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Executives need to realize that they cannot afford to undertake international expansion without seeking external advice. In the post-Enron corporate world, buyers need to be more educated about where to obtain advice. In turn advisors, need to face up to the increasing barrage of scrutiny from firms and answer one fundamental question. Do I have realistic knowledge, resources, experience and commitment to be able to provide good international advice?
There is no better way to raise the collective blood pressure of an organization than to encounter all sorts of unexpected problems associated with international expansion. If the world is becoming a smaller place, then how is it that many firms still continue to experience unexpected jolts and bumps along the way? Like the proverbial pedestrian who walks straight into a lamppost that is plain for all to see, executives then ask themselves why they didn’t see this coming. “Perhaps we should have taken advice after all” they tell themselves, “but then again, we sought counsel, and take the view that no advice is better than bad advice!”
In the post-Enron world this dilemma is a perfectly natural response for a firm that is finding its way on the international stage. Executives realize on the one hand that they cannot afford to go it alone, but on the other hand remain ambivalent about the quality of advice they receive. The recent scandals of Big Business in corporate North America have filtered their way down to the realm of small to mid size companies the world over, stoking the engine of client skepticism and rage. Consultants continue to bear the image and reputation of borrowing your watch to tell you the time and then walking away with it. Lawyers, accountants and tax advisors are called to account on the high fees that are charged, and of trying to be all things to all men. Economic and international trade advisors are called to question, either because they are perceived as failed businessmen, or because they simply don’t have the relevant and necessary experience.
Shortsightedness can occur easily when a company decides that it can go it alone, and that it knows best. This will in turn create a problem that will give executives really something to worry about on the international stage – the prospect of failure. Neither will you have all the facts and options at your disposal, nor will you have an external sounding board that can tell you how things look from the other side of the fence.
Ultimately then, the success of a company going international is best served by a strong culture that openly welcomes external counsel at the outset, and follows basic principles regarding how to go about obtaining that advice:
1.Trust: Good advice starts with those you know and trust. Work your network and spot the international talent that can help you.
2.Focus on ROI: Expensive international advice is not necessarily the best international advice. Pay by results if you can, rather than time.
3.Challenge: If you are seeking international advice, then by default, the person in front of you will have the right credentials. Even if you are taking on the services of a consultancy or trade advisor, you have a right to challenge the background, experience and qualifications of the person in front of you. If in doubt, move on and spend your investment money elsewhere.
4.Segment: Be wary of the hallowed oracle! Break down the advice and guidance you need into its lowest element and closely match the type of advisor to your problem. There is a tendency to expect all the answers from one single advisor, such as an accountants, lawyers and consultants – they are not able to do that, even if they say they can, at least not on the international level.
5.Work around the problem: Public organizations are often slammed hard with the phrase – “pay peanuts and you get monkeys”. This is a weak excuse for not using these organizations. They have been established with public money to help you, and generally provide a good infrastructure. Throw caution to the wind and find out from your OWN experience. If you then have an issue with either an individual or the quality of advice you have received, voice the issue at a higher level – there will be somebody within the organization tasked with putting solving the problem.
With the rising pressure on firms worldwide to look beyond their domestic borders, buyers will become increasingly relentless in their quest for top quality counsel and information. That means that advisors in every field of expertise will need to continuously demonstrate their own knowledge, resources, experience and commitment to providing good international advice.
As all in the advisory fraternity agree in the aftermath of the Enron scandal, it unfortunately only takes a small element to sour the reputation of the rest of the community who have worked hard to earn that trust. Moving forward, advisors in whatever capacity may wish to consider the following:
1.Know your limits: There is no better way to build credibility than by saying: I can’t help you, but I know somebody who can. If you really don’t think you have the expertise, don’t do it. Refer the business.
2.Form alliances: If you are building an international capability into your existing advisory or consulting practice, then start by forming alliances, so that areas of expertise can be cross-referred, even on a finder’s commission basis.
3.Recruit experienced individuals: Advisors increasingly need to show their strong international and commercial background. That means having in place budgets for attracting, motivating and retaining top quality individuals into organizations who are uniquely familiar with the international challenges and issues of the area they are advising.
4.Performance and measurement: Ensure that you have a quantitative, results-based infrastructure in place. This infrastructure should not only recognize the efforts of your best advisors, but will also weed out those few mediocre unresponsive individuals intent on riding on the back of the rest.
5.Avoid complacency: The world changes rapidly. So does information. Stay on top of your field of expertise.
6.Give it to them in a language they can understand: Advice needs to be delivered in a way that is easily translatable into everyday, practical situations. Don’t give clients an excuse to see your hard-earned work end up on a bookshelf collecting dust.
7.Consider your options: Finally, to those very few who enter the field without the proper background and experience, or who are not taking their role that seriously, you are not only doing yourself a disservice, but also those of your advisory fraternity. Frankly, you should consider a career in landscape design.
In summary, an indication of the strength of an executive’s commitment to international success is his ongoing determination to continue seeking external counsel, realizing that not all advisors can be tarred with the same brush.
The mountaineering and sports clothing manufacturer Berghaus sums it all up in a recent advertising campaign. A photo showing world famous climber Chris Bonnington reaching the summit carries a great strap-line – “Trust is earned!” International advisors in pretty much every capacity face a steep climb as it is. If we are to encourage firms to continue relying on external advice, let’s not allow the a few misfits to spoil it for the rest of us who have worked so hard to earn that trust.
Trevor O’Hara is Managing Partner of Renarc (www.renarc.com), a consultancy specializing in helping firms build a framework for successful international expansion. He can be reached by phone on Tel: +44 (0)1491 411 118, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org