Seven Skills Leaders Will Learn From Croatia

Written by Tim Baye, International Travel Seminar Co-Chair

Experiences outside your comfort zone frequently spawn unanticipated opportunities to learn and grow. Spice up that zone by experiencing a rich and a turbulent history amidst stunning–yet familiar–landscapes. Include a transitioning society from highly structured and market-based to a chaotic democracy and welcome to Leadership Wisconsin’s International Travel Seminar to Croatia (Hrvatska).

Croatia was like a second home for me from 2001 to 2012 when I had the privilege of teaching two courses in a newly formed MBA program. I would travel for two weeks, teach back-to-back two-hour sessions, assign homework, return to Wisconsin, wait two months and repeat. It wasn’t your typical teaching gig, but worth every moment.

One of my take-aways from these experiences was the nature of what was expected of me. I was not merely teaching financial management or the consulting course but actually, was part of an effort to develop a new group of leaders via entrepreneurship development.

Throughout Croatia’s long history, aristocracy, theocracy and autocracy were the dominant forms of government. While markets existed in a local context, a strong central authority–often located in a capital far away–imposed both formal and cultural rules and practices. Hundreds of years of authoritative government generated many results. Some were good, such as stability, and others were not so good, such as repressed groups and freedoms. The dominant factor however, was the cultural norm of hierarchy, especially in business and government. Society had been forever organized. Rules and norms were established by sanctioned authorities. Innovation and risk taking were not encouraged, formal structure was.

With the conclusion of the breakup of Yugoslavia and its conflicts, the peoples of Croatia found themselves facing a brand new world. The promise and trepidation of charting one’s own course, with less certainty provided by the State, created a movement to embrace the potential offered by entrepreneurship. Out of this environment, a new class of business leader began to emerge.

Seven lessons to be learned from your experience in Croatia

I will try to avoid all the clichés associated with conventional wisdom of the benefits international travel, but, yes, you’ll get all of those too.

Lesson one: The raw energy of not being held back by “we’ve already tried that but it didn’t work.”
Imagine that until 2002-2003, no contemporary business had ever been sold as a “going concern” in Croatia. Private ownership of firms had been limited to the most agrarian and cash-only businesses. The influence of global communications, expanded expectations of young leaders (internet and travel induced) and good multilingual education has produced a sound footing for new ventures and startups. This brave new world (EU membership, market driven investment, serial entrepreneurs, etc.) has taken hold of the young and ambitious. You will learn the skill and value of “uncorking” latent demand.

Lesson two: Old ways don’t often die, but they must evolve to remain relevant.
The impact, role and effect of the State and large vertically integrated companies remains, albeit in ways different that in the past.  These same lessons may be applied to long-standing institutions and organizations here in Wisconsin.

Lesson three: World leadership can occur anywhere there is opportunity, courage, will, passion and resources.
You will see examples of global best practices in a place that has less than five years of competing in an open global market. Special examples will include visits to organizations ranging from agriculture and food processing to IT to destination health services.

Lesson four: The value and cost of living in a mobile, fluid and “anonymous” society.
Most Americans experience life that, for the most part, assures them freedom of choice and certain degree of anonymity. Now, imagine a life where multigenerational coexistence is not only the norm, but expected. Where degrees of freedom in movement, speech, image and reputation are affected by many generations of families living in close and familiar proximity to each other. Add to that a recent history where one’s ethnicity and place of origin had a very pronounced impact due to civil conflicts.

croatia-tourism-people-on-streetStreets of Dubrovnik

Lesson five: The impact of “the commons” in both personal and public decisions.
Like many regions with a long and rich history, cultural norms can become very well established. The value of shared space and assets is especially profound in a young democracy with a long past. Your skills of observation, hearing and analyzing will become quite honed as you attempt to reconcile all that appears familiar, but you recognize as fundamentally different (at the core). This skill will have tremendous value back in Wisconsin, where we sometimes struggle with too little “commons.”

Lesson six: Bon Appètit!
Your skills at appreciating the variety of food and drink will flourish. Be prepared to be amazed.

Lesson seven: Understanding others, as they understand you, as you look for opportunity.
Your skill set in effective listening, especially listening with your eyes, will surprise you. Nothing solidifies a new friendship or relationship like trading ideas.

To learn more about the International Travel Seminar to Croatia, click here.


Timothy M. Baye is a Professor of Business Development/Energy Finance and State Energy Specialist at University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin-Extension. 

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