Working, living abroad and understanding cross cultural issues

I have been moved around a lot by my companies. After graduating from business school in France, I found a job in San Francisco. Then 2 years later, I moved back to France to do my military service. At the end of a busy year, I moved back to the US and then stayed outside of France for over 20 years. First the UK (London) where I stayed 8 years, then Belgium (Brussels) where I stayed 2 years, Japan (Tokyo – Shinagawa), Germany (Berlin) for 5 years. Despite all the help we received from Sony, my family and I became pros in living abroad and moving internationally. We realized each time that there was a pattern.
As soon as Sony mentioned that a move was coming up to a new country, we started to make plans. We prepared the children and we started to look at areas where we wanted to live. We also started discussion with the relocation agency about our wishes.
Then on arrival, we had the honeymoon period when we found everything very exciting, new and fun. After about few months, we were faced with culture shock.
Moving is very often listed as one of the most stressful things you can do. Add to that starting a new job and changing the country of your residence and you have a recipe for serious stress. Your marriage (if applicable) can suffer as can your children.
We have noticed, each time we moved that no matter how much we were prepared, we still experienced culture shock. This is not something you realize from one day to the other, there was a pattern to it.
As I mentioned, the first weeks were exciting novelty.
The first months were frustrating reality.
The first year was adjustment and acceptance.
During the first few days, much of what you see is new and exciting. The joys of discovering new places, new foods and meeting new people can be stimulating. The good aspects of international living will generally far outweigh the negatives at this time.
After the first few weeks of excitement, the frustrating reality of the challenging differences can begin to catch up with you. Working through the various experiences will help you through the next stage of culture shock. It will take effort and a will to succeed, no one can do it for you. The good news is that you will get used to the differences even aspects you might initially think you will never accept.
In one country (I won’t say which one), we had a major case of culture shock. Resentment, anger, frustration and depression were our symptoms. It can be exacerbated by the physical discomfort prompted by differences in the local fauna and flora in food, water, climate variations, altitude changes and the stress of moving home, country and job. We found that to help us adjust and solve the challenges of culture shock, we always tried to look for positive aspects of the country we lived in.
Finally, the first year was adjustment and acceptance. Coming through the first few months and still wanting to stay in the country was always a good sign for us. The first months were tiring. If you keep trying and making efforts, one day you will find that you are relaxed and enjoying yourself. Once you begin to relax into the pleasures of your host country, you can start to enjoy the country to its fullest extent. With local friends (very often met through school) and other expatriates, you can experience events, parties and people’s homes. The first year of living in a new country should be considered to be one long, learning experience and settling in period.
For any job where the employee needs to be effective within the new culture, though, a period of adaptation is unavoidable, companies should think in terms of three years’ assignments being the minimum. One year to adapt, one year to put a plan in place and one year to prepare the next person who will take over. Sony followed that plan and it worked well.
The professional culture shock was also an interesting subject. If anyone tells you that there is a generic style of overseas working practices, they are wrong. Working overseas will be different from what you are used to, it may be easier or harder, or you may work longer or shorter hours. Most of my friends who have worked abroad agree that learning to understand local working styles and attitudes is one of the most frustratingly important lessons they have to learn when trying to settle into the rigors of a new job.
Personally, I found very enriching contacts with different cultures. When I asked colleagues, who had never moved, they could not grasp the concept of cross cultural teams and cross cultural ways of doing business.
Many people believe that translating a document is enough and that explaining a product in the right language will be enough. How wrong can they be? 

Many brands, many companies have tried to do JVs or purchase companies outside their home soil and only 2% of them have succeeded. Examples like Daimler/Chrysler; Sony/Ericsson; Sony/BMG… can testify, it is not easy to do business in a foreign country and the language, being one element, is not the problem. 

Different cultures mean different ways to do business, different ways to approach an issue, solve a problem, different ways to manage staff and different ways to manage financial accounts. Are other cultures wrong because they do things differently, absolutely not! 
This is the reason why companies that decide to do business outside their culture need to adapt. First, they need to understand the language but most importantly they need to trust locals and understand their way of thinking. This is good for all cultures. A German company cannot impose its way of working on Americans. An American company cannot impose its direct approach on a Japanese company where consent amongst managers is the key. A Japanese company cannot impose its way on a Swedish company. How could a socialist culture succeed in a country where individualism is king? 

The secrets? Communication, flexibility, being humble, respect, understanding of the goals and yes last… language skills.

As a manager of large teams abroad and having worked with the Japanese, it was a challenge every day. Making so many cultures working together was very enriching. The best example I can give is from my time as the head of European communications. I had many Japanese executives in my team, I also had Germans, French, English and Americans. The richness of these diversity was to use everyone’s strengths and know-how to ensure a total optimization of the Sony communication power. Around the table, everyone could explain what angles would work best in what circumstance and what timing. You cannot impose a communication strategy on a country you do not know. You must be flexible in your approach and ensure you follow everyone’s culture. This is a question of respect and understanding which will ultimately lead to success.

In conclusion, living and working abroad brings great experience if you know how to benefit from it. You need to prepare your trip and approach it as a new adventure for the family. You need to understand what feelings to expect with the excitement, culture shock and the acceptance of what you experience. In terms of the professional angle, the most important aspect is to respect each other’s culture and way of doing business. For example, do not force a French man to come before 9:00 am in the morning, do not force a German to stay after 6:00 pm in the evening. Do not ask a Japanese to make decisions alone when he expects a group understanding. These are only few examples but they show how important respect and understanding are key to anyone moving abroad.

As always, I am available if you have any questions.