Coyotes vs. Road Runners: Managing in the Americas

The saga of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner trying to outsmart each other has turned out to be useful in my research into cultural variation in management styles between Anglophone and Latino leaders. The cartoons are effective at gauging cultural responses because they are globally accessible cultural icons. Because they’re silent, they’re mostly free from language constraints, and they’ve been distributed by Warner Brothers to TV screens across the Americas — and all over the world.

I asked MBA alumni around the world to state which of these two characters they most consistently supported and to explain why. Most Anglophones sided with the Coyote, and most Iberians and their descendants preferred the Road Runner

Why would this be?

The survey indicated that those who identify with the Coyote respond mainly to the character’s perceived “courage. ” Though the Coyote routinely loses, he perseveres. Latins, on the other hand, identify more with the joy and freedom they perceive in the provocative Road Runner. These differences hold implications for leaders at today’s global organizations: those who sided with one character stated that they would not like to be led by someone who sided with the other. Their discomfort at the prospect of being managed by “the other side” is well illustrated by their view of what organizational role the other side might best perform: Coyotes considered the Road Runner best suited to leading an organization’s Human Resources department, while Road Runners saw the Coyote as best suited to being an organization’s financial controller.

Of course, the survey did throw up some exceptions. Indian and Australian MBAs, while Anglophones, turned out to be staunch Road Runners. Also, U.S. MBAs fell into two categories: those who self-identified as Caucasian-Americans, sided with the Coyote, while those who self-identified as Hispanic-, Asian-, Jewish-, or African-Americans, or Americans studying at the London Business School, tended to side with the Road Runner, even more consistently than did Brazilian MBAs.

While this is all very entertaining stuff, it throws into relief a serious, unaddressed problem in multinational organizations with large numbers of Latino employees. The problem is that most of these multinationals still don’t appoint “Road Runners” — whether indigenous Latinos, Indians, Australians or non-Caucasian-Americans — to run their branch plants. Rather, the Coyote Anglophones at the top of these organizations tend to choose like-minded individuals to run their subsidiaries — even though the Coyote type, whether local or foreign, is patently a cultural mismatch for the organization.

These findings have profound implications for engagement and organizational commitment among employees of subsidiaries, particularly in Latin America. Not only is the managerial style of the indigenous or transplanted Coyote likely to be resented in the workplace, but also the “upwardly mobile” middle management Road Runners in the organization are likely to be aware of the glass ceiling over their heads. And the problem doesn’t end here. While the appointment of a Road Runner to lead a predominantly Latino organization would solve the local problem, it’s likely to create new tension between the subsidiary and the corporate center. To complete the “culturally appropriate” chain of command, organizations should consider appointing an Anglophone Road Runner to run their international operations and provide a more functional interface between the corporate and branch cultures, than a Coyote from any culture could. Because of their diversity, American corporations have the edge over more Coyote-oriented Anglophone counterparts, providing they make the appropriate cultural matches.

Cultures are slow to change, so these requirements will be around for a long time. The sooner organizations recognize the need to address culture in both geographical and hierarchical terms, the sooner they will guarantee their long term success — and survival. Meep meep!

Alfredo Behrens lectures on Cross-Cultural Management in the International Executive MBA programme of the Fundação Instituto de Administração, São Paulo, Brazil. He has worked in the private and public sector in the Americas, East and Western Europe and Southern Africa. His new book, Culture and Management in the Americas was published by Stanford University Press in April 2009.