Monday, March 3, 2014

Embracing cultural differences when your startup goes international


Did you see the Cadillac commercial during the Olympics? The commercial starts with an actor standing by a pool asking, "Why do we work so hard?" Then he walks around his enormous house and swimming pool to his Cadillac while talking about the virtues of America's work habits. How did you feel when you saw it? Did you feel a pang of pride, "You're damn right! USA USA USA!" Or did you pause and think, "Wait, what? Am I really working so hard for this stuff, for a car?" I'll admit to feeling a bit of both. The Cadillac is pretty sexy, but really, is that why I work as much as I do? No way! Is it my house? No! My collection of Olympic champion dressage horses? Okay, I don't really have those but you get the point. I don't work hard for things. Or not only for things. I work hard because I like to work. I love my job. I feel an obligation to my team, my company. I work hard because that is what Dad taught me. That is what is expected. You get up at 5 am, eat breakfast and go to work. When the sun goes down you come home. Monday through Saturday. That is the way it's done. Only it's not done that way everywhere.
One of the first things you learn when working internationally is that our work rules, habits and expectations do not apply. Not even close. "Other countries work. They stroll home. They stop by a cafĂ©. They take the entire month of August off. Off!" the actor notes in the Cadillac commercial. And it's true. They work differently. Some work less. Some take August off. In the US, most employees get two weeks of paid vacation time. Often they don't even use it all. When I first started working with international companies and started to understand their time off and vacation rules, I was indignant at the idea. "You get how much time off?" Clearly we Americans know what we are doing? Working 10 hour days, six days a week, 50+ weeks a year. This is the right way. Right? Over time and with experience working with my international peers and team, I have learned that it's not the right way, just a way. Europeans have something different. Not better, not worse, just different. 
These differences are one of the great things about growing your company internationally, partnering with global businesses and hiring your first international employee and then team. The differences shine a new light on how and why we work. Europeans have found a brilliant balance to life and work. There is life and there is work and often life comes first. Americans have found a passion and engagement in work that the Europeans may often miss. At least for a couple months of the year. So how much vacation time do you get? How much do you take?

About David Verhaag

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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