Seeking leadership, Britain puts foreigners in top jobs

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

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.

Experience has generally shown that casting the net wider can be beneficial bringing different outlooks and methods to a task, say management experts. The British government itself admitted, when it hired Mr. Evans to head up the Policing Standards Unit, that it was hoping to call on his "experience and knowledge of global improvements in policing methods" to spearhead police reform.

"What they [foreign bosses] bring is a comparative perspective of how things are done elsewhere," says Professor Buckley. "It's not that British techniques are worse than anyone else's, but if you compare what works here with what works elsewhere you get a different dimension," he adds.

It seems to be working.

England's notoriously spineless cricket team suddenly became a gritty fighting unit when a tough Zimbabwean was drafted as coach. Marks & Spencer, the clothing store, once a favorite among Britons, was struggling four years ago, as younger shoppers deserted its dowdy floorspace for more trendier purveying a more cosmopolitan look.

Enter Luc Vandevelde. A Belgian with long experience of European retail and management style, he transformed the business and its flagging fortunes. "His main strength has been coming completely from the outside, from a different country and sector, and looking at the business overall, looking at the big picture," says Maureen Hinton, an expert in the retail business at the research group Verdict.

Of course, not everyone thinks foreign bosses are a great idea. The main criticism is that they are expensive, particularly Americans. And some of the most high-profile "fat-cat" furors here have involved foreign bosses, most notably Frenchman Jean-Pierre Garnier at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.

Secondly, there is a certain residual resentment among Britons who may feel they have been passed over in favor of foreign talent. This is sometimes true in business as well as sport, and Ms. Peter says that hiring from abroad should never supplant the need to cultivate local talent.

"The one thing you mustn't allow is an excuse for not developing your own people," she says, warning against a tendency to feel "that we can always go somewhere else and don't bother putting effort and money into ensuring that we have the people who are as good."

The international talent pool in Britain

A sampling of top jobs that are held by foreigners in Britain.

London transport commissioner: Bob Kiley (US)

Policing Standards Unit: Paul F. Evans (US)

2012 Olympic bid: Barbara Cassani (US)

London stock exchange: Clara Furse (Netherlands/Canada)

British Airways: Rod Eddington (Australia)

Marks & Spencer: Luc Vandevelde (Belgium)

Barclays Bank: Matthew Barrett (Canada)

Reuters: Tom Glocer (US)

Vodafone: Arun Sarin (US)

Corus (formerly British Steel): Philippe Varin (France)

GlaxoSmithKline: Jean-Pierre Garnier (France)

British Sky Broadcasting: James Murdoch (Australia)

SafewaY: Carlos Criado-Perez (Argentina)

England soccer team: Sven Goran Eriksson (Sweden)

England cricket team: Duncan Fletcher (Zimbabwe)

Wales rugby team: Steve Hansen (New Zealand)

Arsenal football club: Arsene Wenger (France)

Chelsea football club: Claudio Ranieri (Italy)

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