A Small World After All

BET ON IT. ANY TIME THERE'S A BIG international merger--and 1996 has had a record number--you're going to get all sorts of fretting about ""culture clash.'' Since British Telecom announced it was buying MCI a few weeks ago, we've been hearing about whether the stodgy Brits can work with those sock-it-to-'em Americans. Same thing when any ""foreigner'' gets the top slot at a company far from home. When Marjorie Scardino, a tall, wisecracking Texan, was named to head Britain's blue-blooded Pearson publishing firm in November, the company's stock plunged for a day in London. Earlier this year Ford Motor named Henry Wallace, a Scottish executive, to take over its Mazda unit. As the first gaijin in memory to head a major Japanese company, he faces a nation of skeptics. ""Ford sends people who don't speak Japanese at all,'' grumbles Goro Matsui, a business leader in Hiroshima, Mazda's hometown.

But Wallace's bad Japanese--he gets tutoring once a week--hardly matters these days. Nor does Scardino's Texarkana drawl grate much on British ears. With surprising speed, the big multinationals--and many small ones--have come to speak the same language and inhabit a common culture. The corporate equivalent of McWorld has bred a new kind of executive--call him, or her, globoboss--who is breaking down cultural barriers. They are also helping to drive cross-border M&A to new levels: $250 billion so far this year.

How does one qualify as a topnotch globoboss? First, learn their language. Global managers speak a patois of straight-shooting American pragmatism, Japanese-inspired management ideas (like kaizen, or continuous improvement) and M.B.A. jargon (""strategic resource allocation''). They're tough, smart and flexible enough to surf the slipstream of the global economy. Guys like Ernie Drew, a former air force captain. Drew was running Celanese, a midsize U.S. chemical company, when it was bought by the $37 billion German giant Hoechst. Last year, impressed by Celanese's profits, Hoechst chairman JUrgen Dormann asked Drew to join the board in Frankfurt. He proceeded to remake the Teutonic parent in Celanese's image. It was only a matter of time before board members with names like GUnter and Horst were jawing away in English about ""vision'' and ""TQM'' (that's ""total quality management''). Then in November, Hoechst announced it was splitting into six independent units--a bit of U.S.-style financial engineering meant to boost shareholder value, a novel concept in Germany. Score one for Drew--and globobosses all over.

Another must: ""benchmarking.'' This buzzword means measuring your company against the best practices of other companies worldwide. Smart globobosses personally benchmark themselves against beau ideals like Coca-Cola's Roberto Goizueta and GE's Jack Welch--two of the world's most successful multinational managers. British Telecom and MCI have actually been checking each other out for years. At this point, says MCI chairman Bert Roberts, ""there's no culture clash.''

Clearly, globobossing is here to stay. Big companies must go global to be near the billions of new consumers and to find the best deal worldwide on wages, taxes and local talent. That takes a savvy globoboss. Paul Ray Jr., a New York headhunter, describes a search he did for a semiconductor company. ""They were looking for someone [who understands why] the chips were designed in India, water-etched in Japan, diced and mounted in Korea, assembled in Thailand, encapsulated in Singapore and distributed'' everywhere, he says. ""About one in a million fits that description.''

Indeed, there aren't enough globobosses to go around--even if many companies haven't yet figured out that they need them. (Few large U.S. companies, for instance, have foreigners on their boards.) The coming of the globoboss is less a revolution than culture creep, the kind that makes you sit up one day and say, ""Hey, whatever happened to . . .'' Why, for example, don't we hear much about the Japanese way of doing business, as we did ad nauseam in the '80s? Mostly because everyone has adopted it. Today American execs chant ""TQM'' in their sleep and the Japanese idolize Bill Gates.

For globobosses, even time zones are a competitive edge. George Everhart, the American president of Fujitsu PC in Milpitas, Calif., tells how his team worked nonstop for months to develop software for Fujitsu's brand-new Lifebook notebook computers, the kind of cutting-edge product that just has to beat the competition to market. ""When the work had been done in Japan, they would ship it here in the morning, our time. We did validation testing, wrote it up and shipped the results back to them in the evening.''

That sense of cross-border trust is a big step for a Japanese firm, says Everhart. So was Fujitsu's decision to put him, a former Apple exec, in charge. His Tokyo bosses, he says, ""no longer think in terms of local control of worldwide enterprise.'' Like globobosses everywhere, they can't afford to.