Working with Americans: How to Build Profitable Business Relationships

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This is a transcript of the talk from Allyson Stewart-Allen on Wednesday, February 12th at The Court Private Members Club, Soho.

Andrew Ellis: Allyson has worked with over 230 clients across 25 countries, she’s an author, the second edition of her book is available to buy the end of the talk and there’s also a link at the bottom of this post.

She’s a speaker, broadcaster and educator, having been on the BBC, CNN, The Financial Times and Sky News to mention a few and she’s built global mindsets to avoid expensive faux-pas. She’s also an internationalist, working in Los Angeles, Munich, and London and speaks French and German. Although I’m hoping it will be in American this morning or American English at least!

Allyson Stewart Allen: So thank you for having me. I should probably explain a little bit about how it is I ended up getting this expertise in my home business culture. I’m originally from LA, I’ve been in London 31 years and I had no idea how long I would stay in the UK. I came over to work with PA Consulting Group, a management consulting firm and thought I’d be here a couple of years, who knows, leave it open and 31 years tomorrow, I’m still here as it happens. Still here and causing trouble!

So, in the course of doing international marketing work and helping companies crack overseas markets which is my functional expertise, often the US was top of the agenda for these companies and executives who would relay these stories like “We’ve just had this negotiation with these Americans and we can’t figure them out and they said this, but they’re not doing that, what does it mean? Please help us understand.”

So that’s really how the book came about because I found over time, answering these different questions, there’s a different culture from the US perspective. But you have to leave your own culture to be able to see it. Fish don’t know they’re immersed in water until they’re taken out and try to breathe air and then they realise, oh wow this is completely different!

So that’s what gave rise to the first edition and now the second edition. Of course between the two editions, the world is super different and Americans’ views of the world and how they behave are also pretty different. So what I thought I’d do is give you a few headlines if you’re negotiating with Americans or trying to engage with us, you know there are some dos and don’ts.

However, I think the richer part of this morning is going to be your questions. You’re free to heckle by all means, if you disagree with anything I say, or it’s completely counter to your experience, speak up because I’d love to hear about that and see if I can explain why it isn’t the rule. And of course, we know that rules apply to the majority but there are tales on either end of the bell curve, and it could be your experiences in those parts of the range.

So the first thing to say about the way we do business as we’re pretty transactional as Americans. We tend to want to get down to business and do the deal first, and then get to know you. So, there’s not a whole lot of that, rapport building at the front end. You may have experienced it yourself, you get to the States, you’re off a long haul flight you’re exhausted, and you’re immediately expected to show up and be in a meeting. It’s not like “Go rest, have a shower have a nap be at your best being mentally clear-headed and then we’ll meet in the afternoon.”

No, it’s like “Okay well you’re off the flight, you’re going straight into the office and you’re going to start negotiating and doing deals. We’re all about the action. Work is an extremely action-oriented business culture. We’re not so reflective. So if you compare, maybe the US to other parts of the world where you are negotiating or communicating or influencing. We certainly tend toward Ready, Fire, Aim. I think is probably the best way to describe what we do.

By contrast, the UK is. Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim, Fire! You can see the difference there because we’re all about taking action, taking the risk and course-correcting afterward, rather than being 99% ready for the market opportunity. So if you think about the Boeing Max Jet, the 737 Max, that’s a perfect example of the need for speed to get to market. Okay, it’s not totally 100% as an aircraft, which the Boeing folks, obviously did know. But if we don’t hurry up, then Airbus is going to eat our lunch, and we don’t want that so we’re going to go to market with this imperfect product.

And that happens a lot. I mean, we are very happy to take the risk and capture market share, and the opportunity while we can, rather than allow other people in because they have a more perfect product. So it’s better to be first than best, is another axiom that describes our business culture

The other challenge for non-US companies is that American English is low context. And what that means is what they say is what they mean. There aren’t other messages around the words. So if you compare the UK which is a much higher context, than the US is an American English you might say something like “Well, I couldn’t possibly comment” which means yes, but I can’t go on the record. We hear. I couldn’t possibly comment as “Oh okay so you’ve literally said I can’t comment so that means literally you can’t comment.”

The reason irony doesn’t work in the US is that American English is literal, irony requires multiple meanings around the words. And that’s why it’s funny because even though the word says one thing you know they really mean something else. That doesn’t work in a low context, the foreground only business culture that is the US.

Audience Member: Like when we say, “With the greatest respect” we mean the exact opposite. (laughter)

AS-A: Right!

AM: So when an American says, “Have a nice day” do they mean it? (more laughter)

AS-A: Yes! We do mean it, it’s a genuinely warm greeting that we use, and most of the time we mean it. But it doesn’t sound that way here, it sounds sarcastic like ” yeah – have a nice day.”

AM: Like the email conversation when the English sign off switches from Kind Regards to just Regards. (laughter)

AS-A: We won’t get that subtlety, we won’t have seen or noticed that there’s any difference. But it isn’t that we’re not intelligent, it isn’t about that, it’s more – what you say is what you get. The WISWYG approach to communication is really how we operate. There are certain words and phrases for example in the UK, that have been said in meetings and you see the Americans, either laugh or turn bright red.

Cockups is one of them, another one is “pear-shaped” we’ve no idea, is that good, is that bad? What’s wrong with pears? Do you mean like a pair rather than the fruit? So if it’s pear-shaped you know it could be breasts or it could be anything, we have no idea what you mean.

AM: I once said, “I’ll nock you up in the morning” to a female executive in a hotel. It didn’t go down well. (laughter)

AS-A: Exactly. I had a client in the city working for an American financial services firm and his US boss was a much older lady who had come along to see him and talk through the next year’s budget. They’re sitting at the table in their office and he said well you know this is the formula, obviously, you know this, I mean I’m not going to teach “grandmother to suck eggs”.

She bolted out of her chair and stormed out of the room. And he thought, oh my God, what did I just say? I’ve obviously offended her, and she’s out in the foyer reading a paper trying to recover and trying to take her mind off it. So he goes up to her after a few minutes and says, I’ve obviously offended you, unintentionally I’m terribly sorry what did I say? And she said, “I’ve never been propositioned like that before in my life!”

He thought what? But to her a she was a grandmother and sucking eggs sounded sexual so the expression to her sounded like he was propositioning her. So, there are all sorts of interesting miscommunications that also happen because of these differences words like to table. So you table an agenda here in the UK, which means you want to talk about it right now so I’m tabling it. And in the US to table means you want to take it off the table and not talk about it now.

So you could lose 10 minutes or so of your 30-minute meeting and if you’re losing 10 minutes of your 30-minute meeting you are potentially wasting great selling time. And speaking of selling it’s a business culture that really values salesmanship because there’s an element of education and entertainment in the way Americans generally sell, and the UK is less enamoured with the concept of sales.

I find as a marketer that saying the S word elicits rashes and cold sweats, and lots of eye avoidance because it’s selling. Do you mean business development? Ah okay, let’s call it that, let’s call it account management let’s call it something else. But salesmanship is a skill that we absolutely embrace.

Even if we don’t go through with the transaction and make the purchase the fact we’ve been well sold to we’ve learned a little something about the product category that company, a little factoid we may not have otherwise known. Fantastic. So that’s yet another difference, and then I think one other thing is if you anchor us in the future. You’ll do extremely well and what I mean by that is if you are trying to influence us, and you paint the picture of an even better future with your product or service than where we are today, we are all ears. Can’t wait to hear more.

What we don’t do is look in the rearview mirror and reflect on oh yeah what happened when we tried that before? Did that work, no that didn’t really work okay so we don’t do that we’re looking at the front window at all times, preferably in the far horizon. And if someone says no look in the rearview mirror for a minute. Let’s think about what’s happened in the past, what was a screw up that we can analyse and do a post mortem and extract learning from? We definitely are not that kind of business culture we don’t look back.

The reason I mentioned that is because I’ve had many instances with transatlantic teams and companies where the American team will maybe send a document over. Just to say hey look this, what are your thoughts? The UK team will use track changes and make comments in the margin with questions like did you really mean per capita here, or this is factually wrong. These are legal clients in some cases, so they’re much more straightforward. So these red markup red lines go back to the Americans, and they read this and think, well, okay you’ve raised a lot of questions but what you haven’t done is advanced us into the future by answering those questions and suggesting the fixes. So highlighting the fixes is seen here as really helpful, but going the next step and saying, not only are we highlighting the fix but here’s our recommendation for the fix.

That’s why Americans find that really tricky and difficult because it feels like they’re being anchored in the past, rather than moving forward because time is of the essence. We’re about speed, the business culture is about that and it’s about evolution. And I guess if there’s a national religion in the US, I’d say it was Darwinism. We’re absolutely mercenary about if a company’s mediocre. Well good, it’s dying, fantastic, it deserves to die because the market mechanism and the markets, quote-unquote, will clean out the crappy companies, which allows room for the innovative and productive companies to flourish and grow and be successful.

So this mechanism is absolutely inherently a good thing. And the reason I talk about that a lot to European and non-US companies is that often the trick is, how do I get the message across about our heritage? Maybe in the luxury brands industry, you can imagine some of these companies like Penhaligon or Floris, brands that have been around a long time that had royal warrants, how did they play up that 250 300 years of heritage, with. Oh and by the way we’re evolving and we’re really monitored. And that’s that that mix is critically important to get across to the Americans if you just say, Oh yes we’re 350 years old. Even the Queen has endorsed us we’ve got a royal Warren, five tick, you’re obviously a quality firm that’s been around a while but what have you done lately?

And that’s the message that is tricky but needs to be communicated to make us think that you’re blurring and, and blending the past and the future with innovation. So task orientation, we’re all about doing the deal first then relating. We’re all about speed, get the job done. Get to market, even if you’re 70% market ready then apologise pay the offences recruit those you’ve offended to your beta group for the next version of your product or service. And we’re literal, so what you say is what you mean, don’t do irony. We’re a low context business culture and innovate evolve anchor us in the future. And just with, even those things, fine-tuned. You’ll do extremely well because we’re open, we’re interested in new things all the time so if we’re hearing a message of look we’re a UK company we’re new to the US, and we’re better than your incumbents here in this market because we do this, this and this.

So crunchy, to the point. What makes you better different than who’s already in the US market will get, you know, get us listening, and by most importantly, so those are a few ideas to kind of get you started.

AM: Yeah, I went over to San Francisco to do a bunch of pitches, and I was woeful for the first two days, predominantly because the US side was saying “so we hear you’re the best at what you do” and I said in our typically British way “well I wouldn’t say we were the best, we’re pretty good.” And they responded “Oh, well we wanted the best. So thanks for coming in.” But by the end of the week, we were like, “We’re definitely the best!” (laughter)

AS-A: and you have to say it a lot louder than you just said, as well.

AM: However at the final meeting at five o’clock on the Friday we won a piece of work that paid for the whole trip, but it took a lot of failures to get to that point.

AS-A: Well here it’s the right thing to do. You don’t want to look overly arrogant and overly confident because the game theory here is different from the US. The US is about win-win. And if you can afford to operate win-win in an economy of abundance and the US has an economy of abundance. Why that matters is because people aren’t conscious, or even subconsciously thinking, oh there are constraints. There’s a finite pot. So, if you’re going to win. You’re going to have to give up something for him to win, so that it’s a zero-sum game at the end because the pot is only so big, and that is in the psyche, in this country, and in economies that have experienced scarcity.

The UK, continental Europe, many economies around the world have through their histories experienced scarcity so it’s in the consciousness of people. It’s not in our consciousness. We haven’t had scarcity, yes in 1929 we had a stock market crash and that was probably one of the only major economic moments where people were very aware of scarcity but other than that, generally speaking in the 250 or so years we’ve been a country it’s not really been our mindset so therefore everyone can win.

So, you want to win big and you want to win 10 times. Excellent. Let’s find a way to make it work for you, and if you want to win by 50 times, we’ll make it work for you. So there are no constraints and, therefore, the noise is louder, there is also more intense competition in the US market. 10 times more competitors for every one of you in this room in your industry than there are in the UK.

Given that it’s crowded, and it’s noisy if you’re not quick to articulate why you’re better or different in a quantitative way because we’re about numbers I’m seeing things that are literal nature of American English we’re about low context and we’re about quants, and we need to know upfront this is going to give you an ROI of X. Great. Now I’m listening. Now you can tell me more. So, in that crowded place, you really need to be quick to say “we’re award-winning or we’re number one, here’s why we’re so awesome.” High five. Whatever you want to do.

AM: Things also change from state to state, I’ve noticed that having dealt with both the East Coast and West Coast there’s a slight difference. New York is like, “Hey whaddya you want? Let’s get to it.” In California, it’s a bit more “Hey dude.”

AS-A: Yeah, it’s funny you’re saying that because I was thinking about that. I watched a new comedy on Netflix a one hour stand up routine from a comedian called Tom Papa, which I highly recommend because it’s also extremely funny, but he’s from New Jersey and there are definitely regional stylistic differences, but what unites the 50 states is the values about how you do business. What will vary stylistically is maybe the pace, maybe there’s a little bit at the front end of more meet and greet and rapport building but and that’s just marginally more.

Generally speaking, the values like win-win like go for speed. What you say is what you mean that is a constant, across the country at that 30,000-foot level. So when you’re at a lower elevation you’ll definitely see differences even the weather predicts those differences to some extent, you know, so it’s a really good observation.

AM: I’ve done business with both East Coast and West Coast businesses and you do see very different styles yes in terms of how they do business but equally, I’ve also seen how senior people from the States. When they get parachuted into the UK to set up or run or take over the management business fail spectacularly I know because they fail to appreciate the nuance and the culture of how we do business. Do you have some thoughts, comments around how you can help to manage upwards?

AS-A: Yes. And that’s such a good point because you have to bear in mind that Americans assume the world’s like them until they’re confronted with difference. It’s not because of any arrogance or well, of course, the world should be like America I mean, we’re the biggest most amazing economy, why wouldn’t you want to be like us? That’s not where it comes from. It comes from ignorance, not arrogance. It comes from an insularity which is ironic!

I get it now, 31 years, I can do irony! The reason it’s ironic is that America is about the world, you know, the country grew up and it was created from the world because everyone has come in and assimilated from everywhere else, my family included from Romania in the early 1900s. But in that process of assimilation, the kind of unspoken contract is when you come in to immigrate here, you are going to become American, and you’re giving up your Romanian identity, or whatever your backstory is, you’re giving up that stuff to buy into this culture and these values.

Now, because of that, and because the news in the US is very domestic because it’s a big place. The US is a big place, we’re 350M across 50 jurisdictions, so we get a lot of news about California fires, New York banking regulations, Harvey Weinstein, etc. And then, oh, by the way, this there’s some stuff going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and IS, I’m being a little bit flippant here but the insularity comes from media access and coverage.

It comes from two weeks a year of annual holiday, which is laughable. I mean, CEOs get two weeks a year, maybe three, if they’re in a public company which is hardly anything. We don’t have a colonial history as you do, you’ll remember many parts of the globe, the pink Commonwealth countries, we don’t have the colonial history. So, all of those things add up to an insularity.

But to get to in a way to your point about how I help the Americans in managing up. What will persuade them is the financial costs of the approach they’re taking now. And that sells because what you’re doing is you’re quantifying the missed opportunities in financial terms to the business, and it’s indirect, although we’re generally pretty direct, you’re doing it in a very diplomatic way by saying if we play it this way we have a 90% probability of winning this business. If we play it, maybe the way HQ might want it done, we’re most likely to not win. And here’s why.

Then educate your American counterpart about how it works here, and that it is not like America here for a variety of reasons. I think that’s how you’re going to win.

AM: As a sales trainer I hit that barrier all the time whenever we talk about the S-word. One of my larger clients (a large law firm), made me delete the word sales from all the training material. My question is do you believe that national stereotypes are born out of truth?

AS-A: Well all stereotypes are born out of truth but that’s why they’re offensive. A stereotype says that you, as an Englishman from Nottingham, I’ve got you figured out, I know exactly what you’re going to be like and in fact, all people from Nottingham are just like you. But that would be stereotyping because I’m saying that there’s a template that’s a fixed template and everybody is like this always.

British people are always understated and apologetic about making money. British people are always blah blah blah. I mean that that’s offensive. What I can do is say that what we’ve been talking about is about generalities, about how Americans are generally speaking. Which means you’re going to get people that don’t look anything like what we’ve been talking about right now.

And that’s okay but generally speaking, this is what it is. Generalisation is just that. Whereas a stereotype is very inflexible and just makes lots and lots of assumptions which is why it’s a dangerous area. The challenge with this whole topic is about the soft leadership skills of navigating a different part of the world and when I’m in front of technical audiences where technical expertise is what’s got them promoted, what’s got them into a leadership position it’s a problem.

I’m advising, a city of London insurance company, quite successfully growing in the US and the actuaries and analysts are the ones that have risen through the ranks and are now the leadership team. And when I talk about stuff like this about navigating culture, you can just see them thinking, well, why do I need to know this? I’m an amazing actuary. Well, no, you’re a leader now, no one gives a shit about your skills because you’re in a leadership job. So you need to learn how to lead people.

You need the corporate culture to reinforce that message that no, we’re not caring less about the technology, we’re caring a lot more about the soft skills.

AM: Could you just quickly say where we are in the ranking? The British and Americans compared with the French and Americans or Americans with Germans, do Americans have more or less, difficulty and vice versa with other cultures?

AS-A: The thing I love most about living here is your appetite to understand the world and want to know, want self-awareness. I love that about this country and the people I work with because you’re interested, and you ask questions like that. I wish more of us in the States asked those sorts of questions. I’ll give you a quick answer.

There’s a cross-cultural model that I use with lots of my leadership development programmes because I run a lot of courses on this topic, and the model has got nine dimensions for describing a business culture. When you look at the US dots profile, which is lifted from the database of respondents who’ve identified as American, you see that the blue dots in the printout are all towards the left end of all nine dimensions, so task on the left, relationship on the right, task is Americans, direct is Americans,

The UK is a lot like Americans but significantly different in two ways. One is about context. The UK wants complex over simplicity, you want the backstory and how that informs the present. We don’t care about that. We just want the foreground.

So that’s one difference, the other is around risk-taking. The Americans are pro risk-taking. The UK is much more risk-averse, and the UK is a little more towards the other end of the spectrum, not a lot but a little. In those two domains are where the UK is different. France is definitely a lot more where you’ll find these blue dots more towards the right edge of most of the dimensions, so they want complexity. They want theory over facts. They want a relationship over tasks. They want indirect or direct

There’s a lot of these differences, so for me it also explains Latin Europe, generally speaking, of which France is in that cluster. In terms of culture. It explains to me a lot of why the UK and France will have major differences in business. For Americans, we get on all day with Germans. The business cultures are more similar and having lived in Germany, I would say that the US feels more German than the UK does.

I had a woman working for me some years ago whose surname was Courtauld, of that family. Whenever she was getting in touch with my prospective clients and she left her name the reaction was we’ll definitely call Allison back. That has influence, whereas in the States it’s like who are you? Your cultural background is less relevant. So, we’re using networks like LinkedIn to get stuff done. It’s a bit Chinese and Japanese actually with the influence and the importance we place on networks because we’re trying to find common ground with people.

We have a class system in the US too, it’s just based on different things. So it’s just how you get access and really the reason I raised this is that your point about the positivity and the, “we will win” is deep in the culture. It’s a very can-do attitude, take a risk, it will pay off, not reckless, but a calculated risk and you’re likely to win if you’re persistent, persistence pays off and it pays off for me there and here.

On opening an established company in the US.

You have companies that wade into another part of the world, with lots of assumptions that are unchecked saying it must work there as it works at home. Wrong. Then they learn as they go and they mess up because they haven’t done their homework. I just can’t emphasise enough the importance of doing the homework, you’ve got to put in the hours. There are no shortcuts to success, you’ve got to do the upfront hard graft.

Tesco’s Fresh and Easy is a great example, one of many companies that did the research, spending millions of dollars doing a market test in Southern California and then ignored it and decided no, we’re going to use the UK car parking templates in the same way in the US.

Well, good luck with that. Try getting a Lincoln SUV, or a Cadillac SUV in one of those spaces, it’s not happening. Pre-packing the produce is another area. They had intelligence and their research said Americans choose each item. They want to choose each Apple, they want to choose each onion they want to choose each Mandarin individually. They choose. We don’t want pre-bagged stuff because there’s always going to be something mouldy or something bruised that somebody put in there to get rid of it, so now we choose ourselves.

What did they do, they pre-packed the produce and their merchandising was completely random. I remember going to their store on Hollywood Boulevard when it existed, just to see the concept. At that time, about or seven or eight years ago they had self-service checkouts which were a completely foreign concept to Americans because we have people who bag our groceries for us.

We’ll bag it for you, take it to your car boot and put it in for you. And now, you’d have to do it all yourself. When you get to the chiller cabinet that had the 99 cent mashed potatoes ready meals next to a $45 bottle of champagne. And I’m thinking, what customer profile is that? So you’re gonna sit on your sofa and have a 99¢ mash but damn it, I’m gonna wash it down with some good champagne, I don’t get it! (laughter)

Whereas Costco comes to the UK and is very successful, but by using their standard! American Standard wide spaces in the carpark. The way everything is displayed is totally American but you’re going to notice with Costco because the Costco locations are in rural locations. Why is that? Because you have a cupboard for 24 toilet rolls. If you’re in central London. you’re not going to put 24 toilet roll packs anywhere.

That’s why they’re there because there is a market opportunity for everyone and, and everyone drives, and there’s free parking. Out of town retail outlets are there for that reason.

On the difference between how success is perceived in the US and how it’s perceived in the UK

We definitely feel that everyone has an equal shot at success and we celebrate the people that have achieved it. Bill Gates was an unlikely success. Steve Jobs an unlikely success. Lots of people who have made it big are unlikely winners, and we talk about that and we make sure that’s front and centre in business people’s minds. Look at this guy he’s a Harvard dropout. We were tinkering in his garage and now he’s a billionaire, he gives away a lot of his money that could be you. Yeah, I know, it could be me, you’re absolutely right yes it could.

I don’t think that’s the message that gets out in this on this side of the Atlantic. It’s not a UK phenomenon, it’s just a cultural difference and the challenge is not judging it and saying, Oh, well, this one’s good and yours is bad or yours is great and their’s is bad. It’s not about that, it’s just the way it is, and you have to deal with how it is.

On teams v. the individual

AM: If you’re running a team that involves Americans in a project you tend to celebrate success. We tend to build people up to then enjoy shooting them down over here. I just wonder whether that impacts how you might manage someone in the US.

AS-A: So, one of those cross-cultural dimensions when I was talking about the nine dimensions and the blue dots. One of them is individual on one end and group on the other end. So the US is extreme on the individual over the group, what does that mean? It means that when individuals on a team do well, each individual needs to be called out for their unique contributions to the success and celebrated for what they did to make the team successful.

Other business cultures like Japan, China, the Middle East, it’s all about the team. And if we call up any one member of the team and just say, Joe did a great job. You’re humiliating that person because you’re pulling them away from the team, and you’re calling them out, and that’s embarrassing and really an unsuccessful thing to do. But in the States, each person needs to be acknowledged regularly and frequently as explicitly and publicly, because it’s about the individual, not the group in the US, generally speaking in business.

AM: I was wondering about that because I’ve sent the opposite in a sense that sometimes Americans operate as a team. It’s like a team sport. When they make decisions they don’t like to be Mavericks and go out on their own. They like to check with everybody.

AS-A: It depends. If the decision has a high commercial value, then a lot of people will be involved. If the decision doesn’t it’s a function of job security. We don’t have job security, which is why we take our laptops on holiday and we’re checking in with the office for those two weeks that we are away. We might as well be in the office. We’re nervous because stuff’s going on when we’re not there and maybe there’s been a re-org while I’ve been on the beach and I’m going to come back and there’s no job for me.

If you’d like to get a copy of Allyson’s book “Working with Americans: How to Build Profitable Business Relationships” you can buy it here.

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