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BRICS: The Building Blocks for the Future – and five things smart leaders understand!

April 24, 2012 Keith Coats Change, Diversity, Future Trends, Global business, Leadership, Strategy 4 Comments

It was Jim O’Neill, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, who some 10 years ago, coined the acronym, ‘BRIC’ – a grouping of emerging economies namely, Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Then, in a more recent move in 2012, South Africa was officially added to the club and so ‘BRIC’ became ‘BRICS’.

A recent trip to India now means that I can cross off each of these nations as destinations. In fact I have been fortunate enough to visit both Russia and China on several occasions. While I was in India the annual BRICS summit was taking place very close to where I was staying and was the subject of a great deal of media attention. It helped to act as a catalyst to focus my thoughts on both BRICS and that of my own journey.

There is no doubt that these (and other emerging economic powerhouses) are forever changing the global landscape as a new world order emerges. There is some debate as to whether or not South Africa deserves to be included in this grouping as on the face of it there other nations who could better justify inclusion.  South Korea, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey could all make strong cases for inclusion but try putting together an acronym for all eight – now there’s a challenge!

South Africa is somewhat dwarfed by the other four club members.  They have also each considerably out-performed South Africa when it comes to the rate of economic growth: For instance, China’s dollar value of GDP is creating the economic equivalent of a new South Africa every four months! O’Neill argues that South Africa justifies inclusion when considered as, ‘Africa’s representative’.  Debatable perhaps but it is a point taken.

The Goldman Sachs index referred to a the ‘Growth Environment Score’ – is a straight-forward look at the national variables necessary for sustained growth and productivity. The index was recently given a face-lift to incorporate a further five variables in addition to the thirteen that made-up the original index. The eighteen variables can be split into six different categories: macroeconomic stability (government deficit, external debt and inflation), macroeconomic conditions (investment rate, degree of openness to trade), political conditions (corruption, rule of law and political stability), technology (mobile phones, personal computers, internets users and secure internet servers), microeconomic environment (cost of starting a business, urban population, patent applications and research and development expenditure) and finally, human life (life expectancy and schooling). In the 2011 index statistics South Africa scores 5.08 out of 10 with South Korea scoring an impressive 7.7 – which places this nation fourth out of a total of 183 countries that Goldman Sachs rate. What is interesting is that South Africa scores higher than both India and Russia in the 2011 figures.


But back to my most recent BRICS destination – India. It is a staggering experience, a cacophony of sounds, smells and colours. David Blair, MD of Fitch Design Consultancy was quoted as saying, “Indians’ love of colour is well known and we have found that when we have brought concepts to India we have had to brighten up the whole experience to appeal to local tastes”. India is a nation of paradox and one in which nothing is what it seems; a country brimming with friendly, smiling people – all seemingly armed with a tangible energy and a humble confidence in who they are and what the future holds. It can all be quite intoxicating to the uninitiated.

The projections are that India is set to surpass China when it comes to economic clout by the year 2050. The Indian population (currently 1.3 billion) will pass that of China by 2035. The significant difference being that India has a ‘young population’ – a factor that will power its long-term economic prospects.

Earlier this year, when I was last in China, I heard the Chairman of the New Zealand Chamber of Commerce say, “If you are not in China, you are already too late”. It was a stark warning that resonated with all present and I suspect that that will be true of India in the not too distant future.

The biggest challenge in absorbing this global shift, this new and emerging world, is in how it challenges our conventional wisdom – both conceptual and practical. To think that we can simply transplant what has ‘worked here’ to ‘work there’ is a massive mistake. It is often indicative of lazy thinking and a hallmark of arrogance, a belief that ‘we know what works best’. Experiencing India is liable to quickly shake one out of such mediocrity and laziness. It is one thing reading the figures and projections; it is an entirely different thing to get a ‘hands-on’ experience of places such as India or China. It is when experiencing such places that the realization of the real work of global leadership hits home: that of cultural awareness and adaptive intelligence. Many of the lessons that have served so well in the past, in a different and familiar context, come up woefully short in the face of such over-whelming difference. We quickly realize that ‘our way’ is not ‘the way’ and that our ability to learn, translate, remain open and stay curious will be the new survival kit for thriving in a context such as India or China. Leaders will be required to go back to ‘boot camp’ if they are to succeed in this new emerging world order.

Places like India and China, indeed South Africa, are complex, fragmented and paradoxical. Yet, this is what our global future looks like and so we need to be asking how best to go about preparing our people and organizations for such diversity and the challenges that form part of this reality.

I have isolated five leadership lessons– one for each of the BRICS nations that I have visited, yet all equally applicable when considering the challenge of leading in emerging economies.

Realize that the more you think you know, how little you really know. Repeated visits to China and Russia combined with a life spent in South Africa could all be construed as a ready platform for expertise. However, my reality is that the more I have travelled, experienced, read, asked and observed – the more I realize just how little I really know about ‘other places’.  Leaders will need to avoid the trap of being seen by others (or themselves) as ‘instant experts’. In this global context there is no such thing! Curiosity needs to fuel the leader’s learning journey and there needs to be a willingness to recognize and understand that wisdom comes in many forms and guises.

Getting lost is part of the journey. Getting ‘lost’ translates as the willingness to ‘fail’ when it comes to organizations. Getting lost in a strange place (the Russian metro) is scary yet this is often where the most valuable lessons and insight are to be found. Individuals and organizations need to decide how best to embrace such an attitude and mindset but, if you are to thrive in this new world, getting lost is not optional.  In India I was privy to some insightful lessons that had been learnt through personal and corporate failure. Leaders need to finds ways to elevate such lessons in order to leverage learning and development; the problem is that all too often leaders have tended to bury such lessons – not shine a spotlight on them!

It might look, taste or feel the same…but it isn’t! We tend to frame and interpret things from our own particular reference points. Travel in strange places quickly undermines such assumptions and often does so with consequences that are the stories with which we entertain and regale family, friends and colleagues on our return. As a leader you need to be aware of the lenses’ through which you interpret ‘reality’ and make judgements. You need to be willing to suspend the ‘truth’ of such views if you are to honestly engage in the challenging world of paradox and difference. In fact it can be a very sobering experience to realise that the reliability of such lenses, something that may have remained unquestioned and fixed for so long, are in fact, questionable. This becomes the uncomfortable terrain of personal growth and is often like wearing a scratchy garment that causes one to itch without relief.  However, as the reframing takes place we will arrive at a place of insight and clarity in spite of how we may feel during the early stages of the journey. T.S Eliot said it best in his poem The Four Quarters when he wrote, ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. They are words I have grown to appreciate for the wisdom that is embedded within them.

Getting out is the only way to truly get in. I remember seeing a sign in a supermarket where the entrance was under repair, it read: ‘The only way out is In’. It was a memorable sign and also good leadership advice. Many travel to the places we have mentioned only to ‘experience’ them from five-star hotels and coaches, insulated from the reality and life that happens all around them. That is no way to experience difference. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is critical to finding a way ‘in’ to the context and culture in which you find yourself. This need not only apply to when one is travelling, as I know too many leaders who seldom venture from the comfort and confines of their oak-panelled offices to get a dose of reality within their own kingdom!

Learn the language…or at least how to say “hello” and “thank you”. Greetings differ and what is appropriate in one place isn’t so in another. Some cultures smile a lot, others don’t. Some place hands together (India) and others use a similar gesture but one that is entirely different (China). Of course I am talking about surface things here but cultural sensitivities will go a long way to forging authentic relationships. I know of deals that have been won or lost based purely on such cultural awareness’s.  Intel have employed a cultural anthropologist (Genevieve Bell) to assist them navigate these new realities within their context. It is a smart move and one that I suspect will be replicated by others who find themselves operating in this global context.  It is no coincidence that one of the finest leadership programmes I know of – the Asia Pacific Leadership Program (East West Center, Hawaii) is headed-up by a cultural anthropologist by the name of Prof Nick Barker. It is from this discipline (cultural anthropology) that we will be able to withdraw helpful frameworks and knowledge about how better to engage and learn in the midst of difference and diversity. As I have repeatedly heard Nick say, “we are not different from each other but rather we are different for each other”. It will be a vital source of learning for those serious about this new world that is emerging, one in which the old rules and etiquette are of limited use. Of course cultural anthropology isn’t the only resource available and companies will need to embrace a wider frame of reference than that which is currently employed, if they are to make inroads in this new context. It should be evident in business schools but sadly there is often little imagination to be found in leadership curriculum in such places.

The future is not what it used to be. My mother who is in her eighties still talks about the ‘far east’. The reality is, the ‘far east’ has become the ‘near east’. Leaders need to embrace the changes that are taking place. You need to read, ask, learn but better yet, you need to go. Go and experience the places that I’ve spoken about and as you do so, here is some advice: go as a pilgrim and not a tourist. The difference is that tourists take pictures but pilgrims collect stories. Go and collect some of your own stories and then learn to live and translate these for those around you so that you become a learning organization – one that is ready to embrace the change, the chaos and the opportunity that is our future.

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Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. Dana Theus says:

    Great article Graeme. I used to travel internationally for business early in my career and found myself woefully underprepared, by my company and my culture. I did fine and had a great time traveling the world but got out when I realized that to it right I needed more backup than I was prepared to invest in myself. My husband also travels (still) and the BRIC is his bailiwick. Reading your piece reminds me that we “leadership gurus” often don’t cover this critical angle in leadership development – the global angle. I love your approach, which is to expand on the themes we teach leaders here but challenge them to take it to another level. Great work.

  2. Ian Paterson says:

    Hi Graeme, great article & insights.

    One of the great challenges is the scale and economic / social diversity of the countries you speak about. In South Africa, the Cape is not the same as Gauteng – very different dynamics politically, economically and socially. China is different across all of its regions and especially in terms of the rural and urban divide. So, no matter how much you ‘get out’ – remember that you’re seeing a snapshot of a city / country that is often both unique and has things in common with the rest of the country. Managing these polarities by actively looking at what may be the same and what may be different is a useful way / lens through which to derive insights.

    Maybe another way of looking at South Africa as a member of BRICS is not to think of SA as a representative of Africa (we are already accused of being arrogant and a new economic coloniser in Africa!) but more of the potential of the overall Southern African Development Community region – starts to add some economic bulk / market space, although still not at a BRIC peer level. Thanks!

    • Graeme says:

      Ian, thanks for the additional reminder about the fact that many of these emerging nations and regions are HUGE, and therefore the internal differences are often as stark as the external differences. The difference is that in most emerging countries (except possibly India) there is quite a lot of centralised government control, so (at least in principle) there are common features, policies and systems across various internal regions.

  3. Keith says:

    Glad you liked my article Ian…thanks for your comments

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The main contributors to this blog are:

Dr Graeme Codrington, co-founder of TomorrowToday, author, speaker and expert on the changing world of work
Dean van Leeuwen, co-founder and CEO of TomorrowToday UK & Europe, speaker, consultant and Chief Intellectual Adventurer
Keith Coats, co-founder of TomorrowToday South Africa, leadership development guru, speaker and author
Professor Nick Barker, director of the Asia Pacific Leadership Program at the East-West Center in Hawaii, leadership development expert
Markus Kramer, marketing director for Aston Martin and brand building expert
Keith Holdt, Visionary Enabler of business growth and change, currently works for LDC as an investment executive.
Dil Sidhu, Chief External Officer, Manchester Business School; Executive education specialist.
Dawna MacLean, expert on fostering meaningful change and creating authentic experiences through transparent and trusted partnerships.

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