The Spanish executive: A David Beckham or a Sancho Panza?

Pino Bethencourt. Professor. Instituto de Empresa

24 November 2005

Although Spanish society has not historically fostered risk taking, today’s successful executive must take chances. But how do people in business acquire this difficult yet crucial skill?

Excellent executives are characterised by their highly developed executive skills, of which their capacity for assuming risk is becoming of increasing value.

A successful executive is capable of assuming risks. He also dares to make difficult decisions, adapts easily to change and performs well, even in the growing uncertainty surrounding today's economy.

When I ask Executive MBA students how good they are at assuming risks, most of them acknowledge they are very good at it. They say they are very flexible and that living side-by-side with uncertainty is part of their lives. Is this true or do we tend to exaggerate our strengths?

What is true is that the Spanish tend to be more interested in the security of a stable salary than in the high risks of setting up a business. We often have heard our politicians express concern for the dearth of entrepreneurial spirit in Spain and try to explain to our children the value and joy of setting up a business, during visits to local classrooms.

Something is definitely wrong when the heroes of the Spanish people bear more of a resemblance to a cynical Sancho Panza than a heroic David Beckham.

From the comic book characters of Mortadelo y Filemón and Súper López, to the list of adorable losers in the TV programmes Aquí No Hay Quién Viva, Siete Vidas and Aida, it seems the Spanish relate best to slapdash characters with a sense of humour and who are lazy and even somewhat roguish. We admire the David Beckhams of this world, but they inspire more respect than affection.

A Fear of winners?

Today's executives have forged themselves in the heart of a culture that appears almost fearful of winners. Fortunately, the younger generations can look for inspiration in new, more constructive models, thanks to the small-town winners of Operación Triunfo.

Spanish executives must therefore look themselves in the mirror with a critical eye if they want to succeed in the corporate world or create a new and successful business.

For an executive, drawing a critical self-portrait is the first step of a learning process, which by necessity is experimental. Acquiring a skill as crucial as risk-taking is not easy, but it isn’t impossible either.

As with languages, the key to success lies in achieving a high level of exposure to risky situations and individuals, finding opportunities to walk on your own two feet, while remaining steady and very patient.

Some measures executives can take to develop their risk-taking capacity include the following:

::Asking colleagues and friends how they see you, and then contrasting your own opinion of yourself with those of your colleagues.

::Continuing your own professional development by reading books and articles on entrepreneurial spirit and personal success stories.

::Creating new friendships with people you consider courageous, and discussing with them their successes and doubts.

::Extending your network of contacts by joining associations and clubs that invite speakers and organise activities that enable you to exchange ideas and experiences with risk takers.

::Hiring a personal coach for a period of time. He could be your own Jiminy Cricket, encouraging you not to abandon ship, ensuring you remain honest with yourself and asking the questions you don't dare to ask yourself.

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