Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Seeking leadership, Britain puts foreigners in top jobs

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 8, 2003


When British police welcomed an American, Paul Evans, to a senior post two weeks ago, it created something of a precedent.

Skip to next paragraph

Never before has a foreigner been taken on to such a high-profile role in British law enforcement.

Yet, in a broader sense, the appointment is just the latest example of a burgeoning British trend for filling key leadership positions with overseas talent. For example, British Airways is run by an Australian. The national cricket and soccer teams, as well as three of the top professional soccer teams, are coached by foreigners now.

A recent survey by the Economist newspaper found that eight of Britain's top 20 companies were run by non-nationals, compared with four in France and just two in Germany and the United States.

Management experts say a number of factors are at work: Grudging respect for the way other societies do things; an awareness of the limitations of homegrown talent; a need for broader vision and reach in the globalized world; and, the English language itself, a lingua franca that is seen as less of a barrier than other tongues.

"We are much more open to other people coming in," says Justin Urquhart Stewart, who runs Seven Investment Management. "We are a nation of immigrants. That's what we've been for generations. That is our strength."

Mr. Urquhart-Stewart adds that Britons have a certain tendency to denigrate their own, and admire foreigners for their mystique. "There's a feeling," he says, "that other people must be doing it better." Hence a Swedish soccer coach or a Dutch telecommunications chief or an American entrepreneur gets the benefit of the doubt for much longer than a British counterpart would.

"Overseas experience and management knowledge is admired. Often the British manager is from a patrician class and just doesn't have the breadth of management expertise," he adds.

Foreigners run the biggest two phone companies (Vodafone and BT) and one of the largest banks (Barclays); media groups are full of non-British bosses, while overseas coaches run three major soccer teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool) and several rugby clubs. There is even a foreign-born member of Parliament (Gisela Stuart), an American running London transport (Bob Kiley), and another spearheading Britain's bid to stage the 2012 Olympics (Barbara Cassani).

"This is a comparatively recent trend that has been growing over the past few years," says Patricia Peter, corporate governance executive at the Institute of Directors, a British association for top management. "British companies are saying we will look for the best person and we won't have a national bias."

"In a way it does reflect an openness in the UK that isn't there in other parts of the world," she adds. "We are not hidebound. There are things we can learn from other people."

By comparison, continental Europe has all kinds of obstacles that make it harder for foreigners to get ahead, says Prof. Peter Buckley of Leeds University Business School. Ownership has historically been concentrated around families who retain a large measure of executive control. Language can, moreover, be a barrier to all but the most polyglot.

AMERICA, meanwhile, has such a large domestic talent pool that it scarcely feels the need to fish around overseas. It may be missing out.