BP recently announced the appointment of a new CEO: Robert Dudley, an American citizen who will take the helm of the oil company. Dudley will replace British national Tony Hayward who had been in charge of one of the world’s largest organisations for the last three years.
This decision did not come as a big surprise. Hayward is paying for the Mexican Gulf disaster which is considered one of the worst ecological disasters ever seen. Hayward’s very public role as CEO combined with several PR gaffes in the days that followed the platform incident have all played a role in him being replaced.
Most US journalists and communication specialists have pointed out a lack of commitment, concern and apologies from BP’s CEO during the oil spill. Hayward was also described as distant and not really interested in the events occurring in the Mexican Gulf.
These accusations seem somewhat strange, however, if we look at the bigger picture. How could a CEO remain unconcerned when his company is responsible for a massive oil spill that will harm the brand’s image and potentially market value for decades? As emotions run high in the US and particularly in the Gulf of Mexico States it is easy for Americans to accuse the besieged BP Chief of being a callous polluter.
One of the key elements of this case is the nationality and culture of Hayward. As a British national, his communication style and core cultural values are different from those which you typically find in Americans. More precisely, Hayward is less likely to show his emotions openly. Brits are renowned for their reserve, straight face and lack of emotional display, even in tense and dire situations. Foreigners often perceive this to be quite cold and a sign of disinterest – hence the reaction from the American public.
Although much of Hayward’s communication style could be influenced by his national culture and values, much of his communication strategy was poor and things he said were inappropriate. This is where cultural awareness training can be really helpful. If he had known what kind of audience he was communicating to, what expectations they had of him and the style of communication they preferred, he could have adapted his approach to be more positively received.
A better understanding and awareness of US culture and communication styles could have helped Hayward to adapt and choose a better strategy to deal with this crisis. Americans are known to be more open and direct and tend to expect their leaders, businesspeople and celebrities to openly apologise in public when they have done wrong. Recent American history is full of incidents where famous “wrongdoers” have publicly apologised and been “rehabilitated” by the American public. After all, “To Err Is Human, to Forgive Divine” (Alexander Pope).
BP will have a new CEO in October. His primary objective will be to mend the image of the company around the world but particularly in the US. The fact that he his American will probably help him to find the right tone and style to accomplish this difficult task. Hopefully, his previous experience in other countries will also help him to adapt to other cultures as BP continues to work and expand in other international markets over the next few years.
Cross cultural awareness training programmessuch as Communicaid’s Doing Business in the US or Managing International Mergers and Acquisitions can help organisations to deal with such cultural differences and react more effectively to crisis such as this one. Understanding the key differences in communication styles as well as cross cultural perceptions and business practices is essential for any organisation working in the international arena.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2010