Wednesday, July 25, 2012

NOTHING PERSONAL: BUSINESS IN SWEDEN IS STRICTLY IMPERSONAL. This week, Bob looks forward to the Olympics countdown with a focus on the medal-winning Swedes.

Finally, I can grab a beer and get my fill of the global games of summer! The Olympics officially begin July 27th, and Sweden is set to compete in events ranging from Archery to Wrestling with a total of more than 20 events.

Here's an interesting fact I read on Wikipedia about Sweden and the Olympics: Sweden first participated in the Olympics at the inaugural 1896 Games, and has sent athletes to compete in every Olympics since, with one exception, the sparsely attended 1904 Summer Olympics. Sweden has earned medals at all Olympic games except for two, the 1896 Games and the 1904 Games. The only other nation having earned medals at every Olympic game since 1908 is Finland. In fact, the people of Sweden have a principle of “lagom” or doing things “just right” but not doing anything unnecessary.

So, are the people of Sweden as team-oriented in business as they are in sports?

According to Business Culture in Sweden, because the people of Sweden value community, egalitarianism and consensus-seeking, generally, in business, team spirit is important -- as long as the team follows the particular business' ideals. Ongoing buy-in for goals and objectives is highly important, so therefore, team meetings are often frequent and long.  And team members are accustomed to performing their individual tasks with little supervision from superiors. If there is too much supervision employees may see this as a lack of trust in their professional capabilities. I'd say team spirit is alive and well in Sweden.


Personal is Private
Overall, business etiquette in Sweden is more formal than in the U.S., but, less formal than some other countries. For example, upon meeting (unlike the U.S.), Swedes consider inquiry about a business associate's personal life to be, well, personal. So that discussions about home and family, as well as status and position, are usually not discussed.

The Art of Cards
Unlike some Asian countries that prefer business cards in their spoken language, Swedish business associates, who generally speak and understand English, have no problem with presenting a business card in English. But, Swedish business etiquette suggests protocol that includes taking a moment to study the card and then carefully placing the card in a wallet or briefcase. Never just take a business card and shove it in your pocket or write on it in front of others. That would be thought of as rude.

In America, we get brownie points for appearing confident in business. Not so in Sweden. In fact, the appearance of being somewhat reserved will earn you more respect than the appearance of being overly confident.

I'm not sure if I'll enjoy the games even more after researching some of the countries that will be in the summer Olympics, but I'll definitely be on the lookout to see signs of individual nationalism carry over   from business to sports etiquette among the individual teams during the summer games.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

THERE ARE NO CASUAL FRIDAYS IN GERMANY, BUT THERE IS MORE FREE TIME. This week, Bob talks about the differences in business attitudes between Germany and the U.S.

As we get closer to the Olympics, this month we decided our focus will be on other countries. Today, I'd like to focus on my observations and reading about Germany.

One major difference I've noticed is, like many countries overseas, employees in Germany are more serious in the workplace, but it seems when German employees leave work they really do leave work behind, and enjoy their free time minus the glances at cell phones and work-related email messages. Maybe they understand the work/life balance better than we do.

I recently read some research compiled by Norbert Hedderich, a professor of German at the University of Rhode Island. 

In the late 1990s, Hedderich interviewed German engineers working in the U.S. and Americans working in Germany. He wanted to see how the two cultures were perceived by one another, and the differences that may cause some friction. The following is a sampling of his findings. If you'd like to read more go to

The Americans interviewed indicated a more business-like atmosphere in the German workplace. Most Americans were quite surprised to see the lack of casual conversations about family and hobbies, which is so prevalent in the U.S. One American in a managerial position in Germany said, "...At home, I like the interaction with my team. Here, it doesn't seem possible. If I had this kind of relationship with team members in the U.S., it would be considered dysfunctional."  On the other hand, the more casual style of interaction among Americans was a pleasant surprise for the German employees. Germans also noted, with pleasure, a sense of welcoming into the culture and the feeling of having been made part of the group when working in the U.S.

Germans noticed more positive thinking and an upbeat attitude in the U.S. culture. One American said, "In Germany praise is the absence of criticism." Yet, in the U.S., Germans were confused when they were praised for what they thought were just routine tasks. Some of the German interviewees found that negative aspects of a particular assignment were not listed negatively, but were labeled as "items for improvement" or were dropped altogether. Reading several comments I got the feeling that German employees believe workers in America are "babied" rather than treated as responsible adults.

Most interviewees mentioned distinct differences, and some genuine friction, between Germans and Americans on the concept of pace vs. attention to detail. In the German firms, the planning process of a project tends to be long and very detail oriented.  The Americans thought Germans "...tested things to death."  On the other hand, a German personnel manager whose company had recently been purchased by a U.S. company said, "...The Germans plan far more thoroughly, whereas the Americans are content with having completed 80% of the planning."

Finally, when asked how Americans working in Germany should behave, the general consensus given by German employees was:
At Work:
  • Don't attempt to impose American ways. Try to take in what you experience without immediately making judgments.
  • Expect to work independently. You may see your supervisor less frequently than expected.

Outside of Work:
  • Don't take it personally if initially people seem distant and reserved. It may be as difficult for you to get used to this as it is for a German visitor to the U.S. when asked by a stranger "How are you?"
  • Since most Germans separate work and private lives more than Americans, don't count on getting together with colleagues after work. Instead, find people who share a common interest; join a club and from that, friendships will grow.

The above tips work well abroad. Even among companies in the U.S. there are localized and regionalized differences. A lot of these suggestions are also good when moving from one company to another. If fitting in with your new teammates is important, go slow. Analyze the lay of the land. Watch what others do and follow their lead. It's easier to accommodate local customs than attempting to change them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

WHAT IS IT ABOUT "TAKING ONE FOR THE TEAM" THAT BRINGS A SENSE OF OLYMPIAN-LIKE FULFILLMENT TO INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS? This week, Bob talks about the importance of the team vs. the individual in Japanese culture.

Naturally, there are some cultural differences between Asian countries, but all seem to believe in putting oneself second to the team, or group, for the betterment of all. I greatly admire that in Asian culture.

Japan is definitely among the Asian cultures that subscribe to the philosophy of the team vs. the individual. This is a good overview (Doing Business in Japan), but, in a nutshell, what's stressed within Japan's social and business etiquette is that teamwork and group cohesiveness are of great importance. In Japanese culture, the individual relies on the group for identity, and in business, the people place great emphasis on compromise and self-discipline for the sake of the team.

The Japanese, great proponents of teamwork, start with an advantage: their intellectual tradition isn't adversarial. Like the spirit of the Olympics, Japanese culture relies on the power of teamwork rather than an individual's reward to achieve its goals. Winning isn't a bad thing, but how one wins: with honor and respect for others, is very important.

Asian culture is packed with reverence for teamwork. The Gung Ho! business model is based on the fundamentals of two Chinese characters forming the word Gung Ho, which translates to "Work" and "Together." This approach, according to its author Ken Blanchard, "... focuses on sharing of information; aligning purpose, values, and goals of people and organization; frontline decision making responsibility; and celebration of successes..."—in other words, teamwork. Japan has survived many upheavals, including wartime destruction, natural and weather-related destruction, and financial crises by practicing the philosophy of "work together."

We also practice the theory of Gung Ho! at Shamrock, and I believe that, as a company, like our Asian counterparts, we have survived through various upheavals these last 30 years, mainly because we rely on the work (and intelligence) of the team over the pride of one individual.

Friday, July 6, 2012

WHAT CAN THE OLYMPICS TEACH US ABOUT BUSINESS? As a prelude to the upcoming Olympics, this month Bob explores global cultures.

There's a different kind of competition in business than in the Olympics. In business we're expected to make or earn money. We compete based on the best price for the best product. I believe the playing field is more level in sports. In sports, we compete for the joy of winning and the thrill of the game.

That said, in the past 30 years, since I started Shamrock, offshore business has grown considerably, and how we do business abroad has also changed. Now it's not only important to start the deal, we also need to know how to seal the deal. That means taking a crash course in different work ethics, habits and family life of companies we wish to partner with before we even think about doing business with them. Sort of like the Olympics of business deals.

According to several blog posts shared with me by Shamrock employees, here are what I consider to be important Rules of Engagement with China:

China, like many countries overseas, is much more formal in their business dealings than the U.S.
  1. Social Structure - In China the social structure is formal and hierarchical.  You know where you fit in the structure and you abide by the rules.  In America, it is much more loose and informal.  It's not uncommon to see those of various social levels socializing with one another.  This doesn't occur in China.
  2. Confrontation/Conflict - When conducting business in China or expecting an extended stay, it might be useful to know that the direct way that most Americans approach issues is not done in China.  Direct conflict or confrontation over issues is highly frowned upon.  Doesn’t matter that "the truth" needs to be spoken, respect and honor to each person supersedes "the truth".  
  3. You Will Get to Know Your Business Partners - When doing business in China, be prepared for a lot of socializing.  Business becomes secondary as the parties get to know one another better.  If it delays a contract, that is perfectly acceptable as long as the correct social time is taken care of.  In America, the business is more important than socializing, and socializing may be sacrificed to get the job done if necessary.  Though, it appears that now recognition for networking is becoming more important in our country, too.
  4. Downplay the Bravado - Humility is a practiced virtue in Chinese culture.  The success of one’s business or personal life is downplayed while in America successes are discussed with pleasure.  Most Americans in our fast business world consider humility a sign of weakness.  This can be an issue that hurts inter-cultural relations.  It's probably a good idea to err on the side of humility in the presence of business people in China.
  5. Be Sensitive to the Time Zone - Most Americans are very time sensitive when it comes to meetings and deadlines.  Time means different things in Chinese business culture. The Chinese do not view time as an absolute but more as a suggestion.  Concern is not expressed for a meeting starting late or ending at a different time.  The same can be applied to deadlines.  If a report is due on Friday, we would be waiting for that report in our hands before end of business day.  The Chinese would not worry if it showed up several days later. (This may be a very hard lesson for Americans to learn since it's so counterintuitive to our culture.)
While many cultural and political differences remain between the U.S. and China, we can all learn something from the dedication to strong family-oriented values, hard work and persistence that China uses to create smart business people. I believe that the more we know about our global counterparts the stronger we all will be in the global race for success.