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Stephen Miles is the founder and chief executive officer of The Miles Group. Previously, he was a vice chairman at Heidrick & Struggles and ran Leadership Advisory Services. With more[…]

Business leaders can no longer focus exclusively within the bubble of their company’s ecosystem; they must think about their global footprint, something that business schools don’t teach.

Question: Why must CEOs today act as global ambassadors?

Stephen Miles:  Well I think what has happened in the sort of 20th century and the move to the 21st century is that it used to be okay for CEOs to just be focused on their industry and really the geographic places where their industry and their company plays and what has happened over the course of sort of our move into the 21st century is really this move of sort of this global footprint and this global environment where we’re immersed in that environment and CEOs need to be able to navigate and be savvy around the sort of total geographic ecosystem that they play in as opposed to their specific industry or company ecosystem. And that is a huge change for CEOs because the 20th century model, this was really quite straightforward.  You operated in your industry and in a few of the places within your industry geographically and now you have to be this global ambassador diplomat that navigates in a nuanced way across cultures and societies and you have to be effective based on wherever you happen to be and what makes that hard for people is that there is no business school, no PhD.  There is no training for this.  You actually have to go out and learn on the job and figure out the nuance of being successful in these various jurisdictions.

The other thing that has changed is it’s harder to do business today than it was previously.  You used to be able to go into another country.  They would usually welcome you with some agreement and you could set up a going concern in that environment.  Today we’ve got a lot of move to a nationalistic view around the world.  There is a lot of nationalization around policy and companies and also there is a scrutiny of which company is coming in here and who are they and what do they represent and is that good for our society, is that good for our people and so just to do what we did previously is actually harder today and the second part for the CEO is they don’t want a delegate to come and have a discussion with them.  They want to have a discussion with the person who runs the company and I think there are some very specific circumstances where you can have a very senior political person who has joined your company who can complement the CEO, but at the end of the day the CEO needs to be the person sort of opening the doors, if you will, the global doors for their corporation and then representing their brand in those societies and being successful representing them and that is hard. 

I mean if you look at for example big retail there are big retailers out there that are sort of looking at global domination if you will and many of those retailers are finding roadblocks as they go into different jurisdictions and different countries and it doesn’t matter whether they want to go in organically and open stores or whether they want to go in inorganically through acquisition, everything is being scrutinized at a different level and it’s being scrutinized at sort of what does this company stand for, what are they going to do for the society that they’re coming into, what is their broader corporate social responsibility or are they just about extracting shareholder value from our country.

You can’t be a parasite in the 21st century.  There has to be a symbiotic relationship between your company and that country and what is the symbiotic relationship and are you as a CEO able to articulate that?  Some are really good at that and some aren’t so good at that and they pay the price if they’re not.

Recorded January 12, 2011
Interviewed by Max Miller
Directed by Jonathan Fowler
Produced by Elizabeth Rodd