International careers: how history has shaped your boss’s management style

Ideas about how a good manager should lead and conduct themselves vary between countries and regions.

International careers: how history has shaped your boss’s management style
Photos: Getty Images

As it turns out, what you consider to be a strong, effective leader in your country may have its roots in the distant past, with civilizations such as the empire-building Romans and seafaring Norse. The Local spoke with two experts at the prestigious ESCP Business School to find out about such differences – and learn about a 21st Century model for better leadership.

With six campuses in six major European cities, cultural diversity and awareness is crucial to the learning experience at ESCP.

Interested in studying management in a cross-cultural environment? Find out more about ESCP Business School and your chance to study in cities such as London, Paris, Madrid, Turin and Berlin

The cultural roots of consensus seeking versus dominant leaders

Should a manager use direct communication with employees or let people read between the lines? Should they be a bold decision-maker or carefully build consensus? If you think there’s a simple answer to these questions, think again. 

The answer is likely to depend on where you live and work. Some of the biggest differences are between more ‘horizontal’ societies (such as Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe) and cultures that prefer clear hierarchies (such as in Italy, Spain, and East Asia).

The globalized business world can be a maze to navigate for managers and employees alike. But national differences in terms of what we expect from managers have deep cultural roots that go back thousands of years, says Professor Justin Byrne. Based at the Madrid campus, he teaches intercultural skills on ESCP’s Bachelor in Management (BSc) and some of its Masters courses. 

Expectations of a more level workplace environment in Sweden, Denmark and Norway stem not just from the post-war love of social democracy but from “the Vikings being an egalitarian culture”. In countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, he says expectations of strong individual leadership can be “related back to the Romans”. And in China, Japan and South Korea, Confucius’s ideas about roles, rules and responsibilities, remain highly influential 2,500 years after his death.

Lead on your own or listen to all?

These complexities mean the very things that make someone a good manager in some cultures make them utterly unsuitable in others, says Professor Byrne, who has lived in the UK, Spain, Italy, the US and Ecuador. Such differences are explained by models such as the ‘power distance’ index element of Hofstede Insights and in American author Erin Meyer’s book ‘The Culture Map.’

“In more hierarchical countries, managers are expected to take decisions as leaders and have answers,” says Professor Byrne. “The difference in their status and authority is manifested in how they dress, how the office is set up, and how, when and what they communicate.

Want to study in three major European cities in three years? Find out more about ESCP and its Bachelor in Management (BSc)

“In less hierarchical societies, a leader is more of a facilitator. In Denmark, it’s great if the manager turns up on a bicycle as it shows they’re like everybody else. In China, if a manager doesn’t look the part, it’s bad not just for them but for everybody.”

Culture clashes are also common within Europe. “It wouldn’t work for a Danish manager to come to Spain and expect people to express their individual opinions and have them taken into account,” he says.

So, what of his students on the Bachelor in Management (BSc)? Professor Byrne says many have lived in several countries, speak three or four languages and start off “sceptical about national differences”.

“We show there’s clear evidence that they’re still relevant and that cultural values change rather slowly despite changes in behaviour and consumption patterns,” he says.

“We live in a globalized world where you can expect national cultures to be less homogeneous. That said, I’d maintain that there are still significant variations in national attitudes that are relevant in work and management.”

A cross-cultural journey: find out more about studying at ESCP and download the brochure for its Bachelor in Management (BSc)

Total leadership: finding ‘four-way wins’ 

Wherever your notion of a good boss originated, following a fast-paced career can leave you struggling to reconcile your ambitions at work with your personal life. It may seem almost impossible to achieve success and still be the person you want to be in your working and home life.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Professor Carlos Casanueva. As well as teaching finance at ESCP, he has been working to develop the practice of ‘Total Leadership’ in Europe since 2008.

While we increasingly hear talk of the need for work-life balance, Professor Casanueva says Total Leadership has a different perspective. “It’s not about equilibrium,” he says. “It’s about synergies and harmony. If you do the right thing, you grow in all areas.” 

Professor Carlos Casanueva

He says the most important concept in the philosophy is four-way wins. This refers to acting in a way that enables you to achieve wins at work, at home, in your community, and for yourself. Three key principles must be followed: be real (acting with authenticity about what’s important); be whole (acting with integrity by respecting the whole person); and be innovative (acting with creativity by continually experimenting).

“Some people destroy their personal life because it makes sense for their professional life,” says Professor Casanueva. “I’ve been very clear since I was 18 that my personal life was more important than my professional life. I always wanted to be ethical. Plenty of people were the opposite and were very successful.”

But now he says Total Leadership principles are warmly welcomed in diverse cultures, as well as by students on the ESCP Bachelor in Management whenever he mentions the concept. “Human beings are very similar in the wiring of our brains,” he says. 

Training for cross-cultural careers

While that wiring unites people everywhere, our cultural expectations do clearly differ. If you’re pursuing or planning an international career, you’ll face considerable challenges as a result. 

But studying at an institution that promotes cross-cultural understanding could prove hugely helpful – and ESCP stands out in this regard. Students on the Bachelor in Management (BSc) can study in three cities in three years, from Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid and Turin. “If ESCP has a USP, it’s the cross-cultural dimension,” says Professor Byrne. 

Find out more about studying at ESCP Business School – and download the brochure for the Bachelor in Management (BSc).

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5 things you never knew about Switzerland’s school system

From different types of schools to competitive apprenticeships and lots of languages, here are 5 lesser-known facts about Switzerland’s education system that might surprise you.

5 things you never knew about Switzerland's school system

A second local language is a must

Switzerland’s education system reflects the linguistic and cultural diversity that defines the country. Depending on the region, however, the language of instruction varies from German (not Swiss German!), French, Italian to Romansh.  English – considered Switzerland unofficial fifth language – is taught in primary schools while an additional national language is gradually introduced throughout the pupils’ education. In some schools, students also have the option of choosing to learn a third national language.

While not the norm across Switzerland, some cantonal schools teach bilingual or immersive classes, meaning one or several subjects are taught in a foreign language (bilingual). If lessons are carried out entirely or mainly in a foreign language, this is usually referred to as immersive lessons.

In the German-speaking part of Bern, for instance, children are taught in German and French in some kindergartens and primary schools. The same is also the case for the French-speaking part of Fribourg as well as the cantons Neuchâtel and Valais. 

In the canton of Graubünden pupils are either taught in a combination of Romansh and German, or Italian and German. Meanwhile, the canton of Solothurn teaches history and geography in French, while the canton of Schwyz educates pupils in both English and German – and that’s only to name a few!

READ ALSO: How much do international schools cost in Switzerland?

Education system by canton

For parents choosing which Swiss canton to move to, it may be beneficial to consider your local canton’s schooling system and how it differs from its surrounding cantons.

A pupil at school.

A pupil at school. Illustration photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

In Switzerland, the cantons are responsible for the compulsory schooling and they are obliged to harmonise important goals and structures nationwide. Hence, the mandatory attendance duration for the many school stages varies on a cantonal level.

Here’s a look at mandatory primary school attendance: Ticino (5 years), Aargau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden Basel Land, Basel Stadt, Bern, Glarus, Graubunden, Luzern, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, St Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Zug, Zurich (6 years), and Fribourg, Geneva, Jura, Neuchatel, Valais, Vaud ( 8 years).

Mandatory middle school attendance: Appenzell Ausserrhoden (2 years), Ticino (4 years), all other cantons (3 years). 

Mandatory overall schooling period: Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Graubunden (9 years), Appenzell Innerrhoden, Lucerne, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schwyz, Uri, Zug (10 years), and Aargau, Basel Land, Basel Stadt, Bern, Fribourg, Geneva, Glarus, Jura, Neuchatel, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Ticino, Valais, Vaud, Zurich (11 years).

Bez, Sek or Realschule

Once a student has successfully completed their stint in primary school, they are on to their next adventure: the Oberstufenschule. But while some pupils may very well look forward to being just that bit closer to teenagehood, they could be surprised to discover that they may not be joining their fellow classmates in that next chapter.

In Switzerland, the higher primary education is made up of three types of schools whose curricula are coordinated with one another: the Bezirksschule, Sekundarschule and Realschule. Where a pupil ends up depends on their learning speed, grades, and abstract thinking ability as each school teaches children according to their abilities.

In the Realschule, students acquire a broad general education and the basis needed for an apprenticeship. The graduates of the Realschule often move on to apprenticeships in a trade or in the industry.

READ ALSO: How Swiss teachers are taking on ChatGPT

Students of the Sekundarschule, which sits in the middle of the three schools, acquire a broad general education and the skills needed for a more demanding professional training. Though many Sekundarschule graduates go on to take up various apprenticeships, ranging from commercial diplomas to the field of IT, some with exceptional grades choose to attend specialised middle schools.

The Bezirkschule has the highest demands among the three and prepares its pupils for both vocational training as well as a range of for secondary schools. In view of their further education, the students therefore have to choose from a number of elective and optional subjects in addition to attending compulsory classes. A good half of the graduates start an apprenticeship in trades, industry and commerce, the rest attend a baccalaureate or technical school.

Side note: In some cantons, the names for the three schools can fall in a different order.

A classroom.

Chairs in a classroom. Photo by Jonas Augustin on Unsplash

Apprenticeships favoured over university

Given the fact that only the Bezirkschule enables students to move on to the gymnasium in preparation for university, it is not surprising that the majority of Swiss pupils opt for apprenticeships instead. Though this could also have to do with the fact that apprenticeships in Switzerland – which last three to four years on average – generally pay a decent wage, and what teenager doesn’t look forward to their very first pay!

In order to find an apprenticeship, however, students must carry out a range of preparatory tasks, such as completing professional and general aptitude tests, attending information events, job fairs, trial apprenticeships and of course put together their application. 

In Switzerland, each Swiss canton has a list of employers with apprenticeship openings for the coming year as well as a booklet for primary school graduates to work through to figure out just what career suits their interests the best. But despite a shortage of skilled workers in multiple fields, finding an apprenticeship in Switzerland is no easy task.

Alternatives encouraged

Having decided on an apprenticeship over higher education, pupils might find themselves struggling to beat the competition. This year, 80 percent of apprenticeships – starting in the late summer 2023 – have already hired trainees.

However, there’s no reason for panic. Should a pupil be unable to secure a trainee job, not have sufficient grades, or simply be unsure about what career path to pursue, there are many interesting alternatives to consider. One of the most straightforward choices is deciding on a 10th school year (10. Schuljahr).

The 10th grade, also known as vocational school, allows students to slowly integrate into their desired professional life. Students who choose this path will benefit from a so-called preparation school, which will either focus on preparing them for vocational training or a secondary school, while also supporting them in their search for an apprenticeship should that be their choice.

Alternatively, pupils can opt for an internship or traineeship to get to know a professional field and make contact with potential employers.

Some also choose to use the extra year to hone their language skills with many graduates heading abroad to work as an au pair or as study a language in a school.