The American Way of Work

Working for a US firm can be a thoroughly foreign experience to anyone used to British norms, but it might prove the best career move you made, says Winston Fletcher.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Everyone I spoke to unhesitatingly agreed: British and American companies are vastly different to work for. George Bernard Shaw called us 'Two nations divided by a common language', but in business the schism is now as wide as the Grand Canyon. To quote a British manager: 'We think of Europeans as foreigners - well, Americans are foreigners too.'

Of course, many British managers hugely enjoy working for American corporations and many Americans love working in Britain for British companies. But all say that ignoring the differences between the two can be lethal. There are four key trouble spots: commitment, selling yourself, decisiveness - and winning.

Take commitment. An American who has worked for both American and British companies in the UK says: 'Americans are much more tightly focused on their work and career. They'll talk of their employer as "THE CORPORATION", in capitals. The corporation dominates their social lives, becomes their faith, their religion. It's total commitment. Brits never talk like that.' Indeed not. Most Brits would find such blind dedication to their company embarrassing, even dubious.

The British are more likely to make deprecatory jokes about their company.

To Americans, this smacks of disloyalty. But then Americans feel uncomfortable with all British self-deprecation. To them, it just seems dumb: why do it? So if you want to climb their management ladder, you'll need to convince them you're a full-on, committed company guy or gal: a good tip is to invest in the corporation's stock - and let everyone know.

Nor are self-deprecatory jokes the only ones off-limits. Jokes in meetings are widely frowned on and should certainly be avoided by junior managers in the presence of top management. A one-liner before the meeting starts is acceptable, but gags thereafter suggest you are either a lightweight or nervous. An American working in London said bluntly: 'I never joke in meetings. Never. Meetings are for business, not for joshing around.'

Then there is political correctness. American Mary Jo Jacobi, a vice-president of Shell, says: 'In the States, kidding around at work has almost gone away because of litigiousness and PC. A joke perceived to be at someone's expense could land you deep in hot water.' So could a hug or a peck on the cheek, say others. Most Americans accept PC has gone way too far, and many admit it's a veneer that hides much sexism and racism beneath.

But nobody dares say so publicly.

And commitment spills into work/life balance. Put crudely, Americans have no time for it. A New Yorker who has been here for 11 years said: 'This obsession with hours-of-work implies work is horrible, so let's minimise it. That's not how Americans think. Americans work hard because they like to. Looking around, I don't see them being miserable because they work too hard.' Another put it still more vividly: 'Wanting a work/life balance is like wanting frilly lace on your boxer shorts.'

In the US, even corporation presidents take only two weeks' annual holiday and many take less. Sir Paul Judge, deputy chairman of the American Management Association, says: 'They are amazed that senior British managers take off five weeks and eight bank holidays. They feel they pay managers lots of money to work lots of hours.'

Americans rarely take time off even when their children are seriously ill, and British women know their US employers dislike them taking much maternity leave: it isn't done over there. 'Check your contract - carefully,' advised one young mother, who felt burned.

Their work ethic is all-pervasive. Opined a cynical Brit: 'Forget work/life balance. To score shedloads of brownie points, answer their e-mails late on Saturday nights. They love it.' Flying back from Paris, the British creative director of the US advertising agency we both worked for opened a book of poetry. 'Do we really want guys who read poetry on our team?' our American CEO whispered to me, aghast. 'Hasn't he any work to do?'

Commitment slips seamlessly into the second troublesome area: selling yourself. Ameri- cans are not shy about selling themselves; most Brits are. Opinions varied from the American who said: 'In business, you are always selling, whether it's products, ideas - or yourself. But Brits find this tacky', to a Brit who griped: 'You must constantly push yourself forward. They do, so if you don't you fall back. You've got to radiate enthusiasm all the time.'

Another Brit advised: 'You need to develop the power of positive agreement. When an American proposes something, don't just mumble you agree. Bang the table and shout: I AGREE! It's impossible to be OTT about agreeing with their ideas.'

And both sides felt that as part of selling yourself, appearances matter much more in American companies: clothes, hair, designer labels - and physique. Says Judge: 'To them, managers are not just brains in bodies. It's the whole package that counts.'

At Goldman Sachs, I was told, you can always spot someone going for promotion: to polish up their brand image, they polish up their appearance. Naturally, this is doubly true for women. Rita Clifton, CEO of Omnicom subsidiary Interbrand, says: 'Going to NYC, I take extra care - nails and hair done perfectly, suits less flamboyant. It really matters.' The American head of a British plc was taught at management school that the way to get ahead is simple: dress like your boss.

The third key difference, everyone agrees, is that Americans are far more decisive. They swiftly pare down problems and make decisions, right or wrong: no procrastination, no mucking about. They respect to some degree the more deliberative British approach, but have no doubt that it holds us back. One said: 'British caution has become sclerotic.'

And British managers agree. 'We waffle in meetings; they focus on results - what's your objective, how will you reach it? And when? It's healthy,' said one. Said another: 'They want action. I call it JKA management - just kick arse. It's rough, but positive.'

Which brings us to winning. We British have seen ourselves as good losers; to Americans, a 'good loser' is an oxymoron. Says Malcolm Earnshaw, who spent three decades with the Mars Corp: 'Americans don't tolerate failure. One of my bosses said: "Failure plus good excuses doesn't equal success." Spot on.'

Another Brit was more brutal: 'You can be a hero one week and be fired the next. You're dispensable from the day you start.'

So that's it. Total commitment, buy the stock, no self-deprecation, don't horse around, watch out for political correctness, forget your work/life balance, develop the power of positive agreement, sell yourself, look spruce, don't waffle, be decisive, JKA - and win. You'll be on your way to success - but you'll never get the very top job. A handful of Brits reach the boards of US corporations, but as one American said: 'If you weren't in a frat house and can't talk baseball at the water cooler, forget it.'

Still, if you play your cards right, working for an American corporation will be a great career move and you'll get some of the best management training in the world: like Coke, it's the real thing.


DON'T BE LATE. In the US, the clock is king, so be on time for meetings and always respect deadlines. Never commit to an unrealistic timetable to win favour - you will be expected to deliver on your promise.

LOVE THE NEW. Unlike more sceptical European cultures, in the US newer really is better. So think carefully before you reject an idea, or utter the dreaded phrase 'but that's how we've always done it'.

LOOK THE PART. Be prepared to be judged on how you dress and your manner and professionalism, as much as on what you say or have to offer. If in doubt, take advice.

HAVE THE FACTS AT YOUR FINGERTIPS. Americans love statistics, data and information - as anyone who has ever watched a game of baseball on TV can testify. So keep the facts and figures flowing.

RESPECT THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE. In America, everyone likes to make their own decisions, whether ordering a sandwich or cutting a deal. To stand a chance of success, present your pitch as a series of choices.

BUSINESS BEFORE PLEASURE. When there's a deal on the table, expect no pleasantries until after the contract has been signed - you may not even get coffee before business has been transacted.

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