Uncharted territory: exclusive interview with Aljazeera's news anchor Steven Cole on the launch of his Institute of Diplomacy and Business
David Woods, May 16, 2012
Stephen Cole (pictured) has placed himself in uncharted territory.
The news anchor for Al Jazeera English has been a journalist for 36 years, travelled the world, presented the headlines for media giants including Sky, CNN and the BBC, interviewed more prime ministers, heads of state, politicians and personalities than these pages could detail and held the BBC's news offering together during a 24-hour strike in 2005. He has even hosted the BAFTAs.
Within minutes of starting his meeting with HR, at the Lanesborough Hotel, Hyde Park Corner, London - just up the road from Al Jazeera's Knightsbridge studio - he concedes: "It is unusual to be on the other end of an interview."
Cole has placed himself in uncharted territory for another reason. In February, he completed the soft launch of his 'brain child', the Institute of Diplomacy and Business (IODB), a not-for-profit organisation, designed to provide a range of services to prepare representatives of businesses and other organisations to operate overseas and, if necessary, relocate. "Businesses are finding so many approaches to making errors globally," he explains. "Companies are moving into other countries with the wrong view - culturally and corporately. This, I believe, could be because of arrogance.
"I have done lots of corporate work abroad over the years and I find it exciting being parachuted into different cultures - but you have to learn very quickly, acclimatise and become part of the new culture, or you could lose out."
Cole's institute will bring together senior diplomats, garnered from his little black book, as well as support service providers to give global employers and employees, mentoring, training and support.
In March, HR revealed findings of a survey of 11,500 managers by executive leadership firm, Corporate Executive Board, showing 93% of HR directors surveyed believe their business leaders have lost revenue for their organisation through a lack of intercultural skills.
This is the issue Cole and the IODB are moving to address, in the belief there is no organisation making a concerted effort to tackle this problem.
"There is a big hazard for UK companies," says Cole. "We are a nation of shopkeepers. We are an island nation and we didn't become the fifth biggest economy in the world by being insular. I wonder how global we are. If I go to a restaurant abroad and watch foreign businesspeople pitching [to prospective clients], there are major differences to how we do business in the UK. Germans will spend much more time listening than talking, Asian businesspeople will be incredibly polite. They might not disagree at all, so a UK businessperson will feel the meeting has gone well. Then they hear nothing back.
"In Japan it is rude to give the wrong type of whisky to the wrong level of manager and it is rude to attend a meeting with a cold - or even sneeze."
Drawing on his own experience living and working in the US for CNN, Cole adds: "Levels of preparedness for meetings are different abroad. In the US, 'casual' means a button shirt that is ironed, and polished shoes. It is even more difficult for women to wear casual clothes. North Americans are much more friendly, but they are much more direct too, so you could find yourself chatting at a corporate barbeque on one afternoon and negotiating in the boardroom the next day."
This is only the beginning of the potential pitfalls of global business. Businesses growing and developing abroad may mobilise staff from the UK to live and work there with their families. "It is a very British thing to 'muddle through' when working abroad, but our research finds two-thirds of overseas staff that return to the UK do so because their partner or children are unhappy there."
Cole says cultural differences can make anything - from speaking to energy providers or dealing with speeding tickets, to buying a house and finding suitable schools - difficult.
"When I arrived in Atlanta, I had to find and buy my own home, without any help from my employer," he says. And having spent time based out of Al Jazeera's base in Doha, capital of Qatar, he adds: "I had to get an app for my phone which lets me know if I have any traffic fines in Qatar - there is no way of finding out until you arrive to pay your insurance and they don't let you leave without paying your fines."
For employees moving overseas or working abroad for shorter periods of time, the IODB will give them a questionnaire to ascertain their needs and then appoint a diplomat or attaché to help them prepare. Actors from the foreign country could be brought in to role-play meetings and ambassadors' wives drafted in to talk to spouses about their queries. This can be done both before they leave the UK and while they are away. Cole says: "This sort of move globally could be the making of a leader. Change lets businesspeople have fresh perspectives. Our ambition is to help people to be prepared, to hit the ground running and to win deals and contracts - it is not just about helping them find a place to keep their dogs. The Foreign Office is one of the areas of Government still fit for purpose and we want to support it."
While the commercial arm of the IODB prepares people for work and living in countries that are new to them, the fees earned from these services will finance the institute's charitable aims. Cole explains the institute's mission stems from his belief that international conflicts and lack of problem-solving stem from failures of communication. So the second prong of his institute will be to disperse funds to promote better communication and understanding between international communities - through quality journalism.
The organisations it will be supporting initially are the African University College of Communication and the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication.
In the long term, IODB also aims to become a financial partner of Unesco.
The organisation is 'bedding down' and already bringing in clients, although Cole is tight-lipped about who they are.
But for now Cole adds: "The institute isn't about selling - it is about giving something back and putting Britain ahead. In the UK, exports only equate to 30% of GDP, but we live or die by our exports and we have to find new ways of doing business. I think we can help here."
Stephen Coles in a minute
Cole is anchor for Al Jazeera English - the Qatar-based broadcaster's international arm - for which he presented the live launch programme for the UK in 2006. Before this, he was anchor on what was then called BBC News 24 (the BBC says audience figures increased by 500,000 during this time). From 1994 to 1996, he was senior anchor at CNN International, based out of Atlanta. During the 1980s and 1990s, he also held anchor and newsreader roles at Sky News, Central Television, Anglia, ITN and the BBC.
In 2011, he chaired and moderated Every Peace Matters, a conference in Helsinki with former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari and former UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan.
Cole has interviewed a variety of politicians, including Nelson Mandela. He hosted Al Jazeera's live coverage of the World Economic Forum in 2009, 2010 and 2011 (when he interviewed two prime ministers and three presidents).
In 2009, he conducted an exclusive interview with President Nasheed of the Maldives at a unique underwater cabinet meeting, to draw attention to climate change. He has anchored live coverage of G8 conferences, presidential elections, Oscar ceremonies and Bulgaria's accession to the UN. He has also hosted, written and chaired conferences for Unesco, the Scottish Government, Reuters, Global 3G Congress and Philips.
Cole conducts media training for executives in organisations, including Honda and Arcelor Mittal, as well as for CEOs and politicians. He is a director of media training firm, Brazil International.
His 'extra-curricular' activities include a position on the board of London Welsh Rugby Club.