Often when we travel or work in different countries we marvel at the different cultural practices we experience. What we think about less, is what people from other countries think of us and how weird and wonderful we are. What is normal for us can be totally obscure to others.
I once heard a specialist, Tony Smales from Forte Management speak exactly about this topic: how our own culture and beliefs are interpreted internationally and what this means for the success of our businesses or otherwise. He presented loads of information and some great anecdotal stories but the factors that really rang true for me were these:
1. Power Distance Index
New Zealand companies tend to have a very low Power Distance Index, meaning, we treat our bosses pretty casually and power is distributed very evenly. This can be confusing to someone from a different culture where hierarchy is extremely important. We think of our behaviour as egalitarian and inclusive, while others may perceive our lack of respect to people in senior positions as rude and undermining. Compare this to doing business in a country like China where it is immediately obvious who is the kingpin - not necessarily because he or she does all the talking, but because of others’ deferential behaviour around them. This goes right down to where everybody sits at a banquet, where there is often a complex display of hand gesturing and shuffling as the guests and hosts offer up the lead seats to those of the most importance.
2. Processes and systems
New Zealanders are very entrepreneurial but poor at developing and implementing processes and systems. This means that we are great with ideas and can be very free-thinking, however we are ill-disciplined when it comes to putting in place processes and systems that are needed to turn our small companies into large corporates. This is reflected in the fact that New Zealand is one of the easiest places in the world to set up a business; we have loads of small businesses with less than 10 employees but very few businesses with over 100 employees. Apparently if you combine us with the Germans (who are at the other end of the scale), we would be the ideal business team; free thinking and disciplined!
3. Work-life culture
New Zealanders have a defined boundary between work and home. At the end of the day we like to go home and be with our family and will feel quite resentful if work functions overlap into our perceived family time. Apparently this makes us a bit “boring” to do business with, as when the meeting is over we just want to “get out of there”. In fact I’m told, quite alarmingly, that the Aussies are way more fun to do business with, as the beers and camaraderie are likely to flow on from the business meeting well into the evening. I think this is pertinent to how we host business guests in our country. As we do more and more business with Asian countries, how well do we treat our guests? I am reminded of a comment a Chinese businessman made after he agreed to meet his hosts for drinks. Assuming that drinks meant dinner, he spent the entire evening starving, not realising that his hosts had all eaten (probably at home) and were quite literally meeting only for drinks!
4. Cultural values
New Zealanders are very humble. To us, humility is a badge of honour. The better we are, the more self-effacing we are; Richie McCaw and Sir Edmund Hilary are prime examples. In business this means we expect other cultures to guess or interpret just how wonderful and clever we are. Imagine this trait when trying to pull off a deal in the United States, picture the scenario of a Kiwi trying to sell their wonderfully innovative gadget they have spent the last 20 years developing and saying to a potential investor “well I just tinkered around in my garage a bit and came up with this idea…it’s nothing really’.
I love being a New Zealander, I love our quirks and idiosyncrasies, but there are times when we need to be aware of how we operate and adapt accordingly, trying for some sort of middle ground.
Internationally, let’s sell ourselves better, celebrate our senior executives, show greater hospitality to our guests and work harder to grow our small businesses through appropriate introduction of processes and systems. It just makes sense.