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Is America’s Corporate Culture In The Dark Ages?

by Bill Higgs, author of the upcoming book “Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in Your Business”

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

Various reports and studies show that Americans experience a more burdensome work week than many of their peers abroad, spending interminable hours at the office, wolfing down lunch at their 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 with 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, but there are also commonalities. There are people in every corner of the world 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 know this from experience. I was a founder and former CEO of Mustang Engineering, and from 2005 through 2014, Mustang opened several international offices.

Our first was in Woking, England, about 30 miles southwest of London, and it grew to about 450 people. Within the next few years, Mustang 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.

Certain principles that make for a winning corporate culture are universal. Why? 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.

I believe in encouraging 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, he says, 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.

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.

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.

You really can break down the barriers that some think separate people in different parts of the world. Respect their local cultures, but invite them to belong to yours as well.

 

Bill Higgs, an authority on corporate culture, is author of the upcoming book Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in Your Business. He recently launched the Culture Code Champions podcast. Higgs is also retired CEO of Mustang Engineering Inc., which he and two partners started in 1987 to design and build offshore oil platforms. Over the next 20 years, they grew the company from their initial $15,000 investment and three people to a billion-dollar company with 6,500 people worldwide; since then, it has grown to a $2 billion company with more than 12,000 people.

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