How to bridge a cultural ocean; Lessons on how to be brasher in business

Last updated: May 15, 2013 8:01 pm

How to bridge a cultural ocean

By Ian Sanders

On the 24th floor of a building on New York’s Avenue Of The Americas, a group of British entrepreneurs is attending a masterclass in how to do business in the US, listening to fellow Britons who have already set up in the city. The event has been organised by London-based media events company Chinwag as part of a trade mission in association with UK Trade and Investment, the government body that helps British businesses expand overseas. Amid the talk of tax arrangements and employment contracts, the entrepreneurs are learning about the cultural nuances in hiring, pitching and workplace culture.A more mature start-up scene and access to a vastly bigger English-speaking market are two factors tempting UK start-ups across the Atlantic. UK digital companies such as Decoded, which teaches executives how to learn computer coding skills in a day, Songkick, a digital service that provides information about music events, and Moo, an online business card company, have opened US offices, while a number of British executives are relocating to head US-based businesses. The Talent Business, a headhunting firm, earlier this year reported a rise in British advertising executives heading stateside. At the same time, the British government is seeking to put UK companies in the US spotlight: this week Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince Harry were in New York’s Meatpacking district for an event highlighting UK creative businesses.

As the UK and US share the same language, there is often an underlying assumption that the countries make obvious partners. But this assumption can come unstuck when it comes to doing business.

The different approaches often become apparent when hiring. Feargall Kenny, an Irish recruiter now based in New York, says US executives tend to display more self-confidence than their UK counterparts. “The struggle here is spotting the difference between a slew of candidates who have been trained since their early days to say they are the best,” he says. “Americans don’t lack confidence. UK firms are used to interviewing candidates who are much more honest and sheepish about their achievements.”

Aussie rules for avoiding cultural mix-ups

Matt Whale relocated from London to Sydney 10 years ago and now runs How To Impact, an innovation consultancy, and found the Australian pace of business life slower than he was used to. “In London you have to jump quickly; what struck me here was that things don’t happen so fast,” he says.

Mr Whale believes newcomers need to adapt their business style. Australia “may be behind the curve in online and retail trends, but we’re ahead of the curve in understanding Asia better. Here you need to consider the Asian business culture,” he says, noting that you need to allow for several meetings with a contact before actually doing business together.

That slower pace may be at odds with the stereotype of a blunt, tell-it-like-it-is Australian culture but Mr Whale says such attitudes are now limited to pub talk and the older business community. Australia’s modern business culture is more conservative.

“When I arrived here from the UK, I had to turn down my arrogance,” he admits.

Mr Kenny’s experience is echoed by an entrepreneur who has opened offices in Palo Alto, Omaha and New York. Alex Kelleher, founder of Cognitive Match, a business behind a technology that matches online advertising content with individual users’ interests, relocated from London to New York to focus on the company’s North American expansion. His advice for Britons working in the US is to be confident and avoid self-deprecation. “The market here definitely likes the confident, self-assured ‘winner’ approach more than it’s appreciated in the UK,” he says. “Simple, direct and confident communication works best here. And while sometimes self-deprecation can be seen as endearing, it may not be ideal in a competitive environment over here.”

Having essentially run the same company from both countries, Mr Kelleher has found the most important difference to be the attitude. “From the moment I arrived, I knew it to be different. People are more open to hearing about your business idea; they won’t make themselves hard to reach, or dismiss proposals or ideas because they haven’t come through the right channels” he says.

Whether pitching your idea to an investor or selling your business to a prospective customer, Americans welcome simplicity. Lisa Hu is a New-York-based executive of Blippar, a tech company that has created an image recognition app. She admits frustration at UK colleagues creating complicated multi-slide presentations that are ineffective for a US audience. “When doing business here, keep your value proposition simple and to the point. Cut to the chase in presentations: five slides or you’ll lose the audience’s attention,” she advises.

Modifying your business style may not be as critical when dealing with co-workers as it is when pitching to customers, but differences exist.

Mason Zimbler is a marketing agency with offices in Bristol, England and Austin, Texas that recently organised a job-swap between two executives. Having had her first experience working in England earlier this year, American Michelle Oros says she found life in the Bristol office more formal than she was used to. “It felt like we were more of a family at the Austin office. In Bristol there was a thicker line between personal life and work life,” she says.

In Austin, for example, the day starts with general chat, while her English counterparts get into business mode earlier.

Despite Texan office life being friendlier in Ms Oro’s experience, some workers prefer the language of a British workplace. Mr Kenny’s experience of working in the UK was that it can be much less politically correct than the US. “I distinctly remember everyone in the UK – women and men – being very comfortable using the expression ‘tits up’ when something went awry,” he says. “That would never happen in the US. The banter from the UK crew was always a lot more risqué but far funnier.”

After 18 years in the US, Mr Kenny still finds that some sports references that are common in business communication may require translation. Such references need careful consideration when crafting material for sales or presentations. “We pronounce things differently over here – like ‘data’, ‘router’ and ‘inventory’,” he says. “ICT [information and communications technology] as a known expression doesn’t exist and we use lots of Z’s where S’s suffice in the UK. Localisation is essential for credibility.”

While some of these differences may not be deal-breakers – an English accent can still open a lot of doors in the US – it is important for executives to make adjustments to their business style each time they pass border control in order to minimise the differences.

Back at the New York masterclass, Londoner Nikhil Shah, the founder of music-sharing website Mixcloud who has been doing business in the US for several years, assesses the cultural divide. “In the States they are louder, more upfront, more direct. We tend to be more reserved, more tentative and certainly more modest,” he says. “This has a huge potential to work against us out here, since everyone is constantly on the pitch and on their ‘A’ game,” he adds, borrowing an American term.

“However, you’ll promptly find there’s a lot more hot air out here and it requires careful filtering.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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