"It was all insane. The referendum was an asinine idea…I think we are screwed." – Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Commentator, Financial Times
It wasn't all doom and gloom, but the profound economic impact that the current social and political environment is likely to trigger was front and center on this first day of the Page Society Annual Conference in London. The conference, set upon exploring a divided world, started with an expansive look at economic and cultural rifts that are driving truly unprecedented shifts in the global landscape.
Simon Walker of the Institute of Directors described the tremendous challenges that today's enterprises face from a progressively tumultuous environment. The rise of populism. Excessive executive pay. Waning public trust in institutions. Companies evolving but failing to adequately retrain employees to meet new demands. Finding solutions to these problems is particularly difficult as management wrestles with a workforce that has a deficit of "soft skills" – creativity, collaboration, emotional intelligence and resourcefulness – the human skills that will be at a premium as companies modernize their operations and attempt to bridge divides.
It should be no surprise that a disillusioned workforce facing an uncertain future would be inclined to reject the status quo and the institutions that propagate it. Brexit in the U.K. and the success of Trump in the U.S. are the logical manifestations of years of frustration on the part of largely marginalized stakeholders.
Wolf shared the numbers that revealed Brexit as a rebellion of young against old, educated against less educated, provinces versus cities, well-off versus less-off. "These are very deep problems, and we have no answers." Then he quipped: "Apart from that, everything's fine."
In between Walker and Wolf, we heard from Erin Meyer (right), who teaches about cultural intelligence at INSEAD. For companies expanding into new markets, navigating new cultures is a top requirement of the CCO. To earn trust among stakeholders, to facilitate collaboration with teams and partners in different parts of the world, CCOs need to foster and apply a well-developed understanding about how different cultures operate.
For instance, Anglo-Saxon countries like the U.S. and U.K. are very "low-context" communications cultures, meaning that they are more explicit and direct. Eastern cultures can alternatively tend toward being more "high-context," which means that much of one's intended meaning is implied or understood rather than stated. Why? More multicultural societies tend to lean toward clarity and directness to account for a lack of shared background and understanding, whereas a more homogeneous, island culture – like, say, Japan – would be able to rely on a shared understanding of subtext and unspoken communication. "Good communicators in high-context cultures need to be able to 'read the air,'" says Meyer, referring to a Japanese phrase referring to this shared understanding.
For CCOs, the challenge is to resist the urge to boil communications down to the lowest common denominator, and instead tailor communications and stakeholder engagement in a way that matches the local culture and customs.
Communication around some of the most contentious issues of our day can at times favor rhetorical bluster over measured reason. Regardless of the culture, clarity, honesty and shared understanding are what is required. For CCOs, that is both challenge and opportunity.