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  Judy Buckley
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Judy Buckley '98
Judy Buckley
International leadership helping solve Chinese banking puzzle

By Matt Golosinski

It's a safe bet that anyone eager to move from a bucolic city in the American Midwest to a former Soviet Bloc dictatorship has the psychological mettle to forge a career in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Certainly this has proven true for Judy Buckley '98, who parlayed her undergraduate journalism degree ('78) from the University of Wisconsin into a profession that's advanced America's diplomatic mission abroad. Today she serves as an economic and political officer for the State Department in Hong Kong. This densely populated Chinese city, with its frenetic economic activity and its "one country, two systems" relationship with mainland China, stands in contrast to Buckley's first Foreign Service assignment.

That journey began more than a quarter century ago when, fresh out of college, Buckley was "thrilled" at the prospect of relocating to Romania, home to Dracula and the Ceausescu regime, and a country then living behind the Iron Curtain.

"Ignorance is bliss," recalls the Kellogg School Executive MBA graduate. "I was so ecstatic about leaving Madison that it didn't even register what life would be like in Romania, until I got there."

Despite the "really bleak" prospects of this initial foray, Buckley, 50, remained committed to her dream of traveling the world, and subsequently found herself assigned to countries such as Argentina and Ecuador.

"If you love seeing other cultures and don't mind relocating every three years, the Foreign Service can be a wonderful choice," she says.

Her rotation in Hong Kong which ends this summer when she, her husband (ex-FBI) and their 12-year-old daughter return to Washington, D.C. has enabled her to explore the economic side of a job that has always included a huge political component. She credits her Kellogg School education with providing this "career-enhancing opportunity" to work with Chinese banks, gaining competitive intelligence that best serves U.S. investment.

Her job includes researching and reporting on the banking situation in Macau, the casino-rich islands some 40 miles from Hong Kong. The work she and her colleagues do is important both for educating American businesspeople launching ventures in China and for their Chinese counterparts new to the rules of a market-based system.

Both sides have much to learn, says Buckley.

Too often, she explains, American businesses "come in here almost blindly" and fail to respect the intelligence or culture of the Chinese. And too often the Chinese "pay only lip service" to the American approach to commerce, especially in matters of intellectual property rights.

If this Asian economic juggernaut seems unstoppable Buckley says she is "dumbstruck" by the new major cities on the mainland that have "popped up overnight" the progress demands great oversight as the Chinese and Americans dance with one another, sometimes clumsily.

"U.S. firms must understand the differences in the Chinese culture which reflects a passive 'life-is-what-happens-to-you' view of the world, as opposed to the proactive 'life-is-what-you-make-of-it' view of Western culture," says Buckley.

And for their part, Chinese bankers can benefit from understanding how fiduciary trust serves the greater economic engine.

"I wouldn't put my money into a mainland China bank right now," says Buckley. "Maybe in 10 or 15 years, but today there is still a lot of corruption"

These bankers want to be industry players and participate in the stock exchange, but Buckley says they are still learning how to do this. For now, Hong Kong banks, operating as they do under the rule of law, remain the ones that attract foreign capital and "pave the way into the mainland" for these investors.

Despite the complicated economic and political context of Hong Kong, Buckley says the commercial climate there is good for U.S. business, particularly those looking for local partners who can facilitate mainland transactions. Still, companies seeking to expand in China must do their homework first and send their best people.

It also wouldn't hurt to learn the language, she advises.

"China is the toughest market because you encounter international competition, plus the Chinese themselves [can present unique cultural challenges] to a Westerner," Buckley says.

A primary task for U.S. firms is ensuring that their Chinese personnel understand Western interpretations of such concepts as accountability, fairness, honesty and efficiency, she says.

"If a company is to survive here, the challenge is not simply to teach certain business techniques, but to use business techniques to change the way the Chinese view their jobs and the world in general," notes Buckley. "The truth is, a successful company, a prosperous economy and a just political system share the same cultural foundation of accountability, meritocracy and balanced leadership."

For women in China, the road to equality looks long and difficult. Although the nation's 620 million women have enjoyed formal equality since the Communist Party came to power in 1949, they still face widespread discrimination "even graduates from top universities," says Buckley.

Buckley herself faced traditional gender hurdles, such as exclusion from networks and senior leadership roles, but employed strategies to combat the situation, including building a track record in her functional area to establish credibility; developing leadership skills within the organization by demonstrating effective people management; and seeking out difficult and highly visible assignments.

She also turned to the Kellogg EMBA program and the school's Center for Executive Women's leadership programming to gain a professional edge.

As Buckley looks back on a long career in the Foreign Service, she reflects on the dynamics between economics and politics. "Business probably does more to help spread democracy than any other part of society," she says. "It facilitates the cultural change necessary for a society to become truly free.

"To effect this transition and convince people that they have the power to improve their lives, a U.S. firm must appeal to that which is fundamentally most important to them: the food on their table and the roof over their heads."

Continue to Elise Wetzel '92

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©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University