Business and Culture: Transatlantic Business Leaders Offer Advice, Wearing High Heels

Five business leaders walked onto the stage of the Texas-EU Summit to talk about managing transatlantic businesses. Two run European units based in the United States; two developed European units of U.S. practices; and one has done it all. Four wore stilettos.They didn’t have much time, and they had something to say. Not one wanted to be called out for her gender, and not one considered that remarkable.

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(L to R) Ana-Barbara Llorente, partner, Pendas International, moderator; Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US; Cristina Silingardi, Austin managing director, VCFO; Sharon Schweitzer, founder and principal, Access to Culture; and Liz Wiley, partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC and honorary consul of France

The hardest thing: Finding and keeping talent

Without question, the biggest challenge confronting a European company in the United States is finding and retaining talent. “Americans’ resumes look great, but you have to train them,” said Belen Marcos, president of Cintra US, one of the world’s largest private developers of infrastructure. Marcos, an engineer by training, noted that in Europe educational credentials are paramount. Americans job-hop more than European hires. They tend to specialize and resist working in areas outside their specialty.

“Europeans are generalists. They expect to do many different jobs.”

Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US

Navigating European statutory regulations

Disruptive business models challenge both business and cultural norms. Consider the vacation rentals that have turned many traditional neighborhoods into latchkey hotels. Cristina Silingardi, a Brazilian with deep finance experience, helped Austin-based HomeAway successfully navigate the sticky process of integrating acquisitions in both Spain and Brazil.

“Understand the statutory regulations before you do business … It went off without a hitch.”

Cristina Silingardi, Austin managing director, VCFO

“Contracts are part of the law in Europe,” said Liz Wiley, an attorney and partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC. who specializes in intellectual property.

“Very little if anything can be negotiated (in Europe). Expect negotiations to take much longer.”

Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US

Marcos knows a thing or two about the subject. Her company Cintra is part of the Spanish infrastructure provider Ferrovial. She and her team negotiate the construction and long-term management of roads, airports and concessions, many of which are public-private partnerships.

Belen Marcos (holding microphone), president of Cintra US, negotiates infrastructure contracts in Europe and the U.S.: “It takes longer in Europe because of statutory regulations.”

Codes vs. negotiation. Consider privacy.

Europe is not a monolith. Both EU and country-specific regulations come into play when determining who owns what. For example, “the EU has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but France has its own data protection authority, the CNIL, which handles GDPR complains and defends the French position with GDPR-related issues,” said Wiley

“The United States is not a code country,” commented Wiley, “We make our own deals.”

Liz Wiley, partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC

Wiley, whose practice includes both French and American startups, recommends first filing for U.S. patent protection, then filing in other countries to ward off infringements.

Soft skills matter

“When in doubt, err on the side of formality,” advises Wiley. And in the hurley-burley world of entrepreneurs, she recommends oral presentation training for cautious French startups that compete in the winner-take-all American pitch culture.

Sharon Schweitzer, principal, Access to Culture

Sharon Schweitzer’s company, Access to Culture, cross trains business people to be effective in other cultures. Recounting an incident where two older Czechs silenced their giggling younger colleagues with a steely glare, Schweitzer said the significance of a seemingly minor incident caught her by surprise.

But do high heels also matter?

The specter of political change is everywhere. Here too, dress is brand. This year’s Yellow Vest protests revealed the deep divide between France’s privileged class and rest of their country. As I’m writing this, on the other side of the world, young people in Hong Kong wear black and mourn a man in a yellow raincoat.

Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s testifying before Congress, stripped of his signature t-shirt and uncomfortable in a blue suit? Melania Trump in a white pussy-bow blouse and sky-high heels? Dress is political, and high heels stand unrivaled as a symbol of gender and power. Flip flops may reign in U.S. youth and tech enclaves, but search “business women” and you’ll find women in power in wearing heels — because they choose to.

In another culture where talent and a diverse work force weigh heavily on its future competitiveness, Japanese women unsuccessfully petitioned their government to ban gender-based dress codes (#KuToo), and specifically high heels. My guess is there’s another shoe to drop there.

In 1869, men in the Wyoming Territory needed wives. Politicians in Washington needed more voters in the Western territories. So Wyoming gave women the vote. John Morris wrote to a national magazine promoting women’s suffrage:

It is a fact that all great reforms take place, not where they are most needed, but in places where opposition is weakest; and then they spread.

John Morris, following the Wyoming Territory’s decision to give women the vote

“To be sustainable, change takes time,” Wiley noted. Would this panel have happened 30 years ago? 20? Maybe.

With that thought, I’m pulling out my high heels to wear sometime soon.

Hats off to Ana-Barbara Llorente and Pendas International, for sponsoring the panel, and the World Affairs Council of Austin for hosting.

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