If you want to expand into other countries, you must understand their culture first. This is not an easy thing to accomplish. Our professional and personal learned responses don’t typically translate well across international borders. Those who have learned to navigate these differences possess a powerful insight which is highly enviable. Though he presently serves as Head of Finance at NYC’s NewtonX, Lorenzo Seu began his career in his homeland of France at companies like EY, BNP Paribas, and KMPG. The switch of employers also came with a serious learning curve in terms of how one is perceived and effective of communication. Beyond Seu’s major professional contributions to NewtonX’s preeminence in the industry, he recalibrated his approach in the workplace in order to relate to his peers and subordinates with greater results. Providing the wisdom of his experiences in this scenario grants a look into the differences between American and French perspectives. For Americans professionals as well as US companies wishing to expand in France, this knowledge is essential to creating a solid foundation.
Paris and New York City are both major metropolitan cities with populations in the millions and a rich history. Coming to work at NewtonX in America did not present a strong cultural conflict for Lorenzo but communicating effectively in the workplace did require adjustments. An awareness of this first presented itself at management training session. Seu relates, “During a discussion of upward and downward communication within teams, I was surprised to hear that my style was perceived as sometimes harsh and unempathetic. I was confused and eager to understand this.” When supervising others in his role at KMPG, management reviews, his management reviews had always been positive. Though he’d utilized the same approach at NewtonX, it was not perceived as positive or supportive by the American employees. He informs, “At NewtonX, some associates told me that I was very direct and not mindful/empathetic when I was giving instructions, sharing feedback, or requesting some documents/inputs. I learned how to temper my messages and adjust for this perception by adding a few sentences or words that make a bigger difference for US employees. In France, I would ask someone to ‘Please provide X input as soon as possible, or by the end of the day”, in the US, I would say “Could you please share X input when you get a chance. It would be great to have it by the end of day because […]. Let me know if you need more time or need help.” The French manner of communication calls for a much more direct and concise delivery than that of America.
For Americans working in France, there is a need to consciously recalibrate the manner in which they conduct themselves in an office setting, or risk being discounted immediately. It’s necessary to understand the inherent French attitude towards life and social interaction that is superimposed in a professional environment. In contrast to most Americans, the French don’t define themselves by their work. Upon meeting someone for the first time, Americans will most often immediately ask “What do you do?” as a conversation starter. In France this is impolite. Typical first questions in France would be about where someone lives, how they like to spend their free time, etc. While Americans are overly friendly in the early stages of a relationship, the French are formal and open up only as things progress. This vast differences in work cultures emanates from a different view on life. Seu communicates, “French people take more the time to enjoy themselves, it’s about the experience, tasting food, etc. There’s also individualism in France but the ultimate goal is not work or economic gain for the majority of people. French people take an hour lunch break at the minimum, likely longer. PTO’s are normally around 30 days and you can be sure that French people take 100 percent of PTO days. American workers and companies might be shocked at this but the French attitude is to live life not to live all your life working.”
For American companies wanting to implement a branch in France, Lorenzo urges an understanding of cultural codes to find a balance. A soft approach is needed to build a connection. The formality of French work culture is not known for flexibility; a heavy handed approach of adherence to an American style could create more push back than adherence. Equally, Americans should temper their instinctual responses to the conduct of French workers. Mr. Seu illuminates, “In their approach, American managers will need to be a little bit more flexible when giving orders or debating. French people would bring more emotions, they could shout during 5 minutes, and act very differently the next 5 minutes, without any resentment. French people are also more direct and confrontation is something very normal. So American managers should not consider this behavior arrogant or inappropriate.” He continues, “When it comes to give feedback, the story is also very different. Americans should not spend too much time and efforts on positive feedback. In France, receiving feedback with words such as ‘outstanding’ or ‘amazing’, is something very rare. In France, performing well is implicit, there’s no need to emphasize it. Regarding negative feedback, American managers need to adopt a straightforward approach or they risk miscommunication. If the American manager balances a negative feedback by too much positive feedback, the French employee will think they are performing well.”
It’s daunting to take on the challenge of understanding a different culture, especially in the realm of business where so much of the behavior is deeply ingrained. For those seeking to expand internationally, the benefits can offset these growing pains. Adjustments are a requirement but Lorenzo cautions, “To me staying authentic is very important so I would not completely change my behavior to become a new person. At work, I stand what I believe is right in terms of behavior and deliverables : ethics, outstanding quality and accuracy, honesty and transparency. Of course, it is crucial to adapt to the local work environment but I think there are some limits and cultures that are more approachable.”
Writer: Arlen Gann