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Coyotes vs. Road Runners: Managing in the Americas

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Coyotes vs. Road Runners: Managing in the Americas


The saga of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner trying to outsmart each other has turned out to be useful in my research into cultural variation in management styles between Anglophone and Latino leaders. The cartoons are effective at gauging cultural responses because they are globally accessible cultural icons. Because they're silent, they're mostly free from language constraints, and they've been distributed by Warner Brothers to TV screens across the Americas — and all over the world.

I asked MBA alumni around the world to state which of these two characters they most consistently supported and to explain why. Most Anglophones sided with the Coyote, and most Iberians and their descendants preferred the Road Runner.

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Why would this be?

The survey indicated that those who identify with the Coyote respond mainly to the character's perceived "courage. " Though the Coyote routinely loses, he perseveres. Latins, on the other hand, identify more with the joy and freedom they perceive in the provocative Road Runner. These differences hold implications for leaders at today's global organizations: those who sided with one character stated that they would not like to be led by someone who sided with the other. Their discomfort at the prospect of being managed by "the other side" is well illustrated by their view of what organizational role the other side might best perform: Coyotes considered the Road Runner best suited to leading an organization's Human Resources department, while Road Runners saw the Coyote as best suited to being an organization's financial controller.

Of course, the survey did throw up some exceptions. Indian and Australian MBAs, while Anglophones, turned out to be staunch Road Runners. Also, U.S. MBAs fell into two categories: those who self-identified as Caucasian-Americans, sided with the Coyote, while those who self-identified as Hispanic-, Asian-, Jewish-, or African-Americans, or Americans studying at the London Business School, tended to side with the Road Runner, even more consistently than did Brazilian MBAs.

FT quotes Alfredo Behrens on Brazilian business culture - 0800alfredo's posterous

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BUSINESS CULTURE

A spirit of adventure born of plantations and Portuguese seafarers

Is history destiny? The origins of what many businesspeople recognise as particularly Brazilian talents can be traced back to the late 15th century race between Spain and Portugal to exploit the new world, writes Jonathan Wheatley.

Both countries were looking for a sea route to Asia, says Professor Alfredo Behrens of São Paulo’s FIA business school. The Portuguese found one and became merchants. The Spanish found America and become conquerors.

The Portuguese also found Brazil, but largely ignored it until it became their sole overseas possession after they lost their Asian trade routes to the Dutch.

“They had to concentrate on Brazil,” says Prof Behrens. “By then they were merchants through and through. They knew how to negotiate. They had jogo de cintura [a knack for flexibility and problem solving]. This is what makes Brazilians different from other Latin Americans.”

He traces other Brazilian characteristics back even further, to the expulsion of the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages and the subsequent fall in population. This created a culture of low-density ranching rather than high-density agriculture, translated to Latin America in the form of enormous plantations controlled by a few wealthy landowners and worked for centuries by millions of African slaves.

Echoes of this hierarchy – and a resulting distance and lack of trust – endure in the workplace, he says. “This leads to a personalism that tries to override those processes, where people try to be friends with the boss [and] to the jeitinho [another hard-to-translate concept of personal flexibility], and a spirit of adventure that means people may only stay put for a while and are dreaming of bigger things.”

And this, he says, creates a business culture that foreigners sometimes find it hard to handle: “One British banker told me it was like trying to lead a herd of cats.”

It is also a culture that fosters creativity and enterprise. Rolf Steiner, regional head at Swiss Re in São Paulo, was previously based in Italy, and says he was delighted to find an atmosphere of openness and creativity in the reinsurer’s Brazilian offices after the much more conservative business environment he had encountered in Italy.

It is the kind of comment heard in many sectors. Tarek Farahat, chief executive of Procter & Gamble in the country, counts Brazilian executives among the most talented in the company’s global operations.

But one of the most famous examples of Brazilian overseas enterprise – Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s biggest brewer, created and led by Brazilians – is an exception that proves the rule, says Prof Behrens.

“Brazilians are better negotiators than our Latin neighbours,” he points out. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our conquerors