February 2012

February 14th, 2012 by Jennie O'Reilly

The Steps team have been globetrotting a fair bit so far this year. Suitcases around the office and travel documents on the printer are a regular feature of working life and hearing people planning their arrangements and talking to clients about global programmes is very much part of the day to day. I am usually the one listening and watching while other team members jet off - but January saw my first international trip with Steps – so I thought it was worth a blog!

Steps have been steadily growing a presence in the US over the last 2 years. We have developed a highly skilled and experienced team of actor facilitators based on the East Coast and our client list is growing all the time. Most recently we have been working with a global banking organisation based in Stamford, to bring an interactive and experiential element to their graduate training programme – and the response has been fantastic. We now want to seize the opportunity to spread the net wider, raise our profile and deliver for more clients across the Atlantic.

In helping clients and prospects to understand the commercial benefit of people development - it appears that there are fundamental differences between training markets in the US and the UK, such as the relative focus on development versus risk. But for me, one of the fundamental differences I noticed – apparent even as I got off the plane and made my way through the airport – is communication style.

I found myself on more than one occasion feeling that I didn’t ‘think or talk fast enough for the US’. Ordering bagels, I stood back from the counter – looking at the huge menu and trying to reach a decision. In the UK, this position means ‘I am still considering my options, don’t ask me what I’d like yet’ – whereas in the US – the fact you are over the threshhold means you should be ready to be asked and quick with your answer. My ‘Hello, er, please could I have a’… could have easily been replaced with ‘Give me a’ or ‘Can I get a’… A lot fewer words and a lot more direct. This approach would probably be considered rude in the UK – but here it was clear, efficient use of language.

When we were at a train station getting coffee, this embarassing stutter came back again and I found myself floundering to communicate in the (seemingly!) short time I was given by the waitress. I heard myself using so many words to effect the same outcome as a US customer ordering alongisde me - and the server was visibly having to concentrate to decipher what I wanted. A friendly face in the line looked at me sympathetically and I ventured; ‘Sorry, I don’t think or talk fast enough for New York!’ – and her response? ‘Sweetie, you have to be born on the island to be fast enough for New York’…

In our work on cross cultural working – we focus on the fact that, if they are to be most effective, communication and management styles cannot and should not be directly ‘transposed’. You need to develop a talent for flex and adaptation. You need to leave cultural assumptions and cultural attitudes at the door in order to understand and communicate effectively with people. I guess it’s a bit of give and take really – in this case I had to try and be more direct, the server and those in line had to be a little more patient – and ultimately, I had to understand that this direct communication style represented good customer service, rather than percieving it as a forceful interrogation…

So, is this just me?!

I’m interested in other people’s experiences of working in the US and / or communicating across the Atlantic... Any bloggers from the US care to join the conversation and share their views of doing business in the UK? What are the unique challenges and opportunities? What do you percieve to be the key differences and how do you respond to them?


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