The Transatlantic CEO: Jos Opdeweegh reflects on leading a business in the UK

The internationalised world of business management sees many executives moving countries and continents to take on new leadership roles. 

Originally from Belgium, Jos Opdeweegh has spent his 30-year professional career at companies with a global reach across Europe, Asia Pacific, as well as South and North America. 

For the last 20 years, Jos has called Canada and the U.S. home, leading successful global businesses including Americold Realty Trust, syncreon, and Neovia Logistics, with the exception of a brief stint in 2016 while leading UK-based Premier Farnell PLC (before its sale to Avnet). 

Given his global success, he was appointed CEO of Connect Group PLC, a UK-based distribution and logistics business, in September 2018 and moved with his family to London.

We spoke with Jos to explore his perspective on the differences he has seen in his

CEO role with Connect Group, compared to working in U.S-based corporations. We also discussed some of his observations and advice for other executives in a similar position who are crossing the Atlantic to take on a new challenge. 

Steve: Jos, you’ve been with Connect as CEO for eight months, what are the key differences that you can see on this side of the Atlantic?

Jos: Let me start off by saying that I have received an extremely warm welcome from the people at Connect, a warm embrace. People have been very open, open-minded and welcoming. I love the people in the organisation.

The other thing that’s really struck me is the level of resilience of the team. To compare and contrast, I think in other cultures people are, perhaps, a little bit more opportunistic which could stand in the way of resilience and perseverance to the extent that we’ve seen here at Connect Group.

I have been able to quickly develop great relationships with a number of people. Brits have a great sense of humour, are very likable but, if you look at the flipside, it can take a while to break through the archetypical British reserve. It can take a little longer to build one-on-one relationships.

In terms of running a business and decision-making processes, this reserve can leads to certain behaviours. I would argue it’s a little bit more bureaucratic here, a little bit less to the point. That’s, of course, what we’re working on as an organisation, right? 

We have a new set of core values, with a focus on moving quickly; being agile; openness; open-mindedness (which is being receptive to ideas) and creativity. We want to create a space where people are comfortable speaking up in a room and being less reserved. We need the team to share their ideas with the organisation, because we’re trying to build a meritocracy, where everybody’s ideas count.

So, again, the British business culture is a little bit more bureaucratic, longer emails and agendas – or meetings as you call them – scheduled out six months ahead of time. That’s the difference. That makes the company a little bit less agile and it is my hope that we can combine a healthy mix of an American, more opportunistic attitude, blended with a more agile approach than we currently see in Connect Group.

Steve: So, the new values are there to guide us towards a more balanced approach to our business?

Jos: It most certainly should. In addition, we also have our diversity initiative – Everyone In – going on. Diversity for us also means cultural diversity, obviously. So, what we also need to do is try to pick the best aspects of those different ways of running a business. I’m not at all sitting here saying that the American way is the right way, but I’m saying we can learn something from the American way, we can learn something from the British way, we can learn something from the way people do business in continental Europe or in Asia, right? That’s essentially part of being inclusive. That’s also part of embracing diversity.

Steve: Connect Group is a PLC, and I know you’ve worked for public companies before, are there one or two fundamental differences that you notice from this side of the Atlantic to the other?

Jos: Well, there are a lot of differences, obviously. I think the biggest difference… and this really jumps to the eye… is the role of the chairman in a UK PLC.

I would describe a chairman, in UK terms, as the equivalent of an executive chairman in the United States. So not part of the day-to-day management of the business necessarily, but certainly being much more involved in the business. In Gary Kennedy at Connect, we have a wonderful chairman, and I’ve been able to establish an excellent relationship with him. Gary asks me to hold the mirror up, to look myself in the eye, to ensure I’m making the right strategic decisions. I think that closeness works well as long as you get along.

The other big difference is there’s a much larger focus… and I’m not saying there’s no focus on this in the United States… but, a much larger focus in the UK on pay equality and driving out excessive pay schedules, which is not something that necessarily resonates as much in America.

Steve: Because it’s more of a meritocratic approach, it’s saying, “This is the structure you’re working within and therefore you’re rewarded appropriately?”

Jos: Yes, and there is a philosophical aspect to this discussion, obviously, right? When you think about income and equality in the U.S., it’s a big issue and it’s partially because of the fact that some of these titans of industry have made a tremendous amount of money. So, we can have a conversation about if that’s the right societal model. I personally don’t think it is. On the other hand, people need to be rewarded for work, right? So, again, there’s a healthy balance to be found.

Steve: Coming back to working in the UK, obviously individuals all have their characteristics, but are there themes or general principles that you’ve noticed about working with Brits rather than working with Americans or Canadians, or in other European markets?

Jos: So, if I were to think about this then I would say that Americans are very, very assertive, and sometimes probably too assertive, and Brits are, perhaps, a little bit too reserved initially. Americans wear their heart on their sleeve, if you want, and have no issue talking about emotions in the first minute after you’ve met them, and Brits have difficulty talking about emotions after you’ve known them for two years! 

Again, everything is about balance. In this whole perspective of inclusiveness and diversity there is, again, the right balance to be found. Brits don’t take themselves really too seriously. They have a great sense of humour. This whole aspect of perseverance and resilience, and being less opportunistic, allows them to be more steadfast, allows them to really focus on the task at hand.

I do think it takes a little bit longer to convince them when you’re talking about a specific project plan and key milestones, and I do think certain people will nod yes and sometimes mean no. But, once you have reiterated the message, I think the British people are extremely capable in supporting that agreed upon project plan.

Steve: Is that one of the main cultural differences that you see between working in a UK company and working in a U.S. company, that more bureaucratic approach which then manifests itself into a commitment to following through? What are the other things that you tend to see?

Jos: I will give a very nice example. It’s an example from my personal life, but it exemplifies, the difference.

My eight-year-old daughter is about to go on her first trip with school, four days, by herself, without her parents, in Cardiff, This was communicated to the parents, so you have a room filled with parents in this school, and a lot of the parents happen to be American, and a lot of them happen to be from all over Europe, and a lot of British people. Not one single question was asked by a non-American parent. There you have it. I’m not saying a lot of relevant questions weren’t asked by American parents, but that’s the fundamental difference, I think.

Steve: It’s a good way of demonstrating that difference between being reserved and being upfront, isn’t it?

Jos: Yes, and of course there’s this extreme form of assertiveness, and I know this assertive trait is also sometimes viewed as less than desirable by British people and by Europeans in general, it’s not always an approach that is well liked.

Steve: Bringing it back to Connect Group – in terms of the culture change and the values, it really is about trying to get a greater degree of speed, a greater degree of agility, and a greater degree of open-mindedness about how we work. So, there’s obviously the capacity to do that, isn’t there, and make that change?

Jos: Yes, definitely. I mean, in all of the businesses that I’ve been involved in, we had a very large presence in the UK, even though they may not have been UK based. Since 1997, I’ve been promoting the following: shorter emails; shorter meetings; less meetings; don’t fill out your agenda six months ahead of time; be flexible… Agility is what makes a business work, right? I mean, the needs of the customer, and the needs of the people and the business are what you’re serving, and you can’t do that in a static environment. Of course, the capacity to evolve to that type of organizational approach exisits. I’m not saying, as is the case in every cultural journey, that we’ll get there overnight, but that will be the end goal.

Steve: In terms of personal interactions, you know, the team that you’re working with and the group that you work with, once you’ve broken through that reserve, do you find that that’s a positive environment. Are they happy to share or are there still layers of reserve to go through?

Jos: It’s very binary in my mind. So, it’s, sort of, all or nothing, right? In those one-on-one relationships I’ve been able to develop just wonderful interactions about every facet of life, and I’ve found people to be much less guarded and, yes, very phlegmatic, with a great sense of humour, and wonderful conversationalists. So, yes, you have to break through that barrier initially, and this is probably also true for France, it’s true for Germany, and once you’re there then it’s a wonderful place to work and it’s hard not to love the people. 

Steve: So, from a personal perspective, being now based in the UK and being based predominately in London, what are the things that you particularly like about being in the UK, or about the British, perhaps might be a better way to describe it?

Jos: I’ve always been, and is this the right word, an Anglophile. Thirty years ago, I was watching a British comedy, I’m probably the biggest fan of ‘Fawlty Towers,’ the biggest fan of ‘Ab Fab’ and the biggest fan of ‘Blackadder,’ and so I think the ability of 60 million people to be so incredibly dominant in terms of culture, globally, is quite amazing. It’s something that I’ve always admired and loved.

There’s a tremendous art and theatre scene, that’s absolutely lovely. So, generally, I think it’s a society that, if you talk about personal development of the individual, gives great opportunities; it’s much less focused on the material side of life and more focused, I think, on real values. 

If I look at my children when they go to school, the tremendous amount of focus on the core values, of anti-bullying and inclusiveness, is absolutely wonderful. 

Steve: Thinking about other people in your position, making the same transition, what would your top three tips be? What are the top three things to bear in mind when you’re making this transatlantic move?

Jos: The first thing is to embrace change. I mean, people who cannot embrace change will have a much harder time moving from location A to location B, definitely if B is in a different country and a slightly different culture. 

The second thing I would say is accept the fact that it’s going to take some time to adjust. I mean, there are probably many books that have been written about this, but it’s totally normal that it takes three to six months to fully adjust to a new environment. I know from other expats that after they’ve spent a number of years in a location outside their home country that going back also requires three to six months of adjustment. 

So, embrace change, accept the fact that it’s going to take some time and take it all in, it’s a great opportunity. It’s a great opportunity for the family, it’s a great opportunity for personal development… I mean, the world is our oyster, right, so…

Steve: Thank you for your insight, Jos. 

Jos: Thank you.