‘Working abroad makes you more self-aware’

Astrid Prummel 08 July 2018
Interview

Half of Herman Rutgers’ searches are for positions with international responsibility. What is it like to pursue a career abroad? And how does the communication profession abroad differ from here in the Netherlands?
Médard Schoenmaeckers has been working and living abroad with his family since 2006. ‘The world is a lot more interesting when you see it bigger than just from the perspective of your homeland.’

How easy is it to keep moving to another country?
‘It’s investing. I am quite introverted and it takes me quite a lot of energy to build new networks. Still, it is the only way to meet new people. You have to really like it or really want it. And being open to doing things differently and adapting. I also like that about working abroad: it makes you a lot more self-aware. You get to know yourself better. You discover that initially you are thinking very much from your own culture and upbringing. You start thinking more consciously: why do I do the things I do and why does someone else do them in a completely different way? There is no one way and there is always a context, a reason, why things go the way they do.

‘Transparency and engagement are more important than ever. You see this trend throughout the Western world’

What do you see as the most significant changes in the 20 years you have been advising and mentoring large international organizations in three different countries?
‘Companies have become much more aware of the responsibility they have to society and they want to play an active role in it. Transparency and engagement are more important than ever. This trend is seen throughout the Western world.

‘The communications profession uses increasingly sophisticated technology and resources. Only the speed at which that happens and the extent to which it happens varies from country to country.

‘I can look jealously at my colleagues at Dutch banks. They communicate very modernly and freely: the boss takes off his tie and has no problem getting in front of the camera for a video post. In this you can see the Dutch mentality reflected: down-to-earth, everyone participates, on the basis of equality – people are open to new things. In the City in London and certainly in Switzerland, that process is much slower.

‘The English are insular: their self-image is determined by the benchmark with themselves rather than a benchmark with the international community. I sometimes found that difficult in discussions because I did have that broader, international view. The United Kingdom thinks of itself as much more modern than it is in reality and in international perception. ‘There is also a strong interconnection between the media and politics in England: the media are the mouthpieces of the major political parties. You have to take that into account. The Netherlands is very neutral by comparison and Switzerland is much more neutral. In Switzerland, however, everything is organized much more hierarchically and they choose the path of gradualism, which makes it more sensible to lay down a good idea in five steps rather than to do it all at once.’

‘You can’t always throw a cudgel at it’

‘Sometimes at Credit Suisse I deliberately use the consensus-driven and transparent style that we are used to in the Netherlands, to ensure that more people have their say and we get more ideas on the table and a broader vision. Then I say: we’ll go Dutch for a while. That works well. You do have to do it in a way that you know people will accept and understand. You can’t always throw a cudgel around.

What can we learn from this?
Laughs: ‘Let’s turn it around and ask the question: what can others learn from us Dutch? I’ve been away from the Netherlands for 12 years now and I admire the way we communicate in the Netherlands. We really try to do things differently, lead the way in sustainability, we really dare. Dutch banks like ING and ABN Amro have a modern, consumer-oriented style of communication that they could learn a lot from in England and Switzerland.’

‘PR? Is that the P of profit and the R of result?
Even in his student days – law school in Leiden, business economics and later an MBA at Nyenrode – Médard knew that the scope of his work later had to be international. But that he would trade banking for the world of communications, he himself did not see that coming.

It all came from Lex Schoevers and Frans van der Grint, founder and then ceo, respectively, of Hill+Knowlton in Amsterdam. And perhaps because of his network of friends and students, Médard thinks: “They saw more of a communications guy in me than I did. He was in London for ABN Amro and enjoying himself there, when he got a call from a headhunter: whether he wanted to talk about a move into PR. ‘I had no idea, thought so to speak that the P stood for profit and the R for result.’ Hill+Knowlton wanted to start a practice focused exclusively on financial communications and investor relations advice. They realized that in addition to the very good communications people they had themselves, it was useful to bring in someone with an understanding of banking.

‘I was very curious and interested. We met at Schiphol Airport on Friday evening, would first talk for an hour, which turned into dinner, then we continued talking over the weekend and on Monday I went to London to quit my job. What appealed to me was that the organization was much smaller, it felt much more entrepreneurial, and I saw the move as an opportunity to build something completely new.’

After just over two years at Hill+Knowlton, why did you want to become Financial Media Relations Manager at DSM?
‘DSM was a client of Hill+Knowlton and was in the midst of transforming from bulk chemicals to vitamins and high performance materials. I found that very interesting and wanted to be closer to that than I could do as a consultant from Hill+Knowlton, to be able to participate in that transformation up close myself.

‘Part of DSM’s turnaround strategy was the acquisition of Roche’s vitamin leg. The acquisition took me to Basel a lot, and there I was spotted by Syngenta, the largest producer of seeds and pesticides in the world. They had a headhunter approach me and that’s how I ended up at Syngenta in Basel in 2006.

What was your private situation like when you moved to Basel?
‘I was married, had a two-year-old daughter and my wife was pregnant with our son. We both felt it was a good time in our family life to go abroad.

‘We decided right away that we didn’t want to live as expats. We did take the children to an international school so they would learn English. It also gave us access to the international community in Basel, which we felt was important, you meet all like-minded people there who need each other. But our social life we have arranged locally. The children went horseback riding with the local farmer, had swimming lessons at the public pool, played soccer at the local club, and we lived on an ordinary Swiss street, not in an expat neighborhood.

After eight years in Basel, you moved to London in 2014 for, again, a job in banking. Why?
‘In 2011 it was clear that the financial crisis would continue for some time and that things had to be structurally different in the financial world. I felt that banks were handling the crisis poorly in terms of communications and thought that as a former banker with now 11 years of experience in corporate communications, I could be of value. I talked to several banks because I wanted to make sure I ended up with one that genuinely wanted to change.

‘That’s how I got to HSBC, the fifth largest bank in the world, which was taking a big hit at the time. In the US, they were preparing for deep judicial and political investigations into money laundering in Mexico. It was clear to me within 15 minutes that this bank did need to communicate and reorganize differently. I wanted to work at such a bank, which itself wanted change. ‘Initially, I did global communications for HSBC’s private banking operations, based in Switzerland. In 2014, I became responsible for global communications for the retail banking and wealth management division in London.’

Then you became Global Head of Communications. How did you lead HSBC through the crisis?

‘I spent at least 75 percent of my time focusing on internal communications and developing programs to help colleagues see the end of the long black tunnel we were in. To keep them motivated and included in the bank’s strategy, feedback on what we were doing, why we were doing it and what the results were. I kept repeating that. Meanwhile, we were working on a scenario where you can start thinking about growth again when you’re out of that tunnel.

Do you now have your heart set on internal communications? Is that why you have been Head Group Internal Communications at Credit Suisse in Zurich since last year?
‘Credit Suisse started its change programs a little later, and I really enjoy guiding once again a bank to leave behind the legacies of the past and build Credit Suisse into a bank that can do great things in the future.’

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