Perspective Is Everything

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I recently was talking with my eighty-something father about preferred holidays, and I commented that Thanksgiving is my personal favorite. He replied that the one great thing about Thanksgiving is that everybody celebrates it. I pointed out that he was right, as long as by “everybody” he wasn’t including Europeans, Asians, South Americans and Africans. Thanksgiving, I pointed out, is just an American holiday, and he agreed (though I think he was a little regretful about it).

This exchange—and the America-centric nature of my father’s attitude—took on greater meaning recently when I was reading a piece on CNN.com about PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi, looking at how her view of the world affects—and is reflected in—her leadership of the company. Being a child of the sixties and the anti-war movement, I don’t often find myself interested in much that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has to say, but he had an interesting take on Nooyi: “If you look at the job entirely from the American perspective, then it becomes impossible to run a global business…you have to relate your interests to the interests of other parts of the world—to be relevant in their societies. Indra seems to understand this instinctively.”

It is quite natural that Nooyi would not have an America-centric view of the world; after all, she was born and raised in India. And the shift in corporate leadership of major U.S. companies to people raised outside the United States has been palpable. In just the past year, Citigroup named Vikram Pandit, also raised in India, to be its CEO. And The Coca-Cola Co. has named Muhtar Kent, who was raised in Turkey, to succeed Neville Isdell as its CEO. On the retail side, Eduardo Castro-Wright, born in Ecuador, is CEO of Wal-Mart’s U.S. division.

It is a fair assumption that these kinds of appointments are going to be more common, as American companies of all kinds realize that their futures are tied to acceptance by a global customer base. And changing perspectives are absolutely necessary to be successful in this kind of environment.

There is a moment in “Jaws” that illustrates what I’m talking about. At one point, Richard Dreyfuss’ character, Matt Hooper, says to Roy Scheider’s police chief, “It doesn’t make much sense for a guy who hates the water to live on an island.”

And Scheider responds: “It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.”

Perspective is everything.

Not long ago, while attending the CIES Global Food Safety Conference in Amsterdam, there were a number of instances when I became aware of how my vision can be too parochial, and how I need to take a broader view and remain open to other perspectives.

For example, I was moderating one workshop and Lisbeth Kohls, senior VP of consumer and quality affairs at ICA in Sweden, talked in detail about a meat scandal that hit the company late last year. Several stores were exposed on national television as having repackaged out-of-date meat, and while the problems were limited to just a few stores, it threatened the company’s national reputation.

Well, I was working on two assumptions going into the session—that the company’s biggest exposure would be on the legal side as litigation against the company would hit new highs (think about the number of lawsuits launched against Hannaford Supermarkets almost overnight when it was revealed that the company had a credit-card security breach), and that Internet “chatter” would make it extremely difficult for ICA to recover from the scandal.

Well, I was wrong on both counts. Lisbeth Kohls told us that, in fact, not a single lawsuit has been filed against the company, and that bloggers have not been a factor in how the company has been perceived. I guess they’re just nicer over there. In any case, I brought an American perspective to the discussion, and that was a mistake. Not everybody behaves as we do, and in the case of ICA, that will probably help its recovery efforts.

(By the way, it isn’t just a matter of nationality. The ability and willingness to look at things differently strike me as extremely applicable to many of our business lives. If we act as if only our perspective makes sense—developed over years of experience and held with iron-clad certainty that this is the way business should be done—we all run the risk of missing out on important, transformational trends and even becoming irrelevant to a changing customer base.)

The reality is that America has just 303.7 million people, out of a world population that exceeds 6.6 billion. And we’d better get used to our minority status, because with every passing day, “the world is flat” phenomenon described by Thomas L. Friedman gains greater momentum.

Think of this in the context of the Wal-Mart employee who insulted a Muslim woman’s face veil. That employee, perhaps inadvertently, made a joke that clearly demonstrated that he was lacking a certain sensitivity about diversity issues. If he’d realized, for example, that the world’s Muslim population is actually growing significantly faster than the world’s population, he probably would have kept his mouth shut.

Perspective is everything.

And that almost certainly is at least part of the reason Pepsi decided to hire Indra K. Nooyi as its CEO. CNN.com made the case persuasively:

“Since becoming CEO, she has reorganized PepsiCo to make it less fixated on the U.S. and broadened the power structure by doubling her executive team to 29. She has installed an Italian native, Massimo d’Amore, atop the division that includes the troublesome U.S. soft-drink business, and recruited a former Mayo Clinic endocrinologist to head up R&D. Last year she spent $1.3 billion on acquisitions such as Naked Juice, a California maker of soy drinks and organic juice. Her fluency in the global arena is increasingly critical to the business. With the U.S. marketplace in slow-growth mode even in the best of times, the biggest opportunities are overseas. PepsiCo’s international business grew 22% last year, triple the rate of domestic sales, and now contributes 40% of total revenue ($39 billion last year).” Perspective is everything. Companies that don’t realize that, and that don’t factor a global perspective into their business strategies, are making a serious mistake.

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