Hot Skill: Understanding a Person’s Culture to Win their Business

There’s a lot of debate about whether a liberal arts degree helps or hurts. I think that’s an unproductive discussion. What is useful is to find examples of where knowledge of culture, social norms, and language can help you stand out from your competition.

I found this interesting article on, and I wanted to share an excerpt with you. It’s about how wealth managers who cater to the super-rich win over the trust of their clients. It’s not simply by the showing how great they are at maximizing the asset values of the money they invest, or their technical skills. In fact, it’s quite the opposite!

From “How wealth managers earn the trust of the world’s super-rich:”

The 21st century has seen a proliferation of Tulkinghorns; today, there are tens of thousands of professionals worldwide who specialise in managing the fortunes of the world’s richest people. As global wealth has grown, and become increasingly concentrated in a few hands, there has been an explosion in demand for experts to protect it from tax, and from any other laws or obligations that the rich find inconvenient. Wealth managers, as these professionals are now known, are called upon to do everything from secreting clients’ assets offshore, to resolving disputes about succession in family businesses, to vetting potential marital partners. To do this, they have to know everything about their clients, just like their 19th-century counterparts. But now, with some of the world’s largest private fortunes coming from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, they have to do it across boundaries of culture, class, nationality and religion that their predecessors could never have imagined.

Working with such clients, and earning their trust in terms meaningful within their social idioms, requires extraordinary social skills and sensitivity. Like many professions, wealth management requires mastery of both technical knowledge (mostly in law and finance) and a cultural skill-set that organisation theorists have described as a combination of ‘mannerisms, attitudes and social rituals’. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defined the professionalism of lawyers as ‘a technical competence which is inevitably social’. This is why, as he explained in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), so many professions ‘set such store on the seemingly most insignificant details of dress, bearing, physical and verbal manners’.

Another wealth manager working primarily with clients from the Arab Peninsula developed an ingenious approach to this problem. Bruce – a white, Jewish American based in Geneva – used his fluent Arabic and knowledge of Islam to create a story that made him trustworthy to his Saudi clients. As he explained:

They say: ‘Why should I trust you?’ That’s a tough one, so I have to explain in terms of concepts that are already in their culture, like amana ­– this basic idea of trust, so that you can go off with the caravan to Syria, for example, and say to someone trustworthy: ‘I’m leaving for a few months, please take care of my stuff, and if I don’t come back, please make sure my stuff goes to my son/wife/etcetera.’ The Prophet Muhammad was one of those people that other people found really trustworthy, and he was often asked to take care of their stuff for them, knowing he’d take better care of it than his own stuff.

The result is a form of work that is more than meets the eye. The creation of offshore accounts or shell corporations is in some ways the easy part of wealth management, in that there are clearly defined right and wrong answers, legal and illegal moves. But when it comes to winning clients’ trust, and finding culturally appropriate ways to convey ideas that might be totally alien, there are no rules. There is only a series of face-to-face encounters and what Bourdieu in Language and Symbolic Power (1999) called the ‘labour of representation’ – the crucial, but often overlooked, task of presenting oneself and one’s work in terms that are meaningful and trustworthy to people with a vastly different worldview and set of experiences. Thus, wealth management attracts curiosity not only for the glimpse it gives us into the lives of the rich, but also because it represents an extreme version of what many of us must do as workers in a global economy.


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