who were effectively first generation Palestinian refugees – very sensitive.
In Northern Malaysia in the mid-1960s, discovering that our bank branch union leader was an ex-Communist Guerrilla in the Malayan Emergency of the late 1950s. No wonder that I should not have been surprised that water was put in my car petrol tank during lock-ins!!
Observation of different cultural approaches – and learning from them – has also been important to me. I have seen, for instance, a trend in Greece towards stubbornness and reluctance (the older generation in particular) to accept new management ideas from outside – versus Slavic nations where there seems to be open acceptance of education, training and coaching (my experience in Poland, Czech Republic and Serbia). In Asia, team approaches work well – I have witnessed the importance of sport and cultural/social interaction. In Egypt where I managed a team of EU consultants, recognizing differences of approach to tasks and interpersonal skills in a multicultural team was critical. When a team of Egyptian consultants was added, one can imagine the potentially combustible scenario! Most of all, it is important that colleagues are working with you – not for you.