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Jim O’ Neill has been called the “rock star of economics”, a pragmatic man, a visionary, and a Manchester United enthusiast…oh well you can’t win them all  :-D. But perhaps he is best known for creating the acronym BRIC. Originating from a global paper he wrote in 2001, Jim predicted that Brazil, Russia, India and China would dominate growth in emerging markets. Jim worked for Goldman Sachs Group Inc. from 1995 until 2013. Before joining Goldman Sachs; he was head of global research at Swiss Bank Corporation.

Above all these tributes he is open, honest and talks a lot of common sense! I was very fortunate to chat to him and I hope you enjoy the interview as much as did.


Sunita Sehmi: How did you get to where you are today?

Jim O'Neill:  I would say it’s a combination of luck….quite a lot of luck, desire and focus.  I don’t know in what proportion, but it is definitely a combination of all three.

SS: How did you get into the world of finance?

Jim: After my Bachelor's I knew I did not want to work so I went to do a PhD in Economics. Everyone thought I was crazy to do a PhD …… apart from my dad. The PhD had a major positive impact and influence on my life and on my career. It taught me how to work independently, to reflect about things on my own. My doctorate was entitled “Oil prices, an empirical investigation into OPEC 1978-1981”. After I completed my PhD I was inundated with offers. So it was a good move professionally and personally, so much so that at Goldman Sachs, when I managed the Economics department and we recruited people with a Bachelor's degree, we would encourage them to go off and study for a PhD. In such a tense environment you have to show this ability to think differently and it certainly gave me confidence. I would often call my PhD in Economics a badge.

SS: Global markets and global business mean global communication. What do you think is the toughest challenge when communicating across cultures?

Jim: The toughest challenge is the most basic one: to remember that your “normal” mode of communication with your domestic colleagues almost definitely does not apply on a global level. I think we need to listen and respect whomever we are speaking to.
I used to tease some of my colleagues and tell them globalisation doesn’t mean Americanisation. In some ways that’s partly how the BRIC concept came around. The 9/11 catastrophe taught me that if globalisation is going to thrive, some kind of global rules of engagement have to applied, where there is acceptance of other cultures and philosophies….and it’s very hard to do in practice. Accepting and accommodating that people have different ways of transmitting messages reduces the challenges that could arise when communicating across cultures.

SS: Describe a difficult challenge in your life and how you got over it?

Jim: There are many but I can think of two that come to mind.
The first difficult challenge was firing people. This was tough, especially when firing people who essentially had become friends…you had to be frank and as honest as possible and it is not easy.
A second one is acknowledging you got it wrong. My job was essentially to predict what was going to happen in the markets. I know through my thirty-years of experience that I can get it wrong and it was difficult to accept that when I did get it wrong. But I have realized some of the most successful people I have met recognise very quickly that they are wrong and then move on - that is a real strength.

SS: All the literature tells us to communicate with more compassion and more empathy but how can we practice that in the work place?

Jim: I don’t think it is necessarily a good thing to be compassionate at work. I prefer to be straightforward and honest. Compassionate communication in certain contexts can lead to misperception and messages can be misunderstood.

SS: In your opinion why are people finding it hard to balance work and life?

Jim: I have three responses to this. Firstly, I really think this is a luxury debate we have in wealthy countries. Secondly, I believe technology has definitely had an impact, as it is difficult to switch off. Thirdly, the desire to please, to impress and to be recognized is colossal. People are constantly looking for gratification from their hierarchy.

SS: Could you share some of your strategies that we could use to keep more balanced?

Jim: When I was at Goldman Sachs a lot of the traders just never went home, even after the markets had closed for the day. I would continuously remind my staff to go home and I would leave the office before them. I also encouraged my staff to go home by tube because as they worked ridiculous hours, taking the tube was one sure way to maintain contact with the outside world.

SS: What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Jim: In 2003/4 there was a time when I briefly considered leaving Goldman Sachs. I was travelling a lot and always on the go. I voiced my concerns to my boss at the time. He told that me that he spent every Sunday of each month going through his diary with his wife. The take away was, “Take care of your commitments and don’t let your schedule control you.”

SS: What's the next challenge for us in terms of new markets?

Jim: The challenge as I see it is trying to understand these new markets. What’s going on? We can’t go on assuming that everyone is listening and accepting how people in these new markets work and function. I think we come back to the beginning of our interview about globalisation; a new set of global commitment rules needs to be acknowledged.

SS: What's next for you?

Jim: When I decided to leave Goldman Sachs, I decided that I would choose to do things on the basis of, "If it can't be better, then it will be different.”
I knew my purpose for leaving was to do something different and not to do something better. I had no interest in trying to beat the competition. Subsequently, I devote a lot of my energy into public service.
I am a member of the board of the Itinera Institute and Bruegel. I am also chairman and trustee of the London based charity SHINE. Plus, I also serve on the board of Teach for All and support a number of other charities specializing in education. In addition, I am chairman of the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership Advisory Board. I advise and give my recommendations….
I don’t know what is going to happen in the future but for the moment I am enjoying myself!

“Compassionate communication in certain contexts can lead to misperception and messages can be misunderstood.” Jim O’Neill


The Growth Map: Economic Opportunity in the BRICs and Beyond by Jim O’Neill

Bloomberg View columnist

Bruegel European think tank specializing in economics

Itinera Institute

Jim O'Neill is a Bloomberg View columnist, and worked for Goldman Sachs Group Inc. from 1995 until 2013, serving most recently as chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, and as the firm's chief economist from 2001 to 2011. Before joining Goldman Sachs, he was head of global research at Swiss Bank Corp.
Jim earned a degree in economics from Sheffield University in 1978 and then a PhD from the University of Surrey in 1982. In 2009 he received an honorary doctorate from the Institute of Education, University of London, for his educational philanthropy.
He is a member of the boards of the Itinera Institute and Bruegel. As well as being the chairman and a founding trustee of the London-based charity SHINE, he serves on the board for Teach for All and number of other educational charities.


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Sunita has a passion for helping individuals, teams and companies to maximize their potential. With over 20 years experience both in the UK & Switzerland, she created Walk The Talk, with the sole aim, to help professionals improve their Business Communication Skills. She is of Indian origin but was born and raised in Britain before she moved to Geneva in 1991. She has a Psychology background, (specializing in Occupational Psychology) and a Post Graduate in the Development and Training of Adults from the University of Surrey. Furthermore, she recently completed a Masters of Advanced Studies in "Gestion des RH et des Carrières," (Specialising in Career Management and Coaching), at the Universities of Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchatel & Fribourg. 

Having successfully worked and operated in different cultures and languages, Sunita's strength lies in her ability to totally empathize with her clients and help them to perform their best.