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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

How to Be a Better Global Citizen with Blythe McGarvie, MBA

Collaboration is a skill set that requires training and practice and it is an essential part of UNSDG 17, which focuses on partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society. In this episode, guest Blythe McGarvie shares expert advice on how to collaborate across global spaces and be a better global citizen. McGarvie is an expert in building successful global relationships as a former chief financial officer and chief executive officer and now a board member of many multinational companies.

Blythe McGarvie

Collaboration is so important. It is. It's critical. The individual who can collaborate and is willing to take risks in order to get short-term results and create long-term value, he or she will serve as a pacesetter of stimulating learning and change.”

– Blythe McGarvie, MBA, Globalization and Leadership Expert

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise in geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Today we're talking about the United Nations sustainable development goal number 17, which is Partnership for the Goals. Here at Northwestern Buffett, we're all about collaboration across boundaries of all kinds: culture, nationality, politics, religion, discipline, sector of society. And there's a method to this madness. As our boundary breaker guests have told us, collaboration is a skill set that requires training and practice, like our students and researchers are developing here at Northwestern Buffett. So today's guest, Blythe McGarvie, is an expert in building successful global relationships. Which is to say she's an expert in collaborating across boundaries of all kinds in the global space. She's run profitable units and managed thousands of employees from around the world as chief financial officer and chief executive officer as well as board member, Blythe is here to share strategies we can all use to build productive relationships and partnerships with our counterparts around the world and to become better global citizens. And hopefully she can also help our students to understand how they can prepare themselves while at university to become better and more successful global leaders. Welcome, Blythe. It's just fantastic to see you. Thank you for joining us. 

Blythe McGarvie [00:01:50] Annelise, It's my pleasure.

Annelise Riles [00:01:52] So, Blythe, when I met you, I knew we had to get you on this podcast right away because you're a boundary breaker. In so many ways, since the start of your career, you've been crashing through glass ceilings as a woman in business. But you've also been changing how large American companies do business around the world and also leading transnational and multinational business teams. Can you tell us a little bit about some of your global experience?

Blythe McGarvie [00:02:20] I think the best way to start and to understand how I ended up having a career in an international environment in business is you need to understand where I'm from and also who I come from. So I grew up on the south side of Chicago where my father taught at a community college and my mother taught full time third grade in the Chicago Public Schools in the inner city, and both were first generation college graduates and believed in education. Fact, they met at night school at Northwestern many, many, many years ago. They worked hard and they scraped by to send me to the lab school at University of Chicago starting at seventh grade. And I went there through high school and I joined my older brother who had started there in third grade. In fact, I insisted I support my brother can go, can't you afford to send me? But we can talk about women's issues on another podcast. So I remember when I started in seventh grade, I met a refugee that fall in my shop class and his family had fled the Prague Spring Revolution of 1968. He wore two shirts. I remember them as if I see him today, a blue plaid shirt and a red plaid shirt. He wore them all quarter. He spoke little English at first, and he made me realize democracy is something worth fighting for. It also opened my eyes to what was happening in other countries. Now I've stayed in touch with him a bit and he's now a successful doctor and clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology. And I have to say, wow, that's a long way from fleeing the revolution. So my interest in other countries started very early in my life. When you meet someone who has had to literally give up a home, friends, money. His father was a professor and I think he did some kind of job at University of Chicago, but I never knew his father back. When you're 12 or 13, you don't really pay attention to what the parent does. I just paid attention to how did he get along? How did he survive? 

Annelise Riles [00:04:25] What an amazing story, Blythe. And also a testament to how important it is to offer these opportunities to explore the world to our students because it is life changing to have that kind of encounter like you did at your age. Now, fast forward many years and you also ran a huge team in Paris. Right, a multinational company?

Blythe McGarvie [00:04:50] Yes, my company in the U.S., we were selling ourselves and we couldn't tell anyone because I was the chief financial officer and we had to keep that a secret. But I did talk to my chairman. I said, well, you know, I've been through this movie before. They're not going to need two chief financial officers. So I'm going to listen to other opportunities. And even before we closed the deal, I had a job offer from Bic, Societe, Bic. Your listeners may know about Bic Razors, –, Bic pens, lighters, and they even did a sailboat sales, etc. A lot of interesting parts of that business. And so I accepted the job and I went from Portland, Maine, to Paris and I started. My career as director of finance of Societe Bic. And it was one of the most interesting jobs I could have ever had. Totally. I had 550 people in finance and technology around the world, but we operated very separately. There was no one who had ever brought the whole team together. We never had a chief information officer, and I started there right before Y2K and was shocked to find out we did not have a plan for Y2K. Now, it turned out the world did not end, and if it did, I was going to be in Paris. But there were a lot of things and opportunities where I could make a difference. And that's the fun part. When you go to a new culture, what you take for granted isn't always happening in another country or another organization. 

Annelise Riles [00:06:16] See a little bit more about that. I mean, what are some of the differences that come to mind in, you know, you think companies, they're all subject to market discipline. They must work pretty much the same way here and there. What are some of the differences that you noticed or from your various experiences that our listeners may not be aware of?

Blythe McGarvie [00:06:36] There is a huge difference between companies. Just today, I read an article in Fortune magazine that PepsiCo has been one of the best developers of women CEOs and men's CEOs and other companies. Obviously, you can only have one CEO at a company, but they know how to train and develop and give you opportunities to fail, opportunities to succeed. But opportunities are not guarantees. There are no guarantees. But if you keep trying, as the Chinese like to say, fall down four times, get up five. It's amazing what you can accomplish. In my experience, I have been frustrated sometimes by my direct boss, and I remember one time this was with Pizza Hut, which was at the time a division of PepsiCo. I reported into a regional controller. This was early in my career. So this is for a lot of your young listeners wondering, well, how do you do it just as a first job or a second job? And I'd been there three years. The first year. I learned a lot. I gave a lot. The second year, I started to get a little bored thinking I need more challenge. And so the third year, I only saw this man every three months. He was in one city, I was in another. And I said, I need to talk to you. So I spent 20 minutes going through all these things about how by the third year you have to move on. And I gave him all the reasons why it's kind of like a doom loop, and I didn't want to jump off into a doom loop. And after he listened to me, he said, Well, maybe you're just having a bad day. And I go, Wait a minute, this guy doesn't get it. I'm not emotional, I'm rational. And I gave my resume to three people in Chicagoland, and one of the three gave it to a person who was looking for my skills at Kraft Foods. And I really grew up at Kraft Foods and I developed there because I moved around to a lot of different places. So I would say you have to really seek competence. And if you have a boss who is not leave, but before you leave, pick up the phone and talk to maybe his boss. You have nothing to lose if you're going to leave anyway. That was an important lesson from that experience.

Annelise Riles [00:08:52] So, Blythe, in your book, Shaking the Globe Courageous Decision Making in a Changing World, you outline how important it is for business leaders to understand cultural norms. Can you give us some examples of how that comes into play, why that's important? 

Blythe McGarvie [00:09:08] It's a great question because every country and even people within their country will have different norms than what we expect in the U.S.. I'll just go through one of the norms, equality versus hierarchy dimension. There are many dimensions and a lot of people have written books about being successful in a multicultural environment. But I think this is one of the more important dimensions. When you see somebody that looks like you, perhaps acts like you, you might assume he or she has the same dreams and aspirations and experience as you, but it's not true. So I'm not talking about some faraway country. I'm talking about France. And in France, that is a hierarchical culture. In the U.S., we are an equality culture, and we believe everybody should have an opportunity to say what's on their mind. And we believe a lot of things about everyone has equal social status. I'm here to tell you, in France, that is not the case. In fact, some of the best advice I would give my team, because I had people from all different cultures, I'd say, just pretend our CEO, which in France is called PDG, président-directeur général which stands for President, Director General, he has all three titles in his position. Just pretend he's Louis the 14th. You don't have to physically bow to him, but mentally bow to him. He don't have to walk out of the room not showing your back, but mentally make sure that you always give him the status, him the honor. Make sure he solve the problems, not you. This is not your time to shine. In fact I created a little saying that I used to say “When the sun is out, you cannot see the stars” and our CEO was the sun God. Every CEO in France is the sun God. But I know you're a star and I see the stars. And it really helped people understand. If you want your ideas accepted, if you want the pdg to love you and want to promote you, you really need to understand. We live in a culture where Louis, the 14th, is alive and well. But that's just one example.

Annelise Riles [00:11:31] That's a great story and great preparation for our students to think about putting on a different social frame when you're in a different situation. If you want to thrive and I.

Blythe McGarvie [00:11:42] You know Annalise, you've traveled a lot and you've seen a lot and lived in Japan. I mean, Japan has a very similar you have to save face. You don't try and embarrass them. So important in the U.S., we don't mind if we push you a little bit, maybe even embarrass you a little bit, but do it in a kind way. It's accepted. Not so in Japan, not so in France.

Annelise Riles [00:12:02] So in your book, Shaking the Globe, you talk about what it is to be a global citizen. And you have this great phrase you said. There are seven words to describe the keys to global citizenship. Seek competence, show empathy, invest in progress. So interesting. Could you tell us a little bit about what you mean by that?

Blythe McGarvie [00:12:23] I tried to think nobody's going to read every single chapter. So the takeaway is I gave lectures around the world. Seek competence means you can't do it alone. I'll give you one quick example. When I was at Sara Lee Corp, I worked for the president. And we were doing a lot of business and outsourcing from China. And he said to me one day, I don't like our office in Singapore. Let's open a Hong Kong office. Go do it. I said, okay, that's the first thing you say. Okay. I don't know anything about Hong Kong. So I reached out to a realtor in Hong Kong. This is the crazy nineties when everybody wanted to be there and do outsourcing, etc. and she and I looked at all kinds of locations for outsourcing in our regional office, and I had won. I did the net present value of what it would be, and I had two backups and I told my boss when I flew home, You have one week to make a decision because things are changing so much, the rent's going to change. It may be different. We may be in a different location. To his credit, he made a choice and 20 years later, the office was still there and it really paid dividends for Sara Lee. But I didn't have the confidence to relocate to Hong Kong. I sought competence. Show empathy. We touched on that a little bit when we talked about how you have to save face. You may not care, but you have to be empathetic or what is this person going through? And it really helps to try and put yourself in someone else's shoes. And nobody likes to hear that you have to cut the dividend in half. But that's what we had to do that first year when I was that CFO in Europe. We had to because we were also paying double taxation and saving cash. And in the long run, people understand. If you explain and you also listen to their concerns, you do it in a way that makes it a little easier. A saying I used to use and I still use is when I have to deliver bad news. And by the way, I love being a chief financial officer and a board member, but sometimes we have a lot of bad news. We have to deliver bad news, put a lot of chocolate around it so the person can swallow the bitter pill, really work on the chocolate, make it smoother, show how it worked out well, or how this is going to be better. I'm not just talking Win-Win, because that's an American way of looking at things, but in other cultures you have to really make it palatable in order to swallow bad news. And we all have to do that at times. And then the third part invest in progress. People invested in me. I didn't become a board member out of the womb. I had to get a lot of experience and do a lot of things. People invested in me. People took risks in me. And even going to Asia, for example. That was where everything was happening in the nineties and going to Europe. We had to make some progress and invest in a chief investment officer and bring our technology people together. And this is before we used to talk about cyber issues. So if we had not invested in progress, we're just delaying the inevitable, which is failure. All of us want to grow, right? And companies want to grow and you need to invest in order to make that happen.

Annelise Riles [00:15:37] As such, great advice and it strikes me as great advice even if you never go outside of the city of Chicago. Those things are important. And as you were talking, I was thinking, Blythe, how aligned it is with what our mission is at Buffett, which is to really give students and researchers a chance to practice those skills and fail at those skills and develop them. Because, as you say, failure is critical and you don't learn to write a great essay the first time you write it. You don't learn to collaborate globally, the first time you got to just practice. I'm wondering if you could give any advice to the students who are listening to this today. Students, young people who think, Wow, someday I'd love to be Blythe McGarvie when I grow up. I love to have this amazing career working all over the world with companies that work all over the world. I hear what Blythe is saying about the importance of developing my cultural competence skills. What would you tell them to do right now while they're students? 

Blythe McGarvie [00:16:35] Great question. First of all, I believe in lifelong learning. So your students could be anywhere from 16 to 60. It's so important to keep learning. I would say if you're really interested in other cultures and you want to be a success and how you define success can be so many different ways. It can be happiness or wealth or what have you. There are four types of categories of decision making that you need to think about and ask yourself, What am I? The first is what I call people prefer to follow the conventional path. The conventional path seems the easy in the right answer, but you're never really going to get your head above water because life is changing so fast. We live in uncertain times now. Guess what? We've always lived in uncertain times. It's not anything new. Others like to be compliant. In fact, there's a new word for that right now. People call it quiet quitting where they'll just show up. They'll comply. Do the minimal. And expect to get a paycheck. Well, that's not going to help the company grow in a second to help you grow. And compliance isn't investing in progress. It's just doing something that isn't really important alone. I want you to follow laws, but it's not important alone. You have to also push. Then there's that third group, the people who are challengers. I think this generation of students are willing to question their challengers. And that's so important and seek to get an answer. Don't just stop at the question. Make sure you get an answer. And finally, there are many issues and ways to progress if you make courageous decisions and include having to bring others along to your intentions and your perspective while understanding their capabilities and opportunities. So that's very important when you are thinking about how do you get the skill you have to share mutual goals. Remember, you're hired not to do just what you want to do and do things that make you happy. You're hired for one reason. You're hired to fulfill your employer's needs. Your employer wants something you have. So as long as you bring value to an employer and you serve their needs and goals, they're going to say, I'm going to invest in this person. And that was something I learned a long time ago. Make my boss look good and the individual who is capable of collaborating. You started off by asking about the 17th Sustainable Development Goal, and collaboration is so important. It is. It's critical. The individual who can collaborate and is willing to take risks in order to get short term results and create long term value, he or she will serve as a pacesetter of stimulating learning and change a pacesetter. I never really thought of my career that I was a pacesetter. I just knew I wanted to keep going and keep doing things. And I had high curiosity. That's another C, I guess, curiosity. And you have that because when you're traveling for fun, let's say with your friends or your family, be curious. Let's go to the museum. Let's find out the history. Let's try new food. Let's try and speak ten words in that new language. There's a lot you learn from a culture just by the words. So I think focus on why is somebody going to want to hire you and why do you want to work? And by the way, definitely work. I don't quit. I don't like this quiet quitting.

Annelise Riles [00:20:11] I love that courage, collaboration and curiosity. Three primal skills that are so important. And I would just say I hope our students can really just practice, build those muscles, their muscles like anything else. And you build them by exercising them. Get curious. By being more curious, you get courageous by being more courageous and taking steps and seeing how to do it and doing it again. So, Blythe, you're you're a model, just a real role model to me and to many. I want to finish by asking you a question I ask all my guests, which is at this moment in our world as it is, what keeps you up at night? What are you worried about? And also, where do you find hope?

Blythe McGarvie [00:20:55] I worry most that we don't understand history or know it, or even worse, we make it up. A lot of people have not left diaries or photographs, so we make it up and we call it historical fiction, but it's sometimes hidden as somebody's calling it history when it's not. And if we don't understand history, we won't understand cultures and we won't understand ourselves. It's so important, which is why I started off our discussion. But you have to know where did I grow up and who raised me? Because it's my history that made me so much. I encourage you because I worry that people don't remember the Prague Spring, look it up, 1968. It's for many people's life time, but it's important to know history from a hope standpoint. I have a lot of hope. I'm optimistic that young people and courageous leaders can invest in progress, and they're the ones that are going to create jobs, bringing dignity and wherewithal to many, having a job in so many cultures. And yes, even if you're working at home, a job is important. It gives you a sense of providing for your family. It gives you money so that you can do certain things, and it also helps you learn. So I have a lot of hope that this generation, in all sorts of ways that I never even imagined when I was your age, will be creating a lot of jobs and helping others.

Annelise Riles [00:22:28] That's wonderful. Thank you so much for all this wisdom and insight and for sharing so much of yourself and your story with us today. And thank you for all you do in this world.

Blythe McGarvie [00:22:39] Thank you, Annelise, for all you do in this world. This has been a real pleasure and I look forward to seeing you soon.

Annelise Riles [00:22:44] Thank you. For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at Buffett.Northwestern.Edu.