Cultural Nuance in the Business World

April 12, 2011

10:00 am

No Worries

I’m running a small company with headquarters in Denver and Brisbane, Australia.

I’m currently in Brisbane with my Australian software engineering team and we’re discussing the importance of our next release.  Our company has already burned through $64 million of other people’s money, and our largest, most important strategic partner and investor has stopped using our product.  We have two major global brand resellers hanging by a thread and dependent on an on-time, feature-rich, operationally-perfect release.  In other words, if in the next quarter we don’t deliver on our promises, we’re toast.

I’ve explained this to the team and look to my Vice President of Engineering, a former senior manager from Hewlett-Packard.  I am greatly relieved to hear his confident response, “No worries!”  Great!  These guys are signed up and I can relax.  Oh, if I only knew then what I know now.

When he said, “No worries,” he wasn’t telling me to relax.  He wasn’t letting me know that he had the appropriate level of concern, that he was going to drive his team to keep the late night lamps burning.  No, “no worries” in this case meant he is literally not worried about the project and that he’s totally relaxed.  This project wasn’t getting in the way of surfing or wine collecting or life.

As a result, we missed our goals, and what was supposed to be a turn-around for the company, turned out to be a tear-down asset sale.

Minnesota Nice

I’m in a sales meeting with a major financial institution in Minneapolis with my top sales gunslinger from New York.  Sales guy is presenting, the bankers are all smiling, heads are nodding, and there is a short discussion at the end of the presentation.  Smiles all around.  Hand shaking, praise for the presentation, promises to call in two days. Debrief with the sales guy later, and he thought that the presentation went well. No arguments, no one challenging him, no one treating him like the Wall Street sharpies that comprise his usual customer base.

Welcome to Minnesota and Minnesota Nice.  Minnesotans aren’t New Yorkers.  They don’t challenge, they hold back.  They are not rude New Yorkers, who are more than happy to share their thoughts–especially the bad ones–and actually give you the opportunity to handle their  objections right then and there.

In Minneapolis, smiles and all nicey-nice are not a sign of things going well.  In Minnesota, people are “nice,” except when they’re not, and unfortunately they don’t tell you which is the case. In New York, when someone aggressively challenges a premise, it does not mean they’re angry or hate the premise-er.   And in Brisbane, “no worries” may mean something different than no worries from a head of development in Silicon Valley.

Cultural Difference

When doing business in Japan, it is so obviously foreign.  The language, the business card trading ritual, bowing protocol–Westerners are constantly reminded that you are involved in a transaction between two very different cultures.

We Americans tend to feel comfortable when dealing with a Western European-based culture.  After all, that’s where we find our roots.  When doing business in English speaking cultures like here in the US,  in the UK or Australia, the nuanced differences between culture, custom and meaning are more easily missed.  Yet there is no more dangerous trap than assuming that doing business in Minneapolis is the same as doing business in the Bronx, or in politically-infused DC, or laid-back LA.  In these cases the nuances of language and custom become tantalizing traps difficult to avoid.

Ohio isn’t Texas, South Carolina isn’t Chicago, and of that we must always be aware.

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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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