Technology has helped us grow our companies from local enterprises to global endeavors. From the telephone, the telex and the facsimile of yesteryear to mobile phones, messaging platforms and Skype today, we can communicate globally in real time.

Yet technology alone cannot bridge all the divides between cultures. An understanding of the multitude of cultures is needed, and it takes more than bits and bytes to make a global company work.

Prior to launching my company, I spent 15 years in the entirely unrelated world of Japan. I majored in Japanese at university, pursued a post-graduate degree in Japan, became a qualified translator and worked for Japanese companies in the financial markets. It is difficult to find a more different culture. A rare monoculture (98.5% Japanese), 127 million Japanese live on an island a quarter the size of Queensland. More than half the population lives on just 2% of its land. The Japanese are famously backward in coming forward with an opinion; decisions take time and one is never sure who is in fact able to make the final decision. This is why Japan is not a hot spot for entrepreneurialism.

US vs AUS: The culture clash is real

After a complete immersion in this very different culture, moving to the US to launch a company 11 years ago seemed like a far easier assignment. I was pretty confident that the common features of the US and Australia would far outweigh the differences and would pose no impediment to progress. How wrong I was!

Surely a 1970s and 1980s upbringing based on a healthy diet of Happy Days, The Brady Bunch and later on Friends was all that was needed to make the switch from suburban Sydney to Portland, Oregon. But while the language is pretty close, the culture is deceptively different. The brash, self-confidence of some of our American cousins contrasts with the laid-back, slower pace that Aussies can present. The former can come off as arrogant, the latter lazy. The result? A dog’s breakfast. Of course these are all generalisations. After my first months in liberal-leaning Portland, I thought I had America down pat and believed the 2004 Democratic candidate Al Gore was a shoe-in. Heading to Ohio to meet our manufacturing partner for the first time, alas, I realised that America wasn’t all bespoke cafés, street cars and bicycles, as Portland had suggested.

After my Canadian-born wife and I built our American team, we spread our wings to the UK and EU and built a team there. This is where things got really interesting. As a US-headquartered company with a UK office, relying on a not-great Skype connection, and an early morning-late night time difference, the challenges emerged. The UK office felt like second-class citizens at times, playing second fiddle to the US. The US team felt aggrieved that the UK office needed more resources than they felt reasonable. Sometimes the UK was right. Sometimes the US was right. What was guaranteed was dysfunction.

Recognising the potential for clashes

On reflection, I see the following factors contributing to the culture clash issues. It is here that clues to a better approach lie.

  1. According to the US State Department, only 36% of Americans hold a valid passport. With minimal exposure to overseas cultures, miscommunication is inevitable. I experienced that first-hand on my first trip to Japan. Only 24% of Japanese hold a valid passport.
  2. The power dynamic between HQ and satellite offices exacerbates the issue. A concerted effort is needed to bring the entire organisation together virtually and in-person regularly to remind the group that this is one team.
  3. Time zones can kill culture. In spite of all the advances in telepresence technology, time zones still need to be negotiated. If one team is always being asked to do early morning calls, that wears thin after a very short while. Share the burden.

Overall, the two skills required to succeed across cultures are self-awareness and awareness of others; in essence, emotional intelligence or EQ. If you can walk in another person’s shoes for a day, many of these issues dissolve and the power of collective intelligence can emerge.