Culture, context & coaching: why local leaders are kicking goals

Nick Mescher weighs in on the local vs. global debate.



When Socceroos head coach Ange Postecoglou was appointed in late 2013, an undercurrent of doubt arose – was a local, home grown leader really the best option over a raft of more fancied international opposition?

This doubt must have been doused after last month’s Asian Cup, when Postecoglou led the team to a thrilling 2-1 victory against Korea. It seems for the Socceroos, having an Aussie at the helm has made all the difference – partly because of the fighting spirit he’s unlocked in the team, and partly because his knowledge of the local league allowed for some formidable domestic players to be unearthed.

Great news for football fans, but it does beg a slightly uncomfortable question: how often do we Aussies underestimate homegrown talent, on and off the football field?

It’s almost part of our culture to fall into the trap of assuming something is superior just because it’s from overseas. We do it with sporting talent. We do it with fashion. Now we even do it when we’re ordering a beer. And we certainly do it in the corporate world. 

But the truth is, in spite of that twinge of cultural cringe we sometimes feel, international isn’t always better than domestic.

Yes, global knowledge is good.

Whether we’re talking business, cricket or football, international insights aren’t just powerful, they’re necessary. We need to know what everyone else is up to in order to stay relevant and competitive. Luckily, in our increasingly connected world, knowledge is easier to access than ever from all corners of the world – and we’re proving to be a nation of keen students and fast learners.

If you look at our most successful leaders, you’ll find they’ve inevitably got some sort of international experience. Ange Postecoglou gained valuable international experience playing for Australia, then focused on coaching locally, albeit with a brief, though unsuccessful jaunt to coach in Europe.

Australian coach Darren Lehman was an international player before he began his coaching career in the Indian Premier League. Similarly, many of our most successful CEOs spent years working foreign markets, or tasting international experience, before carving out a niche on home turf.

It seems that our best leaders have knowledge on par with their peers from Europe and America. But perhaps their local background means they’re better at putting this thinking into practice?

Context is crucial.

I believe that to make the most of Australia’s resources, leaders need to understand how Australians operate. 

It’s one thing to have information – it’s quite another to know when and how to use it. Every market is unique. Different things matter to different countries, and in Australia, even between each state. Ask someone in the professional services business how much the price of oil matters to them, and if they’re from Perth or Sydney you’ll likely get two wildly different answers. So while leaders need to understand the broader picture, it’s vital to know how to translate this for the local context.

In my experience, Australians are uniquely positioned to take global concepts and implement them in a way that’s relevant for us. Local leadership means things are being driven by someone with firsthand knowledge of what’s going on: the reality, not just the academic theory.

Home grown leaders will usually be more embedded in the culture that they’re leading – the politics, the economy, the trends and the history. Rather than sitting somewhere across the globe making assumptions, they’re intimately involved, meaning they can make more effective and timely decisions. 

It’s worked for Postecoglou, who reshaped the Socceroos with hungry young players. It worked for Darren Lehmann, who took over from Mickey Arthur – a South African coach with plenty of skill and talent on paper, but lacking a true understanding of the team and country’s culture in a way that would galvanize the team.

Of course, there are times when leaders fail for the opposite reason. We see it happen in lots of different sports, when a club appoints a ‘favourite son’ as coach. When this kind of arrangement fails to bring success, it’s usually because the person in question has great local knowledge, but lacks the broader experience to take the team where it needs to go. Look no further than AFL’s Michael Voss, who stepped up to coach the Brisbane Lions without any prior experience, and was ultimately axed.

The upshot is this: if we’re focused too close to home, we risk missing out on ideas from further afield; things we could really benefit from. Things we might actually need.

The best leaders combine the best of both worlds.

In my mind, effective leadership brings together global insights and local knowledge. 

When a leader doesn’t understand the culture or context, or has had limited exposure beyond their immediate world, decision-making can suffer. I often hear from our clients that the big difference for them is that UXC has this kind of local leadership, and is a business that has been built from the ground up here in Australia – despite sometimes lacking the global brand recognition of others in our industry.

A local leader who can leverage global trends is a potent force. For any team, it can be a huge advantage. It means you can act quickly and appropriately. You can see the impact of your decisions, and fine-tune and adjust things in response – and your leadership innately understands the very culture it is leading.

The lesson we can all take away from the success of both the Australian Cricket team and the Socceroos decisions to appoint a local leader seems clear – when it comes to picking a leader for any team, it pays to factor in the three Cs: context, culture and coaching. Whilst there is lots to be learnt from Asia, Europe and the Americas, we shouldn’t be afraid to back ourselves to compete internationally.

And if our sporting teams are anything to go by, it’s worth including a well-versed local on your shortlist of candidates. It could be just what you need to start kicking more goals.

About the Author

Nick Mescher was appointed CEO of UXC Consulting in 2009, where he oversaw six IT consulting business units across Australia and SE Asia within UXC Limited.

With more than 25 years’ experience consulting in business and technology, Nick is recognised as an industry leader. He has previously worked as the Group Managing Director of the Australian Professional Services division of the Swiss-based Fortune 200 firm, Adecco, and was the co-founder of CPT Global. 

Nick is passionate about creating a world class Australian and SE Asian consulting business that remains relevant to its customers at all times through its ability to be aggressive and agile in developing service lines that suit the rapidly changing world of business technology.