I clearly recall my first cultural error at work. I had been in my new role as Director for the Netherlands for two months. I was still adapting to a new country, finding my feet managing our first fledgling international offshoot. There were five of us, all Dutch except me, working in a dimly-lit sous office in central Amsterdam.
It was our end-of-the-month talk. It had been an average sales month at best. With the end of quarter looming, I thought – here’s my opportunity to do a loud, rallying meeting and get the team excited for the month ahead. Exactly like we did in the UK. “OK team,” I boomed. “Here’s how we’ve done this month. Not brilliant. But it’s fine. Each one of you just needs to bill £XXX next month and we’ll be on track. It will be hard work but it will be worth it. Just think. If you make it, you’ll get £XXX in commission! That’s a lot of money!”
Pause. Wait for cheers and applause.
“Er, Charlie,” one of the team cuts in. “That’s great and all. But. We really want to understand WHY we’re doing this.”
Why? What do they mean why? Surely I had just explained the financial potential.
“The money is nice,” another one of them chipped in, “But if we reach that target, how do we compare to the rest of the company? And to other companies in the Netherlands?”
This was a crossroads moment. I had two choices. Keep conducting business in the way that had worked when I was in the UK. Or listen, and change. I chose Door B.
The changes came almost immediately. I started discussing our market share and goal within Amsterdam with them. They told me they cared more about team performance than individual results, so I switched to team targets. We created friendly internal competition between the Dutch and UK office. And from there, we made other cultural shifts. They told me they didn’t appreciate regimented office hours and break times. So we moved to a more flexible way of working. Suits were out, smart jeans and shirts in. Eventually, I even started bring my dog to work.
If you’re wondering if we did the right thing – and a vital part of this was the UK leadership giving the Dutch office the freedom to make changes – the proof, as us Brits say, is in the pudding. Financial results improved almost overnight, as did morale and a natural – as opposed to forced – work ethic. As the office started to grow, staff retention improved and we found it easier to attract new colleagues because of our genuine culture differences.
By 2014, Arrows Group international sales – now also including our new Munich office – had grown from £1.5m in 2012 to almost £9.0m per year, making us the highest entrant on the Sunday Times HSBC International Track 200.
Navigating differences between international cultures is hugely important for globalising businesses. This is true for a huge number of my clients – the UK has the most globalised ICT sector in the world according to the Economist’s ICT Globalisation Index. At the same time, a recent report suggests two thirds of senior UK business directors are worried young adults joining their company will lack the education or perspective to function in a multicultural economy.
I would love to say my positive experience in the Netherlands has given me the magic bullet for success in an international context. What it has taught me is that each country is unique, and expecting to directly export the way of working from one country to another probably won’t work.
Take my current challenge. Just over a year ago, we opened a new office in India as a means to offer our clients global staffing solutions. My first visit to the office – essentially, for cultural immersion and to get to know the team personally – was received with nothing but positive feedback. On the second visit, however, I went with a more ‘down to business’ attitude. Weeks later I received feedback from the senior manager that some of the team missed my collaborative coaching style, and thought I’d become more dictatorial. What had changed?
Nothing has changed. I just needed to push the performance button a bit more firmly. So now, I’m at that crossroads again. It’s time to listen, and balance the needs of the business against what makes different people tick.