Home » Interview With Padraig O’Sullivan, Managing Partner, O’Sullivan Field

Interview With Padraig O’Sullivan, Managing Partner, O’Sullivan Field

Padraig, tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background, and how did you come to set up O’Sullivan Field?

I was born in Ireland, lived in London for four years, in South Kensington and then up in Golders Green. Then I went and worked in Australia in 1996 and that was kind of the end point of a fifty-year plan. When I was about seven I decided I wanted to go to Australia; I got there and I’ve been there since.For me it’s been a great place to live. I also worked across South-East Asia before I got to Australia, and today I spend a week a month in Singapore and Hong Kong, but Sydney is my home.

I’ve had a diverse career: I started life working in the Royal Brompton Hospital here in South Kensington as a registered nurse specialising in cardiac surgery. When I got to Australia Adelaide is where I lived first of all; I started working in hospitals there and became a director of a hospital. Australia for me has always been the epitome of ‘the lucky country’. They say it’s the lucky country, and for me it’s always been very lucky – I got promoted very quickly so I’ve always loved living there.

I changed my career a few times. I went from healthcare into a medical sales company, as a sales rep and then a sales director, and then I moved from that into a headhunting firm where I would specialise in looking for sales and marketing leaders in the healthcare industry. Again, going back to my ‘lucky country’ thing, it was at a time when that industry went through a massive boom, so when I started most companies had one sales team of about forty sales reps. When I finished they all had at least six sales teams. We managed all of the recruitment for the majority of the market, which was quite fun.

It was during that experience that I really started looking at leaders, wondering why one leader was so much better than another leader, trying to figure out the differences. I was doing an MBA at the time with a major in Leadership, and I was interviewing all the leaders, so I had these fabulous live case studies. I now say to people that I interviewed seven and a half thousand leaders, which I did, over a six year period. It was really a case study on what made one leader stand out. I’m just fascinated by leaders, really. That’s what got me into what was then a new area called executive coaching, which had just started.

The academic literature was just talking about this new notion that was springing up, and I realised that in the head-hunting industry most headhunters and recruiters would spend half a day a week on marketing, and I never once did marketing. The reason being that once I’d put someone into a job, I then kept going back to them every week to make sure they were OK. Effectively I was coaching them, but I didn’t realise that at the time.

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Whenever I put someone into a job, they would give me four or five new jobs to do. So I had no marketing to do. From a business perspective, I was the number one or two consultant for a number of years in Australia’s second-largest firm. What it got me to do was realise that the part that came afterwards was what I was enjoying more than the part I’m getting paid for. I thought “There’s something in this, I should look at this.” So then I went away and did some coaching courses and later on did a Masters of Coaching Psychology degree. I’ve been doing this work now full-time for fourteen years.

How did you get into coaching expats specifically?

The expat piece, that was a complete mistake. It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t thought through. I’d like to say I had a huge strategic plan and here we are, but it wasn’t the case.

Because Australia is a high expat destination, and a lot of my clients were in the pharmaceutical sector, by nature a lot of my clients were expats, but that wasn’t the target market, they just happened to be there.

I got a call one day from a client form South Africa who I hadn’t worked with – he was the Managing Director of a firm in Australia and New Zealand. He said that one of his direct reports, who was from Israel, was failing miserably. He said “I don’t want him to fail, because if he fails on this job then I’ll have to fire him, and then his international career is down the swanny, and I don’t want to do that to the guy, but it’s not working out either way, so I can’t keep hold of him, can you help him? I need him to understand that this is a last-ditch help.”

So I started working with this guy called Jonathan, who I always credit for opening my eyes to the issues of expats. His phrase to me was: “I don’t understand why the Aussies hate me, I was really successful somewhere else.” It was a really interesting insight, because it was true, he’d been very successful in Israel. He also was employee number two, therefore the company grew around him, and he came out of the army so had a very direct control style of leadership, which is very normal in Israel. He came into Australia which is the least directed style of leadership in the world, and just did what he’d done before. No one took him aside to explain that it wasn’t going to work.

Unfortunately for him, his wife was heavily pregnant – her first time out of the country, so she was very dependent on him. And they are very strong Orthodox Jews, which meant they always took Friday afternoon off. If everything else was going well, no one would have noticed that. Because everything else was messing up, people started noticing all the other stuff that wasn’t “right” about Jonathan.

We started talking about how he wasn’t “culturally assimilated”. Once I started working with him I realised it’s not a cultural thing at all, it’s a leadership piece. Yes, he doesn’t know the general culture, but people can learn that quite quickly, whereas the leadership piece he hadn’t got. I ended up talking him through footy teams: “If you come into the Monday morning meeting and you haven’t read the Daily Telegraph, it means you don’t know what’s going on.” Just really simple stuff, that was his turning point.

He has since gone on to turn around that department – a year later he was nominated as the most inspirational leader in Asia, which was extraordinary, and then after that he was promoted to heading up Europe, so he’s now living in Paris. I always said about Jonathan that he was always a good leader, otherwise he never would have been promoted out of Israel – he just hadn’t adapted his leadership style to somewhere else. And once he hit a crisis, no one was there to help him until his boss brought someone in from outside.

After Jonathan left, I started looking at this notion of expats. In our business, we went back to all of our assignments in the previous ten years and tried to work out what kind of rate of our clients happened to be expats, and it was about 40%. We thought that was interesting, and it was an area no one seemed to be targeting, so we started reading ExpatFocus, and a load of other magazines, just to see what people were talking about.

We realised that leadership failure rates are pretty high. Depending on which study you read, the rate is somewhere between 25% and 40%. I think the reality is probably lower, but because of all the nuances with promotional failures, cross-cultural failures, company failures for which the leader is blamed, they’re all bundled together to give a higher figure… but either way it’s high.

We started looking at the financial cost for organisations of bringing someone overseas, as well as the other costs – we realised it was huge. There was a research piece which said that it was between 40-250 times someone’s base salary as the average cost of bringing them abroad.

So we initially designed a beta program to see if it’d work, approached four or five organisations we already knew well and said we’d like to test it, and all of them said “No one’s doing this, it’s brilliant.” People were doing different parts of it, but no one was doing it in a holistic way.

We did that for about a year, and we kept writing up all our results, which became all the case studies in the book. Then we started thinking about expats being the core part of our business. Writing a book then became an obvious part of that.

We wrote Foreigner In Charge in such a way that the first three chapters are specific to Australia and the rest is generic. That’s done on purpose so that we can replicate it elsewhere. The Singapore book is now finished; the Hong Kong book gets started this week; and the Dubai book needs to be finished by January, so by this time next year we’ll have eight books on the market.

Who are your typical clients?

Typically our clients are business leaders. They usually come into the country at the most senior level, or at the second or third most senior level for that country. Their titles range from VP to CEO to MD to Country Manager, depending on the business and the country size. Obviously they’re intelligent, smart people.

Australia is generally a first or second destination. If you’re someone in a business in England or the US and you’re seen to be talented, they’ll send you to somewhere like Australia or Canada first. Easy language, easy transition in theory, and if you mess up it’s not a huge impact on the global business, but if you do it well then you’ve got an easy motion into North America or Asia, or elsewhere in Europe. This is why we see so many rookie leaders coming through!

This is great from my perspective, I love it, but from the organisation’s perspective they’re often thinking “Oh here we go, another expat coming through, we’ve got to train them up…” you know.

What do you think are the most common misconceptions when they arrive in Australia?

That it’s a really friendly place and it’s going to be easy to settle in. As one guy said to me, it is a really friendly place, and it is a really great place to settle in, for the first six weeks.

If you went to Singapore, which is the next obvious place to go to, there are very overt expat communities. You’ve got particular parts of the city where every one of those buildings has expats in them. In Sydney that doesn’t happen at all. So you could be living in any part of Sydney and not know if any of the people around you are expats. You have to specifically target international schools for your kids if you want to meet other expats.

Australians are by nature very friendly, but not in the same way as Americans who will welcome you into their home, or English people who will invite you to the pub. Australians don’t do that overtly. They’ll invite you to something, but they won’t actively make sure you come.

What we recommend to our clients is that when you first come over, host a barbecue at your own home, and then naturally you’re going to get invitations back, and that way it all gets started. Or if you’ve got kids in high school, make sure they host a sleepover quickly or join sports clubs, so that they start getting into that scene and making friends.

The second thing is about leadership style. Next to Ireland, Australia is the most egalitarian country in the world – there’s a view that everyone should have a fair go. At the same time, Australians think leaders should be leading them.

When we say “Someone has promoted you into heading up this business”, an Australian would typically stand back and say “Alright, prove yourself. Show us how good you are.” So for someone like Jonathan that’s really bizarre: when you’ve been in charge and you’ve been on a pedestal all your life, to suddenly arrive into a country where people say “Hey, I know you’re the boss, but prove yourself”, that feels weird.

One of the phrases that keeps coming up when we ask our clients for feedback on their experiences is “Leaders need to lead.” Australians really enforce that, and leading a different country doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lead Australians well.

It’s interesting, it’s all about perspective. There’s a perception that Australians are lazy; they’re not at all, they just do life very well. They understand that there’s no point being in the office at 7pm if the work is not due tomorrow. If it’s due next week, why are you doing it now? Australians also come to work early: you’ll find the offices are often full at 7.30 or 8am because they want to get out at 5pm for the end of the day. So Australians do life very, very well.

Australians get very focused: they’ll work really hard, get it done, deliver it quickly. Because of the nature of the country being so isolated from everywhere else – this is not a good thing, but it’s true of the culture – Australians tend not to think about the implications of not connecting in with Asia or Europe. The idea of doing a telephone conference at 7pm on a Friday night, that would never fly in Australia – they’re going “It’s my weekend. I don’t care if it’s 5pm in Singapore or 9am in Britain – it’s not going to happen.” So other regions can perceive them as lazy. The Asians work long hours, so they will look at Australia and think they’re lazy.

I’m here this week because I was working in Ascot with a South African client of mine who was in Australia for a couple of years and now he’s in Europe, living in London and heading up the European part of the business. While I was there he was telling his team that what he’d learnt in Australia was if you give them a six-step process, they’ll do step one and step six, and ignore the whole part in the middle. Whereas in England, if you give someone a six-step process it’ll all be done as planned. In England people don’t ask questions about whether it’s the right process or not – the Australians will always check and challenge it, and come up with a better version, but they won’t do what you ask them to do. You need to understand that they’ll always want to challenge your thinking, and once you’ve come up with a plan they’ll want to challenge it and make it better. Because the country’s isolated, they’ve had to develop great leadership, you have brilliant leaders there. But if you go in expecting to have something done in exactly the way you want it to be done, you’re in the wrong country – they’ll tear you apart for it.

It’s a fun place, but if you’ve come out of a command culture, you’ll struggle.

You spoke in the book about how it’s useful for a leader in a new country to observe what’s going on around them, take a step back and be quiet for a while. Do you find that there’s a difficulty there with the alpha type of personality that ends up being a leader, particularly in Western Europe and America?

That’s a really interesting question. It’s interesting because there’s another famous book called What Got You Here Won’t Get You There – it’s a really good one because it talks about how some of the strengths that have made you successful up to now, those exact same strengths might make you unsuccessful going forward.

If you look at that idea of alpha male power and control, that can be really helpful on the ascendency. This person gets stuff done, you can guarantee it. They’re usually in charge of smaller teams, or they might be a marketing or sales person, they’ve come up through that funnel and it’s worked really well. So now you put them somewhere they’ve got to work across all the functions, it’s called a T-space.

They’re now leading people they know nothing about, who have no history with them, and you have to work from an initial premise of people not trusting you. That’s when that alpha piece gets in the way.

In many places, Asia as a region being one of them, they will just naturally do what they’re told. It’s very much a culture of “You’re the boss, you tell us what to do, we’ll do exactly what you say.” Likewise, if the boss gives the wrong instruction, they’ll just do it exactly. Australians don’t.

Australia is a very leadership-mature country. For someone to come in and assume they know better, to assume that what worked in Virginia, or North Carolina, or Manchester in England, will work just as well in a completely different culture, is just deluded.

No matter what industry you’re working in, it’ll be very different in different countries. Take healthcare for example: the NHS in England has a very specific way of working, it’s dramatically different from the healthcare system in Australia, or Hong Kong, or Singapore. With retail, in England you’ve got multiple retailers and supermarket chains; in Australia, you’ve got two of them. A lot of retailers come into Australia, try to run the way they used to run things, and they fall over within six months. Unless they’ve taken the time to really understand what’s going on.

So the listening part really is just to understand what’s going on. Understand the history, so that when they see that decisions are made they can see why they’re being made. But also to actually see on your team: Who’s smart? Who’s thinking? Who’s got ideas that might not have been listened to before? And lastly, you get the buy-in of your people – they see that you’re trying to learn, so they let you work with them.

We always say that it’s between six weeks and three months that you’ve got to do that.

Do you have any final words of advice for expat leaders who are moving abroad for the first time?

Yes, a few things.

First of all, do a self-leadership audit before you go. It’s important to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. When you are leaving your current location, they are the people who are best placed to tell you, because they know you well, and you’re going. Enter into it with a view that you need to know all your blind spots.

Number two: get a really clear understanding from your new boss about what they expect in the first three to six months. Or at least agree with them that you will have that plan within the first month, so that you can be really clear.

Try to get your family to think of it as an adventure. An adventure can be good or not so good, but it’s all an adventure: try to have that kind of mindset.

I talk in the book about having your official starting date and your unofficial starting date, and the unofficial one being a month or a week earlier. Definitely plan for that. The worst leaders are those who rock up and start the next day, and they’re so unprepared, they’re jet-lagged, they don’t know what they’re doing… it’s a bad start. Make sure you start well.

Most organisations now will offer cultural training of some kind. My experience is that it’s somewhat good before you leave, but it’s much better two or three months later, once you’ve settled in a bit. If you have a choice to delay it, do so.

And being very biased, get a coach, because they can really help you. The fail rate is too high. The cost, in terms of finance, company and family, is too high to risk.

Padraig O'Sullivan is an international business coach and Managing Partner at O'Sullivan Field. His latest book, Foreigner In Charge: Success Strategies for Expat Leaders in Australia, is available now through the O'Sullivan Field website.

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