Is There a Swiss Style of Leadership?

photoart_0022-BearbeitetThe INSEAD Alumni Association Switzerland had its first ever “Salon Conversations” event at the stylish Brassérie Lipp in Zurich in 2014. Guests were seated five or six to a table with a table host who led a discussion on a business topic close to their heart. The talks took place over a three-course meal – with no PowerPoint slides, no microphones and no fixed agenda. This is the first in a series of articles on the takeaways.

Pascal Forster, the Managing Director of Kienbaum Executive Consultants (CCC’05Apr) asked the question, “Is there a Swiss style of leadership?” Here below is his recollection of the evening’s discussion.

There is indeed a Swiss style of leadership.

There is indeed a Swiss style of leadership. It has evolved and is essentially a reaction to the tradition of how decisions are made in Switzerland. In a Swiss company, everybody involved expects to be heard and to be able to make a contribution. Cooperation and consensus-building in a positive non-combative atmosphere are key features.

Managers from other cultures need to be aware of the expectations. “Listening and facilitating, formally and informally, are two Swiss leadership characteristics. Other skills include being able to value managers’ inputs, inspire cooperation and being able to ask the right questions,” said Forster.

The goal is always to find the best solution, not just a quick solution. “It’s definitely not an Act-then-Think style,” commented Forster., referring to a style which can be very successful in other cultures. Act-the-Thing is a style where  initiative is rewarded and desired. Leadership is willing to try out new things, new strategies and new markets. It can react quickly to recalibrate or fine tune.

Participants in the Salon “conversation” came from France, Spain, and the US, so the group was able to compare Swiss business culture to others cultures. In Spain, for example, there is little or no debate. The tradition is to wait for the top man or woman to lead the discussion and indicate the direction, holding back opinions or contributions if they are contrary. In the US, the team would expect the top management to make a decision or block discussion much earlier than in a Swiss company.

Leaders have power but they consider input from team members in different departments, levels of management, and regions. It takes longer to make decisions in such companies but there is confidence that a superior solution has been found. Another advantage is that open discussion and agreement usually means that decisions are well-accepted.

Plan, Think, then Act

Consensus-building to find the best solution is essential in decision-making in this style of leadership. This style is evident in Swiss mid-sized companies, and has been evident in even in larger ones in the past. The Nestslé-Nespresso case is an example.

The Swiss leadership style is not universal. “It is quite noticeable in mid-sized companies, less so in large, global and international companies. You won’t necessarily see it inside ABB, Nestlé, and Novartis. Swiss leadership style is less evident in banking, but quite evident in manufacturing and consumer goods,” said Forster.

An organization’s leadership style also depends on the CEO already in place, and whether or not the company is a family-owned business. It also depends on how the CEO grew the company: is his or her style autocratic; are they highly performance-oriented, and has his or her success been achieved without actually building a real team?

Other characteristics to consider when working in a Swiss organization are listed below.

• One of the most popular profiles is an engineering degree with a business degree added later on, particularly in the Swiss industrial segments.

• Expectations need to be understood on both sides especially in family-owned businesses that have a change management mandate.

• Understand why a company has chosen to hire someone from outside and make sure goals are realistic.

• You cannot make a third league football team into a championship team by merely hiring a star coach. There is a limit to what one person can contribute to in turnaround situation.

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