Sabela Pérez García, a Spanish exchange student at the Zeppelin University (ZU) in Friedrichshafen, is currently on an internship in the compliance department of Rolls-Royce Power Systems. Having performed very well, she was awarded a free ticket to the Transcultural Leadership Summit taking place at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen. Here she chats over an espresso to Marcus A. Wassenberg, Chief Financial Officer of Rolls-Royce Power Systems, about what leadership and intercultural cooperation mean to her. 

Wassenberg: Where do you come from? Spain?

Pérez García: Yes, I am from Spain. I`m doing my Bachelor’s degree in Madrid in International Relations. I came here to the Zeppelin University as an exchange student.

Wassenberg: How did you come to attend the Transcultural Leadership Summit?

Pérez García: When I saw the agenda, I really liked the topics. Although now I am in Compliance, I am also into international politics and the challenges that companies and governments have in this transcultural globalized world. I thought that was a really interesting topic.

Wassenberg:  If you are talking about transcultural leadership, it comes down to values. Basically, values that stand out in every culture. So, I think compliance and international politics are very interrelated.

Pérez García: But it is also really hard because sometimes we don’t have the same values. Or, as the powerful western world, we want to implement our values in other countries and continents. And that creates problems.

Wassenberg: To work on that, and to be open for values of other cultures, is the other thing. And, at the same time, not letting go of what you stand for. That is the most difficult part of it.

Pérez García: I really enjoyed the conference because they talked specifically about that. There was that woman, I think from Ghana, who built that NGO from nothing to support women. And, for many of us, that is not an example for leadership. Whenever you think of leadership, you see the CEO of a company. But the people in those countries consider that the best example of leadership. We need to exemplify that.

Wassenberg: It is interesting that you mention it. Mother Theresa, for example, is for me one of the prime examples of leadership. Basically, she worked with nothing. It was just about being truthful. And that drove people towards her values and changed society. This is actually the most difficult thing to do. How do you change a society? To me that is the art of leadership which may be not changing a company but actually changing a nation. And then how do you make a team that consists of Chinese people, German people, people from the African continent and give them an identity? That is to me transcultural leadership in essence.

Pérez García: I completely agree. For me, the challenge of leadership is that you need to be convinced of what you are doing. So that you can project your energy and what you want to do towards the people you are leading. You may have great ideas, but if you cannot project them to people I don’t think you can be a good leader.

Wassenberg: That’s true. But the other problem is that to be a political leader you need to sort of compromise. And how does that play into that model you just created?

Pérez García: It depends, because to compromise with something you need to un-compromise with something too, because you are leaving part of the population behind. That’s the same in a company. If you want to move towards point A, there will be a percentage of people that don’t want to go there. You need to be able to embrace them and to convince them that what you want to do is the correct thing.

Wassenberg: That is a great challenge. I think what leadership is has completely changed because of the many cultures you have to address in a company. That is why it is important to be part of that summit to teach young people. I actually feel that young people are again ahead of us. People like you have seen different countries, have studied in different universities across Europe for example.

Pérez García: I lived in the US for a year. I got a scholarship to do my junior high school year.

Wassenberg: That’s great because that is what is needed. I really do recommend to young people to go abroad. You should start with us, and then we send you on an international traineeship. We did that years ago, and I think we have to do that again. We had a traineeship that consisted of different ports of call in different countries. Some of the people who did that are now actually in the leadership team. That is the sort of experience you want to see in a leader today.

Pérez García: It also helps you to understand. If you get stuck in one place, you might think ‘yes we live in a globalized world, I understand how everything works’. But you need to live there, get to know the culture, because although we are all the same, there are small details that make us different. But that’s a good thing. We need to learn from that.

Wassenberg: You are absolutely right. I think in a way it’s much easier to sort of collaborate with somebody in China. Because you know they are different. Sometimes it’s much harder to work with somebody in a neighboring country because even then there are subtle cultural differences that you might misunderstand. And you don’t expect that because the countries are so close.  But I think Germans and Spanish work together very well.

Pérez García: I think we complement each other very well, so taking the step of coming here was not that difficult. And I really wanted to learn German and I’m working hard on it.