Understanding culture reduces risk


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It’s during the war on Hamas in Gaza and I got on a thread on a blog about why Islam is so violent. I explained that there are fundamental ideological differences between Islam and Judaism. For starters – Islam values land but not human life, Jews value human life and are willing to compromise on land.

On a much smaller scale it’s important to understand the culture in your workplace and manage in a fair process of being open and taking commitments,  Technical/professional skills are not enough.


Back in the 90s – when I worked at Intel Fab8 in Jerusalem, we were chosen to train about 150 engineers for the Intel fab in Leixlip Ireland. I had two Irish people on my team. In particular, I remember Ronnie Murray and Dympna  O’Connell (she told me – pronounce my name like “Debna”, you know like the DEC network adapter…) Dympna once worked for Digital Equipment Corporation and I spent years developing applications in VAX/VMS so we shared common language, the language of Digital networking equipment.

Before the Irish engineers came on board, we went through 3 days of cross-cultural training. We learned a lot, including how much Israelis and Irish are alike – strong family values, ties to country, religion (but not too much) and openness. Of course, the Irish can drink us under the table – which is probably why we had a such a great time.

My friend Isaac Botbol told me that there is a famous but true story about a Texas oil company that was intensely involved in negotiating a substantial business deal with a major company in Mexico. The American team spared no expense in flying their experts to Mexico and presenting the benefits and long term rewards of their state of the art equipment, hardware and excellent customer support. Throughout the negotiations and long hours of working together, both the Mexican and American teams developed a camaraderie and respect for each other.

The Mexicans were satisfied with the proposal and agreed to proceed with the deal. The Americans were delighted. They phoned their legal department in Houston and instructed them to fax the contract to their Mexican counterparts. Since they felt they had completed their job the American team jumped on the next flight back home.

The Mexicans were incensed! They wondered how the American team could be so rude and insensitive as to just fax a bunch of papers and expect to seal such an important deal after weeks of working closely together. The Mexican team refused to sign the contact tried to have as little contact as possible with the American team.

Eventually, when the Americans inquired about the delay and discovered what had happened, they immediately went into damage control. For the American negotiating team, the signing of the deal meant the final phase of a process. For the Mexicans, it symbolized the beginning of a relationship. They wanted to celebrate this milestone and make it personal. They wanted this important occasion to be marked by having all the major players and their spouses, from both sides of the border, to come together and enjoy a memorable dinner.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending because the American team was able to recover and the deal was finally signed. The lesson from this incident is quite significant because it teaches us the importance of being aware of the different cultural perspectives. While the American business stance is to be task and results oriented, the Hispanic mindset places much more emphasis on the human side of business.

When dealing with customers in Europe (especially Italy, Israel and Greece) this lesson is just as valuable. Hi-tech sales and technology management is also about understanding the cultural differences. Whether they’re your customers, colleagues or direct reports – people want to see the business as well as the human side of your leadership abilities. They want to know that despite the language differences, you genuinely care about them and the work they do. Of course this is true in every workplace but driving home this idea and putting into practice, is much more difficult and challenging when there are different language and cultural expectations.

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