‘Working abroad makes you more self-aware’


interview

Half of all searches we conduct at Herman Rutgers are for positions with an international scope. But what is it really like to take that leap and pursue an international career? And how does the communications field in the Netherlands differ from that in other countries?
According to Médard Schoenmaeckers, who has been living and working abroad with his family since 2006, ‘the world becomes a lot more interesting when you view it through cosmopolitan eyes rather than filtered through the perspective of your native country.’


Foto: Médard Schoenmaeckers

When the phone rings exactly at the time agreed, I immediately know who is calling, even though it’s from a private number. Médard Schoenmaeckers, Head of Group Internal Communications at Credit Suisse in Zurich, laughs as he apologises: ‘I had no idea my name wouldn’t be displayed; I’m afraid that’s standard for the bank. Anyway, it tells you something about the Swiss national character and the extent to which they value personal privacy. The Swiss are reserved, keep their opinions to themselves and value discretion, which is one of the reasons Switzerland was known for years as a European country where you could deposit your funds anonymously. Like many other people, I always assumed their bank secrecy policy was strictly business-driven, but I have since learned that it’s part of the deep-rooted Swiss culture.’

Médard Schoenmaeckers, 49, has always been curious about everything, both at work and in life: ‘You need to have a healthy dose of curiosity to go live abroad, and you have to like to learn new things.’ When you consider his strong social engagement and his talent for and love of supporting companies through transitions, it becomes easier to make sense of the CV of this former banker, who made the switch to communications back in 2001. He then spent nine years in various roles in the life sciences, vitamins and agricultural industries, initially at DSM and, from 2006 onward, at Syngenta in Basel, Switzerland. He would eventually return to the banking world as Global Head of Communications at HSBC, the largest bank in the United Kingdom and Europe and the fifth-largest bank in the world.

How easy is it to keep moving to new countries?
‘It needs continuous personal investment. I am fairly introverted by nature and it takes quite some effort to build new networks each time. Still, that’s the only way you get to meet new people: you need to really enjoy it and really want it, and be willing to do things differently and adapt to your new environment. That’s one thing I like about living abroad: it makes you a lot more self-aware. You get to know yourself better and discover that you tend to often see things through the filter of your own culture and upbringing. I’ve found that you also become more conscious of your actions: why do I do the things I do, and why do other people take a completely different approach? There is not just one way of doing things, and there’s always a context, a reason why things happen the way they do.’

The communications field uses increasingly sophisticated technologies and resources. It’s just that these advances in technology occur at a different pace and to a different extent depending on the country.

What would you regard as the most important changes in the two decades that you have been advising and supporting international organisations in three different countries?
‘Companies are becoming increasingly aware of their responsibility toward society, and they want to play an active role in achieving positive change. Transparency and engagement are more important than ever – that’s a trend we are witnessing throughout the Western world.

‘I’m a bit envious of my colleagues at Dutch companies: their communication style is modern and informal. For example, the boss will take off his tie and have no problem getting in front of a camera for a video post. It really shows the typically Dutch, down-to-earth mentality where everyone gets involved and everyone’s equal – people are open to new things. In the City of London and also in Switzerland, it takes a lot longer to get things done.
The British are islanders: their self-image is based on how they measure themselves against their own benchmark rather than against the international community. I sometimes found that hard in discussions with people there, as I felt I had that broader, international view on things that they lacked. People in the United Kingdom tend to see themselves more modern than they really are – certainly compared to how they are perceived by the rest of the world.

‘Also, media are closely connected to politics in the UK, to the point where media outlets are the voice of the major political parties. That’s something you have to take into account in your work. The Netherlands is more neutral country by comparison, and Switzerland even more so. However, Swiss society is very hierarchical and people like to take a gradual approach to things. It is much more sensible to present a good idea in five steps than to push through all these changes at once.

Going Dutch for more ideas and a broader point of view

At Credit Suisse, I sometimes deliberately use the consensus-driven and transparent style we’re accustomed to in the Netherlands, just to make sure more people get a chance to speak their mind, which brings more ideas to the table and allows for broader viewpoints. I like to tell people: “Let’s go Dutch for a moment,” and that tends to work well. The trick is to do it with subtlety in a way that you know people will accept and understand – you can’t just drop a bombshell.’

So what can we learn from all this?
(Laughs): ‘Why don’t we turn the question around and ask what others can learn from the Dutch? I left the Netherlands 12 years ago, and I admire the way we as Dutch people communicate. We really try to find alternative solutions, are at the vanguard of sustainability, and have the courage to take risks. Dutch banks such as ING and ABN AMRO have a modern, consumer-oriented style of communication that could really teach the British and the Swiss a thing or two.’

‘PR? Is that “P” for profit and “R” for results?’

Médard studied law at Leiden University and business economics and went on to earn an MBA from Nyenrode Business University – Médard already knew he was keen to pursue an international career, but he could not have predicted that he would trade his life as a banker for a position in the communications industry.
He tells us it was thanks to Lex Schoevers and Frans van der Grint, the founder and at the time CEO, respectively, of Hill+Knowlton in Amsterdam. Médard also thinks his network of friends and former university mates were involved: ‘They saw me as a communicator well before I did.’ While working in London for ABN AMRO – an enjoyable time in his career – he received a call from a headhunter, asking whether he would be interested in discussing an opportunity to switch to PR. ‘I had no idea what they meant, assumed figuratively speaking that the “P” stood for “profit” and the “R” for “results.”  Hill+Knowlton were looking to create a division dedicated exclusively to financial communications and investor relations consultancy. They realised that, in addition to using their own very capable communications professionals, they required someone with a background in banking. ‘I remember I was curious and very interested in what they had to offer, so we arranged to meet at Schiphol Airport on a Friday night. We were supposed to chat for just an hour, and that hour turned into dinner. We continued to talk over the weekend, and on Monday I returned to London to resign from the bank. I liked the smaller size of the organisation; if felt more enterpreneurial and I saw it as an opportunity to create something new from scratch.’

Why did you decide, after spending just over two years at Hill+Knowlton Financial, to join DSM as a Media Relations Manager?
‘DSM was a Hill+Knowlton client and they were transitioning from a bulk chemicals company to a specialist company in vitamins and high-performance materials manufacturing. It was a hugely exciting transformation process they were going through and I wanted to be closer to it, be more actively part of it than I could ever be in my position as a consultant. A key event in DSM’s turnaround strategy was the acquisition of Roche’s vitamins business. While working for DSM the acquisition made me travel frequently to Basel be and that’s when Syngenta, the world’s largest producer of seeds and pesticides, must have noticed my work. They put a headhunter in touch with me, and that’s how I ended up at Syngenta in Basel back in 2006.’

What was your personal situation when you relocated to Basel?
‘I was married, had a 2-year old daughter, and my wife was pregnant with our son. We both felt the timing was right for our family to move abroad.
‘We both agreed that we didn’t want to live the typical expat life, although we did enroll our children in the international school to be educated in English. An added advantage is that the school gives you access to Basel’s international community, which we felt was important because you’re surrounded with like-minded people who are all in the same boat. Other than school, our social life was very much based in the local community. The children would go horse riding at a nearby farm, they learned how to swim at the local community pool, joined the football club in the village, and we lived in a “regular” Swiss street as opposed to a typical expat neighbourhood.’

After spending eight years in Basel you moved to London for a role that brought you back to the banking industry. What was the rationale behind this move?
‘Back in 2011, it was clear that the financial crisis wouldn’t be over just yet, and that the financial industry would have to structurally change. I didn’t feel banks were handling the crisis well from a communications point of view, and thought I could bring valuable experience to the table as a former banker with more than a decade in senior roles in corporate communications. I spoke to several banks, as I wanted to be sure I was joining a bank that genuinely saw the case for much-needed change.

That’s how I joined HSBC, the fifth-largest bank in the world, which was going through challenging times then. In the US, they were preparing for the outcomes of legal and political investigations into money-laundering practices in Mexico. It took me just 15 minutes to figure out that this bank was very aware that it had to change its communications strategies and start rethinking their organisation. This was exactly the kind of bank I wanted to work for: one that was actually eager to change.

‘I started out managing global communications for HSBC’s private banking business, a job based in Switzerland. In 2014, I was put in charge of global communications for their Retail Banking and Wealth Management division in London.’

You were subsequently promoted to Global Head of Communications. How did you lead HSBC through the crisis?
‘I focused on internal communications at least 75 per cent of my time, as well as on developing programmes to help colleagues see light at the end of the long black tunnel which we were going through. My job was to keep people motivated and make them understand the value of the bank’s strategy, keep them updated on what we were doing, why we were making the changes, and with what results. I basically kept repeating this. Meanwhile we were developing scenarios that allowed us to think about growth again once you’ve come out of the tunnel.’

So is internal communications your current passion? Is that why you joined Credit Suisse in Zurich as Head of Group Internal Communications last year?
‘Credit Suisse started their change programmes later than most other banks. I really enjoy supporting a bank once more to help them leave legacy issues behind and restructure Credit Suisse into a bank with a bright and promising future.’


Herman Rutgers Executive & Interim Search has been keeping up for many years with Dutch communications professionals like Médard, who are based abroad. ‘In addition, we maintain a large network of international native speakers based in the Netherlands. Our partnership with London-based executive search firm Ithaca Partners plays a key role in this, as they allow us to continue meeting the growing demand for international professionals in the Netherlands,’ Petra Herman says.

 

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