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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 0.jpg
(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.

Revisiting “Be Nice”: #BeNice2.0

In late July of 2017, I pushed my way into un-air conditioned warehouse-turned performance space to see an eccentric program called “Sixty by 60,” a series of 60 spoken, danced, mimed, sung one-minute performances produced by our much-loved, no-longer-local, disruptive arts nonprofit, Fusebox.

20258046_10154477548976710_6588016805002549648_n
Two performers wait to perform at “Sixty by 60.”  Sixty artistic souls expressed themselves for 60 seconds — without air conditioning.

The piece I remember most vividly featured a young African-American woman wearing a white t-shirt that read in bold, black letters, “Be Nice.”  A small woman, standing in the middle of the stage, she invited the 200 of sweating her sweating audience to pick up the white t-shirts she’d placed on their chairs and wave them over head, joining her in shouting “Be Nice!” to loud music.

Her minute landed lightly with her worn-out audience, as we shouted and laughed and clapped, and as the year passed, I realize how profound her message was, how many notes she struck.

I’m assuming the artist — why didn’t I get her name? — knew the allusion to the iconic New Orleans R&B queen Irma Thomas’ waving her white handkerchief as a sign to her audience to put their backfields in motion and acknowledge black woman power. 2017 was the year that even the most delusional among us had to recognize that all bets are off in terms of social, business and political discourse. This was not news to black women.  On more than one occasion, when the fearlessly talented Thomas invited her to  wave a white handkerchief, they also waved Confederate flags.

But 2017 brought us a new president, Travis Kalanick, Harvey Weinstein, shootings by and of policemen, fake news, children gunned down in churches, and more.  There is a lot of material to work with during 2018.

Though if it were up to me, a woman raised with the same words, I would make it BeNice2.0 to make it clear they no longer mean, “Don’t ruffle feathers, don’t offend, don’t speak up.”  We’re done with that, having discovered that it yields its flip side: anger, resentment, alienation, hurt feelings, etc.  We don’t need enemies. We need collaborators, supporters, friends, critics who are willing to listen.

The other thing I like about BeNice2.0 is that it takes us beyond “be kind,” unquestionably a necessary and admirable life rule.  To me, BeNice2.0, suggests a more active, engaging stance. Ask for what you need, point out unfair behavior, propose better approaches. Be active; #BeNice2.0

 

Mercury Retrograde and Other Uncontrollable Mysteries

Somehow in the hurry-scurry of the new year, I missed Kristin Dombek’s beautiful piece in last Sunday’s NYT, “Retrograde Beliefs, In defense of magical thinking.”  Read it if you haven’t because Mercury takes it first 2015 trip backward starting next week.  I know this because one of my A-priority New Year tasks is to block out on my calendar the four times a year it happens. I draw a thick yellow line through those 16 (give or take a couple of) weeks so I’ll know not to get frustrated, to finish incomplete projects and not start new ones. To neither sign contracts nor make big commitments.

The stars' secret influence is only one thing we try to control. Illustration by Javier Jaen, courtesy of The New York Times.
The stars’ secret influence is only one thing we try to control. Illustration by Javier Jaen, courtesy of The New York Times.

Dombek nudged me with her graceful, faintly scientific reminder: Jousting with Mercury is a mortal stab at codifying mystery. Forget it. Alas, for us planners and plotters, Mercury is just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2008, on the brink of the Great Recession, I buried a St. Joseph statue in the front yard of a house I wanted to sell. I bought the statue under false pretenses, telling the cashier at the religious supply store that it was for my mother, who collected Nativity sets. That was true, but I had a distinct feeling I would be punished for fudging on the larger truth.

There were specific instructions for burying the saint. I researched the procedure and measured the distances carefully – so many steps to the east of the front door, so many steps from the street. Even so, when the house sold and it was time to dig St. Joseph up, I couldn’t find him.

This worried my mother, the collector, who’d put Mary and baby Jesus on the shelf beside her chair, awaiting the carpenter’s arrival.

“Where’s Joseph,” she asked.

“He’s on a business trip,” I answered. “He’ll be back.”

But he never returned, and Mary remained a single mother, much to my mother’s distress.

I’ve wondered about the unintended consequences. The house I sold is still occupied by the family that bought it, but I’ve moved every couple of years since then.

Then there’s the blog I started following a series of family deaths. It was an exercise in catharsis, and when it was over, I’d had I enough. I deleted my connection to the content, but I couldn’t delete the content itself. It’s out there, like a piece of floating debris or an orphan planet. Sometimes I want to reclaim it, but I can’t. The posts dangle in the ether, that great celestial dumpster.

There’s a scary freedom in this lack of control, like releasing a captive wild thing, and a reminder that I’ve never been, nor will I ever be in control. Which is the point. It is a mystery.

Can Lassie be saved? When re-branding doesn’t work

I’m still reeling about Lassie. That the scion of a loyal, courageous, elegant line of war heroes (The Courage of Lassie) has been re-positioned as the “Kate Middleton of animals” is more than I can bear.

Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  Courtesy of The New York Times.
Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Granted re-branding is tricky, as are brand extensions. Should this young Lassie have been a brand extension instead of a re-brand?  Can Lassie come home?

Case in point:  I’ve been admiring a new extension of a venerable local brand as it’s come together over the last several months.  The new building is adjacent to the original, so the relationship of mother-to-child is obvious. Of course, this is not Hollywood, but we’re getting close to it here in Austin, Tex.

The original, Fonda San Miguel, is a gorgeous place filled with a world-class art collection, food and drink. A welcoming, elegant restaurant with adjacent gardens.

It's the kind of restaurant eople take pictures of each other standing in front of
It’s the kind of restaurant where you go to curry favor.

Here’s the extension. It’s unannounced, unopened but rumored to be a tapas bar.  Perfect, no?

The new tapas bar of Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas.
The child of the grand Fonda San Miguel, just across the garden in Austin, Texas.  A bit of hipster funk.

The brand extension works because it contrasts with the original while maintaining the flavor. It’s unexpected, but it makes sense. (I sound like I’m at a wine tasting, don’t I?  But you understand what I’m saying.)

A lesson for Dreamworks?  Don’t tamper with an icon.  Did anyone ask Marilyn Monroe to lose weight?  Well, probably, but that’s another conversation.

Is it presumptious to compare a Hollywood icon to a local institution?  Perhaps. But then again why not, if something is to be learned?

Maybe Lassie’s great-great-great offspring should have been renamed “Lasi” and positioned as a fashion blogger?

Who Put Brussel Sprouts in Every Shopping Basket?

What I want to know is this:  Who engineered the comeback of brussel sprouts?  Did I miss the tweets?  Because the humble vegetable of my childhood, grey and waterlogged, has morphed into a supply side challenge.

Can farmers keep up?
               Can farmers keep up?

Was it Mark Bittman and those classy NYT spreads?  Some trendy chef in upper New York state, or even here in what was once a comfortably populist ATX (Tex Mex or a steak, anyone?)?

There’s been no humiliating name change (bruss?), as prunes have had to endure (dried plums?).  They look the same:  little cabbages, hard and round.  No labor-saving innovations;  still a somewhat tedious process that requires a colander, trimming, cutting, and unless you’re a roaster, a two-step cooking process.

They still, sauces and marinades aside, taste (and smell) like cabbages.

Was there a blog?  A reality show (an island, 20-somethings, a case of brussel sprouts and lots of conflict?)  Opeds?

Did Dr. Oz endorse them for their digestive qualities?  Was it the source-agnostic but ever-purist French?

Where is the marketing team?  I want to meet them.

Stand up straight!

I came of age during the dawn of the fashionable slouch.  Despite my mother’s  admonitions to keep my shoulders back, I conformed to the preferred silhouette: the pelvis forward, knees bent.  It has not served me well.

Bad posture
An array of bad choices, courtesy of Susy Russell Posture + Physical Therapy

Millennials, take heed.  The long-term effects of gravity are not to be denied.  If you start slumped, you may end up standing with your nose touching your knees.  Be forewarned:  Stilettos and brilliant leather bags that weigh as much as a mid-sized dog give home-court advantage to the earth’s pull.  Downward.  Full disclosure:  I did my time tramping about Manhattan in Bruno Magli heels. I’ve reformed:  Forget about sex appeal.  Opt for good sense.    

Bad posture is insidious.  It’s formed gradually over hours, days, years hunched over one device or another, a lunch or dinner table, leaning forward, elbows on the table. These are habits — bad habits that constrict our breathing and crumple our digestive tracts.  No good will come of it.   

Then there’s sitting — and air travel.  I recently took a flight to California thinking I was prepared. I’d torn an article out of the New York Times on in-flight yoga poses.  The challenge proved to be miniaturizing them for coach class – a physical, spiritual and social exercise.  I mastered one — raising my legs.  The others are going to require more practice, and less concern about my seat mates.  Perhaps they will want to practice alongside me.

It’s taken me eight years of yoga classes and relatively diligent practice to be able to recognize what it feels like to breathe.  It happens when you stand on flat feet, weight balanced and your spine reaching upward (new muscles!).  While I wish I’d started sooner, I’m grateful to have finally figured it out.

Summer is a good time to not just think about this but to do something.   The air is bad. It’s hot. There’s more exposed skin.  All good reasons to look the world straight in the eye, take a deep breath and breathe.

 

 

Perfectionism as the ultimate fake out

If you feel in need of a good, healthy slap in the face, I recommend Andrew Solomon’s brilliant Far from the Tree, a page turner of a book about those among us who are born different — the deaf, dwarves, homosexuals, children of rape.  It’s required reading for the 21st century, especially for people like me who whine when we fall short of (fill in the blank).

Stop worrying and start making yourself and the world around you better.
Stop worrying about being perfect. Start improving.

Solomon’s Tree gives those us blessed to be born in the middle of the bell curve a benchmark with which to measure our own silly self-preoccupations, among which I must say, perfectionism stands out as a colossal waste of energy.

Fortunately, thanks to Brene Brown, population explosion, social media and the first amendment,  perfectionism has fallen out of favor.  Witness the snarky comments about the talented, drop-dead gorgeous Anne Hathaway.  We don’t like to be shown up.

So, quick, while perfection is not trending, let’s try to figure out how to put all the energy we spend worrying about future outcomes into actually trying to make both ourselves and the future better.  Case in point: public speaking has never been easy for me. I can suffer insomnia, panic attacks and temporary amnesia prior to giving a talk.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to put that effort into preparing?  Wouldn’t it be logical to just talk about what I care about rather than trying to sound like I have it all together?

Ever listen to “From the Top,” the radio show about young musicians?  These kids spend four and five hours a day practicing their art and seem to thrive on the process. They’re focused, fun and innovative.  They don’t whine. I hope they’re the future.  Out with suffering artists and tortured, overly competitive achievers!

On a community level, here in Austin, which has always been a high-volunteer/low donation city, “I Live Here, I Give Here” program sponsored Amplify Austin, a day-long donation marathon, sort of like “1,000 Points of Light” meets Kickstarter.  The result?  $3 million for non-profits.  What an improvement over whining!

The point is that making things (and oneself) better takes a lot of work, but not necessarily self-torture.  Even moving forward is hard.  But consider the alternative.

The other thought is — and this is a separate post — there’s a trick to weaving a story — about oneself, a client or colleague — that makes the process a lot easier — and more fun.  It worked for Jane Austen (who doesn’t want to be Elizabeth Bennet?) and Scheherazade.  Why not us?

So, let it go.  Take a minute and do a little jig.  Recite “The Owl and the Pussycat.”  Go make something better.