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Leave your own patch to understand it better

I have recently returned from a trip to New York to attend a series of workshops at the Harvard Club, focusing on capital raising and the provision of family office services, as well as to visit a number of thought leaders in these fields of interest.

I am a firm believer that leaving your own ‘patch’ regularly to look at how the rest of the world goes about business is a very healthy and useful undertaking, for two distinct reasons.

Firstly, simply the act of being removed from our day to day environment gives us the opportunity for reflection, which is much harder to achieve whilst within your own environment.  I guess it is a version of not being able to see the forest for the trees – the forest is much easier to see and assess in an en globo sense, when viewed from the outside.

Secondly, the new environment which you enter will, by its nature, be full of fresh ideas and a very different way of viewing a particular industry or market.

Being removed from the day to day environment in which we operate

For me, this always starts with the peace of a long flight out of Australia.  There being nothing else worthwhile to do,  a process of reflection and, yes, introspection, is a great way to while away the hours.  These years of air travel where the phone doesn’t ring and emails cannot be answered has been a blessing.

Alas, I believe that this era is fast coming to an end as the internet starts to invade the peaceful cabins of intercontinental airliners the world over.  For now, you can still get away with the proposition that internet on longs flights is, at best, variable, but the days of this refuge are numbered..

Inevitably, getting away from Australia leads to a series of observations which, whilst somewhat obvious, are worth being reminded of regularly.  Such observations as:

1.   How far Australia is from everywhere else.

This blessing and curse is a reality which is not going to change.   And it is somewhat unique – there are very few highly developed countries where your nearest major (and similar) markets are upwards of 8 hours flying time, and in many cases 20 hours flying time away.  For example, if you are sitting in Vancouver, Canada you have access to countries accounting for 23.5% of global GDP within 4 hours flying time.  In Sydney, 4 hours flying gives you access to 1.38% of global GDP.  In Paris, around 22%.  (figures from the World Bank 2012 data)

2.    The minute nature of the Australian market compared with other regions.

In the USA or China (numbers 1 & 2) in the GDP rankings, every number you hear is huge!  I believe that we get used to the small numbers relating to our market, but need to be reminded of the awesome potential ‘out there’.  Remember, Australia’s GDP is less that 1/10th of the USA and less than 1/5th of China.

3.    The sophistication of the Australian business sector and the high level of skill and expertise which resides here.

There is never a time, when networking abroad, where I feel left behind in terms of the skill and knowledge levels of myself and my cohort.   We benefit from (relatively) excellent regulatory regimes and from a well educated workforce.

4.    How lucky we are – in innumerable ways.

The fresh ideas of a new environment

I remember going to a symposium at the London Stock Exchange a number of years ago, examining the likely future structure of listed property investments in the UK – a market which did not have the background of REIT investments, as exists in Australia and the United States.

Being heavily involved at the time in the nitty gritty of property investment vehicles in Australia and, to a lesser extent in the USA and Germany, I was fascinated to see the differences in the way the London numbers men and property community saw collective property investment, both in terms of the process and the required outcomes.  It was a real eye-opener.  The ensuing discussion about the possible future structures within the British market served as a very useful reminder of:

1. why we do things the way we do; and

2. why we should never stop testing the reasons for doing things the way we do.

For most systems and processes, there is a reasonable motivating factor (or series of factors) which lead to the current practice, however these motivating factors can change or disappear in time, leaving us with legacy practices which no longer have a basis in logic.  There are many famous and overt instances of this in management literature, carrying labels as diverse as ‘legacy systems’ and ‘sacred cows’.

In the United States, I find ‘business enthusiasm’ to be infectious – and it is worth catching a dose of that infection!  

The ability to celebrate achievements and, in fact, make a ritual of celebrating achievements feeds this enthusiasm and in my view helps with day to day motivation for leaders and their teams.

New environments also remind us of the opportunity to understand and embrace cultural and regional variations to normal business practices.   Whilst these variations can sometimes be challenging and possibly even risky (in a financial sense), if one can become familiar with such matters, you achieve another level of competitive advantage over less culturally sensitive market participants.  And competitive advantage must be exploited where and when it exists, provided, of course, that the regional/cultural practices are compatible with your own values.

So, as you travel on business, look forward to where you are going, and look back at where you come from.  I am sure that you will have a great diversity of observations, some of which may agree generally with mine and some which may provide valuable insight into future directions for business – and possibly even life in general.

Steven Goakes