What You Can Learn from BP’s Cultural Fail

If your small business does–or dreams of doing–business overseas, you'll want to make sure you you're globally competent.
Business and Workplace Author, Speaker, and Consultant, AlexandraLevit.com
November 01, 2012

On April 20, 2010, the oil rigger Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.  After the explosion killed or injured 28 workers and released 4.9 million barrels of crude oil, the gushing wellhead was finally capped. British Petroleum (BP), the multi-billion dollar oil and gas company, was indisputably responsible.

Instead of expressing true remorse and compassion for the disaster, then CEO Tony Hayward committed a series of cultural gaffes that enraged U.S. citizens and lawmakers. For instance, well before the Gulf crisis was resolved, Hayward proclaimed that he “wanted his life back.” Then, as efforts to plug the leak continued feverishly in the U.S., he casually took in a sailing race with his son off the Isle of Wight in the UK.

Hayward’s American Disconnect

This behavior was consistent with Hayward’s work/life balance philosophy.  He once said publicly that he didn’t work weekends and took all of his holidays no matter what.  What the British Hayward failed to realize was that most Americans don’t necessarily agree with this point of view. It is the American way to take responsibility for one’s mistakes and do everything you can to remedy a bad situation. Until the problem is solved, free time does not exist. Since Americans were affected most when Deepwater Horizon exploded, many wanted to see Tony Hayward on a boat participating in the clean-up.

Although much of his business is conducted in the U.S., Hayward did not demonstrate strong global competence. His lack of understanding regarding how the crisis would be received in the U.S. led to a backward slide of goodwill and a plunging stock price for BP. That summer, it would also cost him his job.

What Global Competence Means for You

At its most basic, global competence means comprehending how business is conducted in different cultures and how country-specific customs affect your organization and job. You don’t have to be the CEO of a global company like BP for it to be relevant. For example, in the recent Job Preparedness Indicator study conducted by the Career Advisory Board established by DeVry University, 62 percent of managers listed global competence as an essential skill for new hires.

If you wish to be gainfully employed for the foreseeable future, it’s in your best interest to hone your own global competence. The good news is, it’s a relatively easy thing to do. You might start by doing a short stint overseas. Even a vacation or a few days working in a foreign office can be beneficial. 

If you aren’t able to travel, interview international colleagues to learn about how your industry’s business is conducted overseas, or take on a cross-national project that exposes you to work in other countries. Finally, read international publications such as The Economist to get a better handle on the business issues faced outside of the U.S.

Hopefully you will never face a Tony Hayward-like controversy, but if you do, part of global competence involves reaching out to foreign parties, listening carefully to their perspective, and acting with intelligence and sensitivity.

What cultural differences have you encountered in your business trips overseas? 

Alexandra Levit 
is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of 
Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.