From cinema to cuisine to social media influencers, business is far more global than at any other time in history. There’s value to cultural identity, both literally and perceived, as well as in knowing where the two intersect and overlap. Wisdom and success also intersect in the person of Lorenzo Seu. Currently Head of Finance at NYC’s NewtonX (a B2B market research company known for their work with Facebook, Google, and others), Seu’s tenure with France’s KMPG and BNP Paribas confirms his international notoriety within the field. As a Frenchman who relocated to the U.S., Lorenzo’s information gathering is not restricted to the nature of the companies he’s worked with but also to the cultures that both exist within. For those native to France who wish to tap into the American business environment successfully, Seu has tremendous insight that can lead to benefits for all.
When Lorenzo left his role as a senior associate at KPMG in Paris to accept a leadership position at a start up in New York City, he had little idea how disparate the cultural workplace tones would be. The transition from huge company (KPMG) to the much smaller NewtonX would require a recalibration of perception in conduct. While the French style at work is an interesting balance between politeness, respect of the hierarchy, and emotions, Americans feel entitled to offer suggestions “up the ladder.” While emotional, even heated discussions are common in the French workplace, this is considered unacceptable in the United States. Mr. Seu acknowledges, “I saw people cry in every French company I worked in. More than I expected. In the US, people are not inclined to show emotion that much. People pay much more attention to their behavior and what they say, to avoid hurting anyone’s feeling. In general, I feel like gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, harassment of any form are much more sensitive topics in NYC than in France.” The famous dark humor of France does not abide in the American office setting either.
Lorenzo concurs that in France, hierarchy is the norm. Leaders have more powers and privileges, and it is accepted. French society is elitist and power is concentrated. One need look no further than the use of “Tu” and “Vous” versus the singular “you” in English to understand that this is ingrained in the culture. In America, it’s commonplace to leave on time or at the end of your shift. In France, employees pride themselves of staying late as a sign of dedication to the boss and the company. In the US, performance is based on results. In France, employees that socialize with the top executives are usually perceived as better performers. The dynamic between superiors and others is highly visible in the dialogue. Seu relates, “A classic feedback session in France would be 10-20% of the time spent on positive feedback and the rest on negative feedback. That’s the “When everything goes well, why even talk about it?” This is a big cultural difference. In the US, there is a culture of cheering, rewarding, empowering by positive feedback that is not significant in the French culture. And this starts at a very young age, at school. Having good grades as a kid is not particularly rewarded. This is just basic. Showcasing success is not part of French culture.”
The evolution of the business meeting is equally different. While meetings in the US stay focused with a main topic, French meetings can start with a question or a statement which is usually followed by a debate with an unclear structure and obviously unclear results. The executives set the tone and it can be one of seclusion or inclusion. Lorenzo relates, “If a French company implements an office or a branch in the US, there is a very high probability that a majority of the staff will be French. French people, and I confirm that this is 100% true, have a very bad reputation when it comes to mixing it up. French people seeing other French people around them and will speak in French, something which is not very inclusive for US workers. I saw US workers coming in the Parisian office of KPMG and I think those who did not speak French at all had a terrible experience. At NewtonX, there are multiple French people and we simply never speak in French. This is a rule which has been discussed and I recommend to do the same.” For French companies (rather than individual professionals) wishing to branch into the American market, perception can be quite powerful. Heeding the sage advice of someone like Mr. Seu can offer outstanding dividends in motivating American workers effectively.
Writer: Arlen Gann