Thursday 12th January 2017
Where they go, others follow. When they speak, people act. What they do affects many. Leaders stand out in a crowd, but what is it that makes them different? Aiglonian leaders from around the world share their stories.
When John Elink-Schuurman (Belvedere, 1984), began his professional career, working for software startup mPortal in the USA, his manager walked in one day and announced: “I need 10 people to pack up and move to India for a year and you need to be there in the next three weeks.” For John, there was no hesitation. He raised his hand and announced: “I’ll go” – and he did: he packed up his belongings and spent a year in Mumbai.
“My first set of roommates at Aiglon included boys from Swaziland, Iran and Peru,” remembers John, now Manager of the Virginia Leaders in Export Trade (VALET) Programme at Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which supports and encourages Virginia businesses to trade internationally. “If this diversity of nationalities sparked one thing in me which has been a theme throughout my career, it’s a curiosity to always try to understand more and learn more. In the business world, that’s a huge advantage – though, of course, I didn’t recognize that at the time.”
How important is an international education in helping to develop global leaders? In the 21st century, having a global outlook is essential, not nice-to-have. Travelling from country to country is barely worthy of comment. John remembers how exotic expeditions to France and Germany seemed back in the 1970s, while today’s Aiglon students regularly travel anywhere from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro to refugee schools in Thailand. Apple, Google and Facebook span the globe, we can buy products from Russia or Skype colleagues in South Africa with a single click.
However, these are bewilderingly rapid changes, and simply living in a global world doesn’t necessarily mean having a global outlook: sending a funny tweet to a stranger in Mumbai is very different from closing a multi-million-dollar deal with her company. That’s where the qualities gained through an international education come in.
Leadership, is, of course, many things to many people, but most would agree that good leaders are also good communicators. “People these days are much better travelled,” says Pamela Bates (Clairmont, 1985), who formerly served as a US diplomat in Brazil and is now economic and commercial officer for multilateral trade at the US Department of State. “But there are global connections in many industries that would not have been there in the past, and for that to all work well, you have to be able to communicate across different cultures.”
For Pamela, good leadership requires good communication. “Leadership is about organising a group to reach a common goal. The only way to do that is if you have effective and clear communication in the group. You have to understand people’s interests, concerns, objectives and whether they share the objectives of the common goal. An international education brings that.”
It’s not just about being able to speak the same language, either, though that certainly helps, but also interpreting something more esoteric: a mood, perhaps, or a level of interest. In the US, the common language tends to be sports teams, while in the UK, the weather might be the way you fill that gap between participants on a conference call.
For example, Pamela relates the story of an emphatic difference between Finns and Americans which she learned from a Finnish colleague: if something is important, a Finn will usually say it just once, “and you’re supposed to know that it’s important,” she says. “But in the US, we tend to repeat something if we think it’s important. In an international school, you pick up on the different cultural habits, even when you’re speaking the same language.”
Pietro Dova (Belvedere, 1980) agrees. Now founding partner at investment company XG Ventures, he was part of the team responsible for the IPO of one of the world’s best-known companies, as Google’s Corporate Controller and Finance Director from 2001 to 2007. “A lot of companies in the US are very self-centred,” he says. “They think about their business in the US first and then, when they try to expand internationally, they don’t necessarily understand the cultural differences as well as they should. I grew up in Italy and understand the culture there. A lot of business stuff in Italy is transacted over lunch. In the US, you just grab a sandwich and get it done – you don’t sit and do it over an hour and a half. You talk business everywhere, not just over lunch. These little cultural nuances matter. It’s about being able to understand your audience.”
Another aspect of leadership, he says, is respect for others and their status, something emphasised during his time at Aiglon. “Table service was the great equaliser,” he remembers. “It didn’t matter if you were a member of a royal family, or just a normal family – you had to wipe down the table and do your chores, whether or not you had 100 people to do that for you at home. That taught us respect for others, and how your status in life is not only determined by what’s handed down to you.”
Of course, when it comes to success in business, there are plenty of other factors at play, as Pietro points out: “Does an international education make you a good business person? That’s a totally different story. You could have all the appreciation in the world for different backgrounds and ethnicities but not be a good business leader.”
Yet there’s an inevitable advantage in being able to identify with people across cultures, as Shuja Jashanmal (Belvedere, 1983) knows first-hand. Few cities better reflect globalisation’s inexorable rise over the last 30 years than Dubai, Shuja’s home city. When he went to Aiglon in 1976, Dubai was a small town with few opportunities. Now, it is the biggest city in the United Arab Emirates, a truly international hub with one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
As a director at international retailers Jashanmal Group, as well as having founded his own ventures, he has witnessed this extraordinary growth first-hand. His education, he says, is one of the factors that drives his business success – even if he didn’t know it at the time.
“After graduating, I was getting involved with the family business and doing deals with the French, Singaporeans, Americans, English. All of sudden, I understood why business was coming my way,” he says. “Those of us with an international education understood how to close deals better than other people. We understand the benefits of being able to speak different languages and understanding other people’s cultures without prejudices. People from different cultures and backgrounds felt comfortable with me. I never realised that my time at Aiglon would give me the upper hand in understanding people so much better than my competitors.”
It is all about relationship-building skills, agrees John. “At the end of the day, people do business with someone they like,” he says. “It’s not because you have the best product, or the cheapest product, or the slickest sales pitch. It’s more fundamental, it’s an emotional appeal. They have to like you and trust you to do business with you, and to trust you they have to like you.”
Knowing how to get them to do that is a process which starts when you first meet your new roommates and realise that, whatever your differences, you’re getting along, right here, right now – and that is something that could make all the difference. Those thousands of tiny negotiations over shelf space or map-reading or which movie to watch have a value: they’re all actually about compromise and understanding. “At Aiglon, you are thrown together and you have to figure out your differences and how to resolve them. And at a pretty young age, too,” says John.
Like John, Shuja had a diverse group of roommates and friends. His closest friends remain those he made at Aiglon and their current addresses are a roll-call of developed and emerging markets: a South African who now lives in San Francisco, an Egyptian and a Canadian living in Saudi Arabia, a Vietnamese woman who lives in Washington DC, and an American in Milan.
He saw friendships across far greater divides than simply language or manners, however. Jewish boys were friends with Muslim boys, black South Africans were friends with white South Africans – and this was in the 1970s, at the height of apartheid, when the two would be highly unlikely to even be able to speak to each other back home. “It was only when I went to university that I realised there were divisions in the world which I wasn’t aware of,” Shuja remembers. “My education allowed me to bridge those divides – without even knowing that they were being bridged.”
Pamela, who attended Aiglon at the height of the Cold War, says that Aiglon brought the rest of the world closer. “We were very aware of what was going on in other parts of the world at the time, such as the war in Lebanon, as there were children there from these places,” she says.
“These are your roommates. You have different backgrounds but you all go through that same experience at Aiglon. And perhaps an international education helps you realise that actually, despite all those languages or cultural mores, our commonalities far outweigh our differences.” That’s something that all good leaders understand.
Writer: Lucy Jolin
Photography: Patrick Roberts, Darren Wise