When William Meaney (MSIA ’86) began his international career in the late ‘80’s, he knew it would be “the more difficult ‘road less traveled.’” For this generation of MBA students, he sees international awareness as a necessity.
“The world of globalization and communication is truly a smaller place,” said Meaney, now CEO of The Zuellig Group, a $12 billion multinational conglomerate.
“For students today, I think it is still going to be a difficult road, but it’s going to be the road you must travel,” he informed the capacity crowd of Tepper School of Business students attending the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series. “As managers, you’re going to have to be sensitive to different cultures and different ways of doing things, and somehow manage that mosaic and get things done.”
As the leader of a Hong Kong-based company with offices in more than a dozen countries, Meaney is familiar with the complexities presented by increasing market globalization. He cites both the opportunities created and the dangers of ignoring potential competition.
“[Globalization] is a two-edged sword,” he warned. “You either have to use it, or it can be used against you.”
Despite the challenges, and often because of them, Meaney was drawn to the excitement and adventure of a career spent entirely outside the U.S.
“Whenever I go to a new country, my eyes widen, although I’m starting to run out of them,” he quipped.
Prior to joining Zuellig in 2004, Meaney enjoyed the special challenges posed by a number of turnaround situations, including time as Chief Commercial Officer at Swiss International Airlines and Executive Vice President of South African Airways.
“If you’re doing a turnaround, managing a business…and putting it in an international context,” he added, “it’s like taking two-dimensional chess to three dimensions.”
In summarizing his advice to the group, based on lessons learned throughout his 24-year career, Meaney drew on Robert Fulghum’s popular All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. His interpretations included:
1. Hold hands and stick together: “Teamwork and communication are important. People often say information is power. What they forget is that information accorded to a single individual or small group isn’t information at all. It’s a bunch of data.”
2. Play fair: “Giving credit where it’s due is very important. Competitive politics are cancer to an organization.”
3. Say you’re sorry: “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Analysis is important, but there’s a time to switch the computer off, make a decision and move forward.”
4. Be aware of wonder: “Don’t ever lose intellectual curiosity. It’s the thing that allows me as an executive to think laterally.”
5. We all die: “The challenge that we all have as business leaders is how to pursue a business goal with passion, but also maintain a certain level of objectivity to know when to move on.”
Reflecting on his time at the Tepper School, Meaney discussed the managerial process he learned that helped him in his rise to the c-level. He cautioned the students that while it includes solid analysis and out-of-the-box thinking, an effective manager also learns when it’s time to make a decision and execute, leading the organization to a successful result.
“Everything in the curriculum gives you the opportunity to hone those skills,” he said, “It’s up to the student.”
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