You hold both British and Canadian citizenships – how did you end up with dual citizenship?
It is even more complicated than that – I was born and raised in Canada, before moving to Hong Kong, where I received an identity card for permanent residency, which is the closest to citizenship you can get without being Chinese. Then I moved to London where I lived for seven years. After five years you qualify for permanent residency and, after six years, for citizenship. So, effectively, I added both Hong Kong and British citizenships to my own. Additionally, my wife is originally from the Philippines, therefore our children have the right to live and work in four countries.
So you really are a border-crossing family?
Absolutely, yes. My two eldest children go to university in Vancouver, our vacation house is in the Philippines and we are in the process of moving from London to Zurich. All of our children were on airplanes within 30 days of being born. Living in more than one place appears to be quite normal for us.
What would you say is typically British, what is typically Canadian and – after what you have just told me – typically Asian about you?
That is an excellent question, but I think, in a way, I am poorly placed to answer it, as I have taken in all of those different influences. So what seems normal and routine to me, may be seen as highly unusual by someone else.
You became global head of corporate communications at Zurich Financial Services in May. What were the first things you accomplished in the first two months?
Zurich is a very large and complex organisation. In the first two months, I think I have gained a much better understanding of how the organisation really works, and where the stresses and challenges are, as well as who feels involved and who does not really feel connected. I think that is something which is very familiar for many of the readers who have joined new employers.
You worked for many years at HSBC Global Banking and Markets in London. The fierce criticism targeted towards the banking industry in the past two years must have been difficult to experience. Does your new role at Zurich Financial Services promise to be a welcome change of pace?
It felt like time for a move after those years in London. Of course, the last two years were a stressful period – HSBC was a very good bank but still a bank and therefore belonged to the category of ‘evil, awful and terrible banks’. It is, in some sense, a relief to move on to something where the stories are different and the themes are broader. The story of the banking industry will be the same in next two years as it was in the past two years. Banking has just one story, and after a while that gets a bit dull.
What communications challenges do a global insurance company and a global bank have in common?
My own understanding and thoughts on what the purpose of communications is within large organisations has evolved. I now fully recognise how important the internal audience is. It is much less about dealing with the media than it was 10 years ago. Your number one audience is your own employees – they are incredibly valuable, especially in a services company. Product features are not how you win: it is a combination of service, customer experience, and retaining knowledge and developing talent within the firm. All of this is entirely dependent on people. If you have a very high turnover or a hard time recruiting the best people, you will struggle. This is a business strategy issue: attracting and retaining the best workforce in a services company is critical. It is even harder when you are dealing with a labour market which is evolving rapidly, particularly in emerging markets. It certainly was the case that a large multinational company operating in a less-developed market 20 years ago could have had its pick of university graduates. Everybody wanted to work for the big modern company, but now, local companies can, and do, compete very aggressively with multinational companies. Sometimes local companies will have a better image, or they can make quite a strong argument that they offer better career opportunities. Finding the right people across a network of 60 countries is much more challenging than it used to be. For all of those reasons, I think that the internal audience is number one. Successful companies have clearly done something with their staff to make a difference, and communications is absolutely central to making that happen, which is another dramatic change. Communications is no longer the company’s newsletter or press office – which may have been the case 10 or 20 years ago. I believe that today, communications is right at the core of a modern corporation.
How can you create and orchestrate Zurich’s communications towards its very diverse workforce of 60,000 employees worldwide in a manner which makes it suitable for the different cultural groups among your employees?
My own view is people have become, to some extent, obsessed with the technology of what is called social networking. They ignore what is truly interesting about it and that is simply that people will identify with and join communities. People spend many hours per day inside their company with their colleagues, so you can be Swiss or American or Emirati, and that is your national community, but at the same time you can be part of the Zurich community. There need not be a contradiction. You can create a Zurich community of 60,000 people, distributed across the world, that has a very strong culture which people identify with, where people have shared experiences, values and vision, and none of that has to contradict their own national characteristics, language or preferences. I think successful modern companies have figured that out. The trick is that you must be very careful and you must guard against expressing corporate culture in terms of a national culture – and that is hard.
You mentioned social media – does the plethora of new media facilitate communications across borders or make it more difficult?
At present, I think it is making it more difficult, but that is because we are not yet at the shake-out phase, where people decide democratically what to use and what not to use. The audience will decide which the best channel is, or the better channels, and then people can focus their attention on those challenges. It is confusing – it’s a challenge worth spending a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with.
Is social media suitable for the insurance business, an industry which is perceived as being rather conservative?
We do not know yet because in financial services in general you have to be very careful with your reputation. You do not want to buy insurance from a company that is ‘radical’. There have been some experiments with Twitter and internal blogs – some successful, some not so successful. We have also had a couple of very successful uses of external blogs about specific topics. Yes, the internet has been around for a long time, but this social media explosion is very recent. It is only in the last few years that the usage figures have increased dramatically. I do not think we know how to use it yet, or how people ultimately will use it in the future, but we do need to take it seriously.
Your customers are getting younger...
It has certainly been pointed out to me, having children, that they are doing things differently, so there is a generational shift. My first career was in newspapers, but my children do not read them. There is a transition. Does that make them worse people? It saddens me as I grew up loving and reading newspapers, as well as working for one. They are actually consuming a lot of information, but from different sources. I think five years from now, there will be a differentiation between trusted and untrusted sources – something will emerge that is trusted and verified, and it will have those features that used to be associated with a newspaper. With social media, it is impossible to know what can be trusted to such a level right now.
Is it possible to identify differences in the way the Asian media report on matters in comparison to the European media?
I have thought about this a lot. I find as a communicator, not just as a reader, some of the most striking national differences are in newspapers and media. I travel around the world and meet people, and they quite often seem to have quite similar interests and concerns, and then you look at the media available in their countries, and it is quite different. I do not know why that is – why journalists end up in such a small world that, almost under some Darwinian system, they evolve into the equivalent of the platypus, which is an animal you would not find anywhere else. You would not find English newspapers anywhere else; they are so specific to the UK. A UK tabloid is different from a German one. It has always struck me that national media seem to almost exaggerate national differences. They seem more different than their audiences do.
Are companies viewed differently by the public in Asia than in Europe?
You will not see the same suspicion towards successful companies in Asia as you would in Europe or the US. They do not start from a position of “if you’re making money, you must be doing something wrong”. In the UK, it would be very difficult to start a conversation with a discussion about your success, whereas, in Asia, the opposite is true. People are curious about this rapid economic change that is such a part of their lives. There is a much greater willingness to believe that companies can do good things. That is due to the rapid changes in living standards over the last 20 years. People in the US or Europe do not understand what a miracle this has been – it does not sound like much to go from earning a dollar per day to 10, but that can be a dramatic change in somebody’s personal circumstances.
All the places and media you worked in, and for, seem interesting enough, so what inspired you to change gears in the new millennium and start a career in communications?
I think I had reached a stage in my journalism career where I had had the most interesting jobs I ever would have. I was really faced with taking a very long-term view. I could have remained in journalism at the Wall Street Journal, which ultimately would have meant moving back to the US and trying to move up in management. I think I had reached a point where I had had a very good run, and been very lucky and enjoyed myself tremendously, but I just was not sure what the next job in journalism might be that I really wanted. So I started to look around. I had always been a business reporter, so I was clearly interested in business, and the entry point in the business world for someone coming out of the media is often communications.
Will a good journalist always make a good corporate communicator?
No – sometimes they are awful! I think that a lot of journalists mistakenly believe that they know how to be a good communicator. Some of the skills are transferable and some of the knowledge is useful – certainly familiarity with the media is useful – but being a media spokesperson is a much smaller part of the job than it was 20 years ago. You have to have a much wider range of skills, and you must have the kind of personality to be able to convince people internally to move in a certain direction as well as create a consensus. Journalists, depending on the environment they come from, can find the transition very difficult.
Last question: Your working languages are English and French, will you now, being based in Zurich, start picking up Swiss German?
I will. I am unafraid of the challenge! Many people told me just how challenging it will be to learn two flavours of German simultaneously, but other people have done it, so it is not impossible.