Michèle Carlsson has been head of business development in the Middle East and Africa at NASDAQ OMX since 2009. Her tech ability is as world-class as her client management skills; she was previously chief technology officer at EGID, a joint venture between NASDAQ OMX and The Egyptian Exchange, and, prior to that, she was NASDAQ OMX head of software development and quality assurance. Equally impressive, she speaks four languages: Swedish, English, Arabic and Aramaic (she modestly dismisses her French as “hardly existing” but mentions in passing that it was good enough to notice when an interpreter in a French-speaking African country wasn’t translating accurately … ). And, speaking to her, you also get the impression that she could get along with anyone, anywhere – her charm and her enthusiasm for her job and the places she travels to both shine out. The diversity of those places, which include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, reflects the NASDAQ OMX Group’s strong international presence: the world’s largest exchange company owns and operates 26 markets, three clearing houses, and five central securities depositories, spanning six continents. Eighty exchanges in 50 countries trust the NASDAQ OMX trading technology to power their markets, driving growth in emerging and developed economies. Carlsson is one of the leading businesswomen in this complex company and industry, and adapting to different working environments has become second nature to her.
So: why should people look to embrace the opportunity to work abroad?
It broadens your horizons like no other experience
“I would like to encourage everyone, women in particular, to explore new horizons. You don’t regret any experience – but you don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t take up opportunities to try new things. I love this journey and would encourage anyone to give it a try. In early 2006, when I was located in Sweden, in Stockholm, I was asked to consider a role in Egypt. It meant a move for the whole family to busy, noisy Cairo – my two sons, then aged 12 and 14, had to leave their friends in Stockholm. I had been through a similar experience myself as a kid, when my parents decided to move from Damascus to Stockholm. With the support of my husband and family, we decided to take the opportunity. Moving to Cairo was a fantastic decision none of us in the family ever regretted, though it was full of tough adaptations in the beginning, for my kids especially. Now, after another move, to Dubai, I feel very lucky to be part of a company where I’ve had the opportunity to travel to so many countries and see so many cultures.”
Unfamiliar cultures can quickly become familiar …
“The most scary thing is simply that you’re moving into a culture you don’t know. You need to pay attention and be tentative to start, but when I’m asked ‘Isn’t it difficult to be a working woman in the Middle East?’ my spontaneous answer is always ‘No, not at all.’ Working in the Middle East, especially, is certainly different. When you’re driving negotiations as the only woman in a room full of men who are ready to do their best to win, it can be challenging – but it’s also very interesting. I work in a patriarchal environment, there’s no doubt about that, but I also know that, in the Middle East, the mothers are the rulers of the patriarchy. It’s just that decision-making women are not as common in the working environment. You need to act respectfully, be straightforward and transparent – if you make your counterpart relaxed, they will respect you back. You learn by doing – there is no rule book. Every meeting is different to every other, so you have to be flexible and adapt to each different environment.”
… and so can unfamiliar etiquettes
“There are different etiquettes in different places: behaviour is not the same in Saudi and Iraq as it is in Nigeria. You have to develop a feeling for what’s respectful. Avoid shaking hands if the other person doesn’t extend his hand for shaking, for example – in some cultures, it’s more powerful to nod. I have a strong handshake and have sometimes stretched out my hand with a warm smile – and nothing comes back! Dress code is similarly varied. In Saudi it’s the traditional black abaya: a long dress with a headshawl. In Nigeria it’s a standard office outfit – in fact, I would say in Africa it’s always Western dress code. Travelling to Saudi for the first time, when I took over the account in 2009, was a bit nerveracking, I did my research first, but now it’s the best – I have the lightest suitcase ever, all I need is that black abaya. The best advice is to be very strict at first, dress very neutrally, until you understand your environment. If there’s an official occasion, you’ll get a hint on the dress code. Knowing what to pack becomes routine. Some behaviour that is culturally related may initially be difficult to understand but you learn to live with it. For example, in the Middle East and Africa, unlike Europe or the US, it’s not unusual that a very senior person, usually male, would smoke in his office, or light up during a meeting. It’s not that he doesn’t fully respect you, but, for him, it’s not an issue to chain-smoke for an hour or so while you’re trying to talk and negotiate. You can’t take it personally – it’s what comes with the job!”
There’s no need to be hung up about languages
“If you have languages, things are smoother, but we don’t need to scare anyone out there who doesn’t have all the languages for the region. English is the main language for business and it’s acceptable everywhere. It has certainly been the key language for me, especially as our industry is very technical. If you have French, you are well-equipped in Africa. I speak Arabic, although I’m a little rusty, but I can use it to smooth things, which is absolutely fantastic – but it’s really not essential. It’s your way of using language that’s important and your style and approach are what counts. If you go in at the start with a smile, just being yourself, people are very tolerant.”
You’ll build strong working relationships through amazing new experiences
“In Nigeria, I was invited to a suya street barbecue served on newspaper. Camel feet were on the menu in another place, served as a mixed grill on three-metre swords – it was an extremely nice way for our clients to show appreciation. I have sometimes been with colleagues who’ve refused invitations, and if you feel really strongly about the food, you can hide behind being vegetarian, but my principle is that you have to try, and you have to show your own appreciation. When people are proud of their culture and lifestyle and want to share it with their trusted friends, and those friends say ‘no way’, it’s a relationship-killer. Sometimes there are invitations to people’s homes, though as a woman, that happens less than if you are a man. A client in Nigeria invited me to his niece’s birthday party, to a lovely house in the suburbs of Lagos where I could join in with an authentic Nigerian family. I was touched. In general you don’t close a deal unless you have that kind of trust and respect. It’s fantastic for me to receive such an invitation to a private home – it means a lot.”
You’ll be proud of rising to the occasion when the need arises
“I was informed that Deborah Wince-Smith, a member of the NASDAQ board at the time, would be travelling to Cairo. As a country manager, I arranged to be there to support her and give her the opportunity to meet with our clients. When I touched down at the airport, I felt something wasn’t as it should be – the atmosphere was very tense. I decided, for the first time, to stay at a hotel by the airport rather than downtown. That was 24 January 2011. The next day we had a full day of back-to-back meetings with our clients and lunch with the Egyptian business elite. That was the day the revolution started – the country basically closed down for three months. We had our security team on the line discussing what to do and we did everything in our power to make sure Deborah could leave the country as soon as possible – but that was easier said than done as many other people were trying to leave. I suggested she move to my hotel, as hers was by Tahrir Square [downtown, where the main demonstrations took place] – and it was looted later that day. All went well, she flew out, and I was then stuck in my hotel room for a couple of days without internet, phones, even electricity. It is such a memory. The country is still not the same today and this kind of thing takes you personally because you know the place so well. Yes, it was scary and stressful, but you can also imagine how enriching it is to have witnessed history in the making.”