Learning to Allow for Cultural Differences in the Workplace

Edward Dolman went from porter to chairman of Christie’s before taking over Phillips.

Edward Dolman is chairman and chief executive of Phillips, the international auction house.

Q. What is your family background?

A. I was born in 1960 in London. My father was a lawyer, my mother a teacher. They met at Cambridge. We were a typical English middle-class family. We lived well but frugally.

Q. What is your educational background?

A. I went to a state primary school. I was a good student but rebellious and not particularly interested in doing what my teachers asked. Still, I got a rounded education. At Southampton University I studied history because I was interested in the way human beings related to each other. There was also a “pictures gallery” at school that piqued my interest. After graduation, I enrolled at the Study Centre for Fine and Decorative Arts in London and obtained a degree in art history, connoisseurship and appreciation.

Q. Were your parents interested in art?

A. Both my parents were intellectually curious and somewhat unconventional. My father was a great pianist and nearly went to the Royal College of Music. We always had music in the house and were encouraged to read.

Q. How did you break into the art auction business?

A. I had to figure out what to do with a degree in history and art. The world of high-priced art dealers was one I did not understand. Museums seemed slow. But I loved the idea of an auction house as a lively marketplace for art.

At 24, I applied to Christie’s and was hired as a porter. Back then, you started at the bottom in the auction business. Christie’s was a crusty, old organization in which a porter was a porter. As a rugby player, I was strong and ideally suited for moving furniture, so I was allocated to the warehouse.

Q. How did you enjoy that first job?

A. I loved that business from the start. Most of my friends had gone into accounting or advertising, which seemed fine, but nothing seemed to me as rich as the auction environment, an extraordinary marketplace with almost no transparency where mysterious things happened between collectors, dealers and connoisseurs.

After a year, I was allowed to work as a junior specialist in the furniture department, where I spent 10 years and eventually became an auctioneer.

Q. Why did you leave art expertise to move into business management?

A. Over time, I had become interested in the dynamics of running a business. I took a management course at the Institute of Directors in London. In 1996, Christie’s asked me to run the Amsterdam office. It was my first time managing a team of 75, and outside the U.K.

Q. What lessons did you learn from that experience?

A. At the core, while people have similar reactions to most things, there are significant nuances in the way people communicate, in what they expect in the workplace and how they balance work and private life. My Dutch colleagues gave greater importance to family life; they had a different sense of fairness in an egalitarian society and were more direct in their communication. In England, family life often took a secondary position and the English are notoriously difficult communicators. The Dutch found dealing with the English frustrating, and the English viewed Dutch directness as extremely rude.

After that experience, I became highly attuned to cultural differences in the workplace.

Q. What prompted your move to New York?

A. In 1998, when François Pinault acquired Christie’s, changes needed to be made in the North American operations where Christie’s was not a success story. I moved my family to New York and became managing director of Christie’s for the Americas.

Shortly thereafter, all hell broke loose. My direct boss, Christopher Davidge, resigned as chief executive after becoming embroiled in an antitrust scandal that impacted both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I stepped in as chief executive and had to steer the company through a particularly difficult inquiry by the U.S. Justice Department. It was a steep learning curve, but it also became a platform for me to implement changes so the company could be run in a more professional way from top to bottom.

Q. What subsequent challenges did you face?

A. Several developments transformed our business within a few years. The first was the rise of contemporary art as a dominant auction category. People forget that that was not the case at all in the 1990s. We had to realign the company’s activities to move away from 18th-century expertise and the material associated with the grandeur of the past to fully embrace this modernism.

The extraordinary explosion of wealth and art collecting in Russia and the Far East brought a rapid expansion of our client base in areas that had not been, until then, significant. Suddenly, Russian oligarchs were dominating the auctions, and an incredible wealth creation in China brought in new clients.

Finally, the internet offered fantastic new possibilities in terms of communication, auction participation and the databases that made art prices readily available.

It was very exciting for me to be leading the organization through these changes.

Q. In 27 years, you rose from porter to chairman of Christie’s.

A. Not many who started out as porter went on to have a long career at Christie’s. I was C.E.O. for 11 years. It was a good run, but I felt then that the company needed a fresh perspective. With Mr. Pinault, we agreed that I would become chairman, and we looked for a new C.E.O.

I stayed on as chairman for 18 months through 2011. Business-getting, advising and representing the company were all fine activities, but I wanted a position where I could really influence things.

Q. After Christie’s, you spent three years in Qatar. Why did you choose to return to the auction business?

A. After Christie’s, I was incredibly privileged to work alongside Sheikha Mayassa of Qatar on the arts project set up by her father, building curatorial teams for museums, looking at collections, working with artists, which I found very enriching. But it was complicated to balance a family life with traveling to the Middle East. I was ready for something new. I thought Phillips was ideally suited to be molded and shaped to face today’s market challenges, given that it was less of an institution and more of a business.

Q. How do you manage teams across cultures?

A. My style is communicative. I spend a lot of time telling our teams what we want to achieve and what success looks like. I paint a broad picture and lay down the standards of behavior we expect and those we don’t. I believe in a flexible organization where people can take risks, challenge the status quo, express themselves and be motivated. I am much happier to see people make mistakes than not make decisions.

Q. Who was the biggest influence in your life?

A. My mother, who was fiercely feminist, both tough and compassionate, taught me big lessons. She never accepted the rigors of a rigid society and did not believe in the status quo. She instilled in me an independent way of thinking and the desire to challenge the status quo despite criticism by those who cling to it.

Q. What makes a great leader?

A. Great leaders inspire a different level of belief and support by their teams. Fundamentally, people need to be trusted and believe that they can achieve things. Extraordinary charisma and interpersonal skills are partly natural but also learned. They don’t happen by accident.

Q. What would you tell a young person starting out?

A. Always look for the path less traveled. Have the confidence to take the path others may not view as the right one. That is what disrupters do: deliberately look to do things differently.

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