Working with Americans

The company I work for is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. In the early days, in my thirties, I was actually daunted to be in touch with folk from the U S of A and this was because I had a deep imprint on my mind of America more so than any other country.
It was grim up North!
Needless to say this was being immersed in American TV, film and music. Bearing mind for a young boy growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in a city with a lot of poverty and losing the industries it had grown on, American TV fed an imaginative young mind of a massive country, where anything is possible. This was validated with my childhood obsession of aeroplanes where books were filled with a bounty of American excitement, chief of which was the Lockheed Blackbird (you can’t take the boy out of the man!)

Perfect Smiles and Teeth!

So my expectation was wow, these guys are from a great country, they’re the leaders of the free world and have an inane ability to get everything right and be successful. All with perfect smiles and cool cars!
Leaders of the Free World leading the Federation!
The first experience was when our CEO came to the UK and despite being incredibly successful he told us we were crap at our jobs and our attitude stunk, if we didn’t knuckle down and improve our margins he would close us down. That was back in 2001 and I though typical American hard nosed boss just like off Dallas. My first visit to the US was to help out a trade show in Las Vegas. After arriving at the hotel at about 10:30 one Saturday night in February it was just like the movies and TV shows I had seen! The next day I met my colleagues – actually a decent bunch and as we had to assemble our stand (or booth) we all pitched in. So the first thing that struck me is the middle managers in the team knuckled down with the regular guys and without any real effort they figured who would do what and quickly.
Further visits involved seeing customers and working with colleagues. It struck me how much more straightforward problem solving was (I am an engineer) in that barriers to get the job done we not as high. I also picked up on a general can do attitude which chimed with me and as I reflected I noticed that Americans quickly grasp the problem and then appear to have a natural ability to ‘fall in line’ – knowing each skill they can offer to help progress the solution.
In Kindergarten Cop there’s a scene were the kids have to stand up explain who their daddy is and what does he do. When I was watching it again for the umpteenth time it hit me – there was something in schooling that was very different to the UK. In that kids are encouraged to get up and speak to class, report out and this makes for people who are better able to voice their opinion.
During subsequent visits I got to learn a little about what makes up for some of the attitudes. One colleague is very ‘liberal’, living a University town he is someone who I readily relate to. Another colleague is deeply ‘conservative’ and it would very easy in a sneering British way to mock his deeply held religious beliefs. Now in fairness he has never promoted these at work but I recall a road trip with him on a cold winters day in remote rural Tennessee and I got it completely. Of course you needed to be self sufficient, carving out your life without undue interference from others and in that as well as holding down his day job, he reared cattle on his ranch, played in a blue grass band, a leader in his Church and homeschooled his kids. He is one of the most honest, hardworking, yet easy going people I have ever met.
These days boss is American and I work very closely with the HQ team. In fact I have had three American bosses.
But it’s not all perfect. For sure the UK and US are two cultures separated by a common language which can make for some amusing moments. The problem comes about in identifying the goal and the strategy to achieve it. The American way is often obstinate at this point and embark on a course of action using a combination of optimism and brute force. For a Brit it translates as a refusal to see sense.
So when we can work so closely together how does this come about? I think there are two reasons, one is the attitude of a young, resource rich nation with an entrepreneurial attitude that does not mock failure and the other is the mature, make do and mend attitude that has the legacy of hierarchy and a shame of failure. I guess this makes the British quicker to concede (in the eyes of Americans) and the Americans obstinate (in the eyes of the British).
So what makes the perfect recipe? Well that’s easy – an American firm with a British boss!