Jim O’Neill has been called the “rock star of economics”, a pragmatic man, a visionary, and is best known for creating the acronym BRIC. 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 with him, and I hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I 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 what proportion, but it combines 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 significant positive impact and influence on my life and my career. It taught me how to work independently and reflect on things alone. 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 must show this ability to think differently, which gave me confidence. I would often call my PhD in Economics a badge.

SSGlobal markets and global business mean global communication. What do you think is the most formidable challenge when communicating across cultures?

Jim: The most formidable challenge is the most basic one: remembering that your “normal” mode of communication with your domestic colleagues almost does not apply globally. We need to listen and respect whomever we are speaking to.
I used to tease some colleagues and tell them globalization doesn’t mean Americanisation in some ways; that’s partly how the BRIC concept came around. The 9/11 catastrophe taught me that if globalization thrives, some global rules of engagement have to be applied, where there is acceptance of other cultures and philosophies….and it’s tough 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 life challenge and how you overcame 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, wildly 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 to predict what would happen in the markets. Through my thirty years of experience, I know I can get it wrong, and it wasn’t easy to accept that when I did. But I have realized some of the most successful people I have met recognize 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 empathy, but how can we practice that in the workplace?

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

SS: Why are people finding it hard to balance work and life?

Jim: I have three responses to this. Firstly, I think this is a luxury debate in wealthy countries. Secondly, I believe technology has impacted, as it is difficult to switch off. Thirdly, the desire to please, impress, and 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, many traders 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 team to go home by tube because, as they worked ridiculous hours, taking the line 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 me he spent every Sunday of each month going through his diary with his wife. The takeaway was, “Take care of your commitments and don’t let your schedule control you.”

SS: What’s the next challenge for us regarding new markets?

Jim: As I see it, the challenge 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. We come back to the beginning of our interview about globalization; 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 based on, “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 to 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. I also serve on the board of Teach for All and support several 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….

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

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

Recently an article was published about The Future of BRICS where Lord Jim O’Neill talks to us about the bloc’s future and its implications for Africa.


  • Sunita Sehmi

    Organisational Dev I Exec Leadership Coach I Author I Mentor I

    Walk The Talk

    Org Dev Consultant I Exec Leadership Performance Coach I DEI Warrior I Author I Mentor I Work smarter I Live better I Think deeper. With over three decades of expertise in multicultural environments, Sunita brings a unique blend of Indian, British, and Swiss heritage to her consultancy, fostering a deep understanding of organisational contexts and her clients. Sunita’s insights and expertise are tailored to elevate your leadership.