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back to index backGLOBALtalk October,  2005

The different management skill-sets in Germany, the U.S., and Asia

People often ask if regional influences are behind the differences in management skill-sets that can be observed in Germany, the US, and Asia. Based on our international experience in Management Appraisals and backed-up by reports from Egon Zehnder International consultants on the ground in these countries, we have set out some of these differences below.

Given the nature of these assessments, the following information can be neither complete nor universally applicable, but there do seem to be several regionally distinctive factors which manifest themselves in core competencies, irrespective of position, industry, or corporate culture. At the same time, however, an analysis of our databases also reveals global commonalities, and we will begin by discussing these briefly.

In terms of similarities, we can safely say that many critical competencies are shared by executives in successful companies in all three regions. For example, when it comes to technical expertise, these managers all consistently practice on-the-job training. They are also not afraid of benchmarking their performance against competitors, with whom they regularly exchange information. On the human resources development front, in successful companies there is a well-developed culture of open feedback and communication which transcends hierarchical structures and is marked by openness and a lack of fear. Under the heading of entrepreneurial competence, we find that successful companies commonly have clearly defined decision-making structures and processes, although as a rule decisions are made by an individual and not collectively. Another hallmark of a successful company is that the majority of its managers are result-oriented or demonstrate pronounced change-management skills.

Another aspect commonly observed across all regions is that human resource development is treated as an afterthought in many companies. Few firms consistently apply universal HR development concepts. In most cases, this issue is dealt with on a more ad hoc and individual basis.

Many differences in management competencies are not so much a matter of regional differences as of varying corporate cultures. Nevertheless, an assessment of international management appraisals does indicate that there are certain regional distinctions which – with due provisos – can be considered widely applicable.

German managers, for example, usually have in-depth technical expertise, but in contrast to their American counterparts are often unable to implement this knowledge with speed and precision. From the standpoint of professional qualifications, the Asians are more like the Americans in that they see themselves as lifelong learners. This is doubtless one reason why the many MBA programs for people with professional experience are so popular in these countries. The Germans, by contrast, seem to rely more on the knowledge acquired during their initial professional training.

The regional differences in the field of management interaction are of special significance. Overall it can be stated that, in the US, communications skills are better developed than in German and Asian businesses. In Germany and Asia, the old notion that knowledge is power” is still firmly in place, and passing information on is seen as tantamount to voluntarily relinquishing such power. This is why personal interactions in Germany and Asia are more formal and strongly governed by hierarchical thinking. As discussed above, however, an open flow of information is a critical success factor, and this explains why in these countries there are clearer rules and standards for communication, although these mainly govern the flow of information from the bottom upwards, rather than top-down (e.g. standardized documents for submission to the board, regular departmental meetings, etc.).

Regional differences can also be witnessed in some aspects of leadership style. Strikingly, in both Asia and Germany managers are not very good at presenting their own successes to others. This depersonalization of achievements can be seen in their frequent use of the word "we." In this regard, Americans are much less reserved. Successful managers in the United States are usually able to cast themselves and their accomplishments in an excellent light – although they sometimes tend to exaggerate. This fearless and blunt approach manifests itself in the superior determination and persistence demonstrated by US managers, as perceived in our Management Appraisals.

In the US, human resources development is more likely to occur on an individual basis and on the job, and is not pursued very systematically, while in Germany there is a structured approach which is more independent of the respective manager's position. In Asia, human resources development activities are initiated by the direct supervisor and are also less structured and targeted. This could be because Asians do not like to address the weaknesses of individual managers directly, and the culture of open feedback that is necessary for effective human resources development is still in its infancy there.

When it comes to different kinds of management interaction, there is also the issue of team orientation. Here we see three distinct patterns. German managers do not work together so much within the same function, but demonstrate good teamworking skills in crossfunctional groups.

In the US, it is important to reach a consensus and apply democratic decision-making processes so that everyone is brought on board”; even topics that are not obviously critical are thoroughly discussed with several people perhaps across different hierarchical levels. In this way a joint resolution is achieved which has everyone's support before the ultimate decision is made by the individual manager responsible.

And finally, Asians tend towards strongly hierarchical structures in forming teams. Intensive teamwork within a given level in the chain of command is used to achieve all goal-setting processes, and reaching a consensus is a major issue because of the cultural emphasis on harmony. In Asia, results are more frequently presented as the outcome of a team effort, without reference to the individuals who contributed to them.

Regional differences can also be observed in the field of entrepreneurial skills. In comparison with the US, Germany is not as strongly characterized by change management skills – be it personal or corporate change. This is due in part to the fact that German managers tend to stay at one company for longer, as is also the case in Asia. The willingness to accept personal risk is much more tangible in the US, whereas the Germans in particular are more cautious, and aware of rank and status.

Although there are hardly any regional differences in result orientation, in Asia strategic orientation is much weaker. There, the phenomenon known as upward management” — by influencing a company's framework conditions — is less prominent, because the Asians usually focus on perfectly fulfilling the task at hand but not going beyond that. Americans distinguish themselves in this area; they are peerless when it comes to questioning established practices and being eager to make contributions to meta-issues.

The highly-praised service orientation in the US does indeed exist, but it is striking that individual client wishes are not taken into consideration as strongly as they are by German managers. The inclination to offer clients standardized solutions is much stronger in the US, while German managers are more geared towards individual clients. Ultimately it must be said, however, that Germans place greater emphasis on technical issues than on the client's personality, which means that they actually exhibit a less-conspicuous kind of service mentality. This could explain why Americans often rank higher in terms of perceived client orientation. Furthermore, in comparison with both Germany and Asia, managers in the States usually have much greater market expertise and attach more importance to market studies when making strategic decisions.

Source:    The FOCUS Online newsletter by Egon Zehnder International - GAI

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