Coping With Culture Clash

Work styles vary wildly from one country to the next, which can make global expansion challenging. But all companies, regardless of region or dialect, have one thing in common: people.

American work habits can seem downright oppressive when viewed from afar.

Various reports and studies show that we Americans experience a more burdensome work week than many of our peers abroad, spending interminable hours at the office, wolfing down lunch at our desks, letting vacation days expire unused, and answering emails after hours and on weekends.

It’s practically the dark ages compared to the rest of the civilized world, where 20 to 30 days of vacation are the norm, the maximum length of the work week often is set by law, paid parental leave is mandated, and some countries have even tried to legislate the “right to disconnect” for workers besieged by after-hour emails and phone calls.

This divide between America’s doggedly industrious approach on the one hand, and the less-relentless global approach on the other, might make it seem that a corporate culture developed for a U.S. company would prove a poor fit beyond our borders.

But that’s not necessarily so.

Yes, there are differences between the U.S. and the rest of the planet, but there are also commonalities. In every corner of the world you can find people who want to serve others, do high-quality work, collaborate closely with others and have fun while doing it. Where they live or where they’re from has nothing to do with those traits; they come from the person’s character, not his or her nationality.

I experienced this firsthand as a founder and former CEO of Mustang Engineering, a Houston-based company that from 2005 to 2014 opened several international offices. Our first was in Woking, England, about 30 miles southwest of London. Within the next few years, we added offices in Melbourne and Perth, Australia; Mumbai, India; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bogota, Colombia; Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia; and Norway.

That’s a lot of different cultures around the world that needed to absorb our corporate culture.

Fortunately, certain principles that make for a winning corporate culture are universal, whether you are in Malaysia or Australia, Norway or India. How so? Because they all relate to people, and people are the crux of any organization’s success. A few of those principles include:

• Open communication is critical. Always encourage employees to speak up if they spot a problem or have a suggestion. A corporate culture that promotes such open communication can work well anywhere in the world because it spurs people who have a different take on things to share their thoughts. If employees feel comfortable speaking out, that can help a U.S. company operating in a foreign land avoid missteps. When we were working with a Korean contractor, open communication revealed that our contracting strategy would cause their management team to “lose face” if we stuck to our standard. The contract was modified, which won the work for us and saved the Korean company 30% over their normal costs. Open communication requires active listening!

• Smart hiring practices make a difference. It’s possible to take a new hire and train them to fit into your corporate culture, but it’s even better to hire people who are a good fit to begin with. Whatever your values are, you want to make sure the new people you hire share those values, and that’s important both at home and abroad. A bonus is that, once you bring on good people, they often know other good people and can help you recruit. After thanking people for choosing to join our company, we always asked them to name the five best people they had recently worked with, and those names went onto out “talent magnet” chart. In year eight, one of those targets answered that “they are all here, so I decided to join them.”

• A spirit of belonging helps promote a passion for work. People want to belong to something, which is why they buy the jersey of a favorite sports team or bumper stickers supporting a favorite cause. For some reason, though, this sense of belonging rarely happens where people work. But you can go a long way toward making people passionate about their work if you organize activities where they can get to know each other as people, not just coworkers. In many cultures, people already like to spend time with coworkers outside of work, so for them it comes naturally.

We had a simple lunchtime airplane competition organized by people from different departments and different age groups to get some cross-fertilization and “bust silos” in the company. At this event, which helped to bring family into the corporate culture in a positive way, parents built and decorated planes with their kids. Pictures of the event and names of participants were posted at the coffee bar and put in the newsletter that was mailed to team members’ homes to maximize impact. This helped build a sense of belonging that spread across the company and into the home.

You really can break down the barriers that appear to separate people in different parts of the world by respecting their local cultures—and inviting them to belong to yours as well.

Bill Higgs is the author of the forthcoming book "Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in Your Business." HIs podcast, "Culture Code Champions," is on iTunes' "New & Noteworthy" list. Higgs is also former CEO of Mustang Engineering Inc., which he and two partners grew from an initial $15,000 investment to a billion-dollar company with 6,500 people worldwide.Higgs is a distinguished 1974 graduate (top 5 percent academically) of the United States Military Academy at West Point and runner up for a Rhodes scholarship.