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HR BRIC report: Work is evolving in Brazil, fuelled by a hunger to win

In the first of a four-part series for HR, where we will explore the development of people strategy in the four BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China, Wayne Clarke heads both to the Brazilian metropolis of São Paulo – and the coffee plantations – where he discovers a hunger for growth.

I arrive at 5.30am into what I have been told is one of the worst airports in the world, São Paulo.

The flight was great, I slept lots, immigration was good and my driver was there - I was out of the airport in about 30 minutes. But, as with all best practice, there is no magic at work, so here is my first tip: arrive on a Sunday morning. Simples. The traffic, which over my stay I came to learn is awful, is also OK and, apart from the burning car on the street corner as we drove into the city, all looked relatively calm.

It is May 2012 and I am sitting in the Paulista Plaza hotel in São Paulo, having met one of the members of the Brazilian football team last night at dinner. His name is Neymar and he had just scored the winning goals for his team Santos that day. They are calling him the next Pele. He is young, so we will see, but he certainly has the skill and humility of one of the greats and I wish him every success.

I had come to Brazil to meet business leaders and employees from a range of sectors, and record my thoughts as part of a series of pieces I'm writing on the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) - exclusively for HR magazine. My day job is advising leaders from all sorts of companies about how to improve performance and there is so much talk about these four countries I felt the need to just go and soak up what's happening.

São Paulo, including its metro area, is home to 30 million. Popularly known as Sampa, it is the largest city in Brazil, the largest in the southern hemisphere and Americas, and the world's seventh largest by population. With over 60 nationalities, it is a model of ethnic integration - I mean, integration that largely works - and has the largest concentration of Japanese descendants outside of Japan.

Sampa has more high rises than you can shake a stick at (see left) and, like other mega-cities, it has a 24-hour 'hum' to it that feels almost rhythmic. It is the world's largest coffee exporter, with 25% of global coffee production coming from Brazil. And, yes, it has some significant social and well- documented crime challenges, but I'm from London and so it makes New York City feel like Oxford. São Paulo also has a major traffic problem, with more than seven million cars on the road, like Beijing.

I get the same feeling here, as I did in Beijing, that Brazil is in its ascendancy, people know it and, as a foreigner, I certainly feel it. And for the most part, people here, as in most countries at this stage of development, are hungry. You can clearly see the upside of what your efforts can bring you in the form of affluent businesspeople moving around the city by helicopter (São Paulo has more helicopters than any other city in the world, surpassing New York and Tokyo). But, and I think this is more important, you can see the downside that life has in store for you if you don't figure out a way to move forward. As in most developing economies, moving backwards is a compellingly bad alternative.

Jun Takahashi - a Brazilian-born accountant of Japanese descent, who runs an SME accounting business in São Paulo - was a pleasure to spend time with. He acts for a number of clients at different stages of growth and they call on him for a vast array of help, from legal to advisory and most things in between. He is, for all intents and purposes, an excellent 'connector'. And in a place where you need stuff doing, then people who can get stuff 'done' are valuable.

Watching Takahashi work gave me a first-hand sense of the scale of the opportunities in Brazil. He took me to a shopping mall, where I was intending to buy gifts for my wife and daughter - and I spent most of my time in shock at the high price of goods. One shop was even allowing people to buy expensive running shoes in instalments, simply because they were expensive.

I realised that the price of the goods was not because of a random spike in currency fluctuations, which meant my sterling wasn't worth much - my sterling just actually wasn't worth much. It was quite a chilling moment, in a way, because I exist in a bubble, as I'm sure many of us do, where I believe my country is doing better, in real terms, than some of these developing economies.

And I realised how arrogant and false that is. It made me wonder how valuable this experience and feeling could be for others (maybe even politicians), who are in denial about the scale of the challenge for Britain over the coming decades. And, just as I had in China, I saw an array of fabricated 'British' brands, made in Brazil but designed to look British, that are selling everything from rugby tops to cravats. I have never seen these brands before - they are made in Brazil, but designed to look like they're from the Home Counties. What's that about? We're missing out, that's what that's about. I call on all British brands to travel here and see it.

But I spend my entire life with corporate folk, so I wanted to see, as they taught me in economics, the 'primary' sector first hand. And in Brazil, what better way than to go and study the coffee industry? Takahashi, that beautiful connector, 'just happened to know' coffee farmers in a beautiful state of Brazil called Minas Gerais. We went to visit the region that produces some of the finest coffee in the world. Incidentally, Brazil is set to experience its most successful export year ever, so this is an exciting industry at a great point in time to study.

We met Paulo Roberto, a coffee farmer who, with his family, runs a farm that has been in their family for 100 years. We also went to meet the guys who run a large local coffee production facility, who take the raw product and prepare the beans both for domestic consumption and export. The first thing to hit me was the scale and sophistication of the production facilities. The capital investments in this region are evident, with more tractor shops than you can imagine.

I'm now properly 'caffeine'd up' after drinking a litre of top-notch coffee during the tasting and I spot a logo I have seen everywhere. It is a special logo the Brazilian government produced for the coffee that comes out of Brazil. I love it, it's a grass-roots demonstration of celebrating something the country is good at: they are cherishing it, embracing it, branding it and, more importantly, doing a great job of flogging it. If this important primary sector industry were in an HR-style appraisal conversation, then this would be some serious appreciative enquiry. And it made me wonder what a bit of this appreciative enquiry back in the UK could do for us, with regards to the industries that differentiate and define us.

The hunger I sensed in Brazil was truly infectious. It's that feeling I get in NYC or in London on a crisp morning when I feel anything is possible. Most of my life is spent with leadership teams from some fantastic organisations. And it dawned on me that the best ones have a similar healthy hunger for progress, regardless of where they are at in their business cycle. Enjoying the game and harnessing the hunger for progress feel like essential ingredients of engagement. Brazil has both in abundance and gave me a practical steer on what questions I will be asking any potential future employees.

Thank you, São Paulo.

Wayne Clarke is an economics graduate and has spent 15 years helping to improve the performance of organisations. He has advised leaders and CEOs from more than 200 varied organisations, from large multinational corporations to niche businesses throughout the world. He has been recognised for the past three years as one of the 'most influential thinkers' by HR magazine and is an ambassador for Junior Chamber International, which has been a partner of the UN since 1954. He is international partner of the Best Companies Partnership.