Before I started writing about sustainability, I used to take on freelance work as a language, public relations and corporate communications coach for Spanish executives in a wide range of sectors, from tourism to manufacturing. I helped them negotiate contracts with foreign partners, compete for high-level positions in multinational corporations and survive foreign takeovers of their companies.
I was often sought out because I was an American and the American executive model was the most admired. From time to time, I served as a human resources consultant for Northern European and American companies. After a candidate was hired, I was often asked to coach the new executive to improve his or her language skills and inter-cultural communications. Most of these executives had shelves full of books about American management and marketing concepts. To perplexed FC Barca and RCD Espanyol fans, I explained the business terminology related to American and British sports vocabulary; what it is was to field or bunt for another person, cover all the bases, have targets and goals, to huddle, and to establish a level playing field. In those days, Europe looked almost exclusively to North Americans for advice on how to reach the heights of success; from stolen cheese theories to the strategy of selling one’s Ferrari after one reached the top. Things have changed a bit since then.
Europeans are now writing their own management and marketing bestsellers, filled with their own concepts and metaphors relating to business, markets, success and society. Not as given to cycles of excess followed by revelations and spiritual redemptions as North Americans, most Europeans tend to have a less dramatic approach to material success and failure and a greater interest in balancing the work / life dilemma throughout their professional careers. The consolidation of the European Union gave the Italian and the Swede and the Belgian the opportunity to invent their own shared protocols for success. I don’t hear as many businessmen here say that it’s so much easier to create companies in the States than in Europe as I once did. I don’t know as many young professionals dying to relocate to the U.S. either. People here used to be in awe of a country where a twenty-eight year-old could become a billionaire in two years. Now they shake their heads at a country where a twenty-eight year-old is an overnight billionaire while more than 46 million people don’t have health insurance.
Paging through the Sunday magazine of the August 20 edition of el País, I had the opportunity to think hard and long about this evolution in European thinking. The cover story, titled “Generation Europe – I was Born on the 1st of January 1986”, was a portrait of twenty young people who were born the year Spain entered the European Union. For engineering student Carlos Lacasta, of Zaragoza, in Aragon, who hopes to continue his studies in the Netherlands, Europe is “the center of modern democracy”. Manuel Angel Veiga, who works installing doors for 850 euros a month, is a staunch Euro supporter because E.U. farm supports enabled his parents to hold on to their herd of cattle during hard economic times in Galicia. “The new Eastern European States should have the same opportunity that Spain had,” he adds, even as the European Union phases out economic subsidies for Mediterranean countries in favor of less prosperous new member states.
The idea that everybody should minimally cooperate with everyone else, even when it means ceding territory or giving up personal prerogatives and short-term goals, is an attitude central to the present European vision of ethics and society, and pops up in another article in the same Sunday magazine titled “Indecent Success“ .
Indecent Success was written by Alex Rovira, professor at the Escuela Superior de Administracion y Direccion de Empresas (ESADE) and author of a string of management and marketing bestsellers, including the widely translated “La Brujula Interior” (The Inner Compass, published in English as Letters to Myself).
In the August 20, Sunday magazine of el País, Rovira writes neither of marketing in general, nor of Los Siete Poderes, his most recent addition to the management and personal success genre. “Indecent Success” is about the recent death of British alpinist David Sharp on Mount Everest. It seems that forty other climbers witnessed the agony and death of thirty-four-year-old Sharp, but chose to continue their own ascent to the top rather than “risk” stopping to attend to him. Rovira postulates in his article that the egotism of the forty climbers who clung to their own ambitions to reach the summit, rather than attempting to rescue a fellow climber in distress, serves as a metaphor for the current lack of ethical behavior in all spheres of life. He laments the fact that only one person, a sherpa named Dawa, stopped to aid Sharp. One compared to forty, he reflects. When struggling to reach the summit, you can count on the solidarity of 4% of the people around you. Some experts defended the forty who went on to the peak; others castigated them. The judgment of Rovira is unequivocal: whether climbing Everest or the corporate ladder, if you abandon the less fortunate or helpless people you encounter on the way to the top, your success is indecent.
Rovira´s article brought to mind another that I had read in the Christian Science Monitor more than thirty years ago. The news clipping has long since disappeared and I no longer remember the name of the writer, but the gist of the article remains clear in my memory. It was a conversation between a western journalist and his African colleague. The writer wants to know if his African friend sometimes asks himself the question, “Who am I?” The friend quickly replies, “No”. There is a long silence. Finally, the African says that he does often think about his relationship to everyone and everything around him. The embarrassed westerner, wishing to qualify his original question, asks him if he isn’t sometimes frustrated by the backwardness of the people around him. He, personally, is a highly intelligent, capable person. Using a metaphor, the journalist asks him if he didn’t sometimes wish to rush to the top of the mountain alone, without the weight of others slowing him down, if only to see what one could see from the summit. The African friend’s reply, that it would not be very rewarding to achieve that privileged perspective without anyone to share it with, is now, as it was for me then, a major epiphany.
Back when the Spaniards weren’t so euro-confident, Spanish businessmen used to moan “Europe begins at the Pyrenees”, an old saying that referred to Spain as the perennial outcast, the backward, undeveloped, undemocratic runt of the continent, more third world than first world, the country that never economically or spiritually benefited from a Marshall Plan transformation. Now Spain is considered to be one of the sweet spots of the continent. The Spanish economy is booming and where Europe begins and ends is more a state of mind than a geographic or political designation.
The life philosophy of the African colleague of the Christian Science Monitor reporter, who must be a wise old man by now, is now, somewhat belatedly, catching hold on the other side of the Straights of Gibraltar. European policy makers and businessmen are now talking about “North-South” strategic planning, that would take into account the needs and desires of societies in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Reaching the summit together, however slowly, is no longer regarded as a warm and fuzzy utopian sentiment, but rather, as a practical policy that can assure international political stability, prevent unsustainable population migrations and ward off large-scale ecological disaster. This change of orientation might be a shift to what Alex Rovira would consider inner compass thinking. Policy makers and businessmen can’t fine tune their inner compasses if individuals, as voters and consumers, don’t responsibly consult theirs. Manuel Angel Veiga, installing doors in Galicia for 850 euros a month, supports EU subsidy shifts from Spain to Eastern European countries. His own success may be modest, but it’s decent. His inner compass is in fine working order and it helps him see the long-term benefits in considering the welfare of others on a very large scale.
Rovira and his marketing business partner, Fernando Trias de Bes, are betting on the synergies that are created when the greater good is part of a company’s bottom line. They have coined the word “psiconómica” to describe their management and marketing theories, the goal being to promote business practices that would, “like ecological practices in agriculture”, favor a sustainable balance between people and production. More complacent than revolutionary in practice, at the partners´ marketing and market research agency, Salvetti & Llombart , psiconómia boils down to promoting “Pull up nappies” and Diet Coca Cola. Still, their “win-win” convictions are a breath of fresh air in a jaded industry. In their book, La Buena Suerte (Good Luck), they state their belief that “creating circumstances that create opportunities for others will increase your own good luck.” I’m all for that theory. Heaven knows, given the current circumstances, we could all use a bit of creativity and a lot of good luck.