Navigating Cultural Differences While Working Internationally

Name              Linnea Nas
Age                   36
Nationality   Swedish
Lives               Stockholm
Works as      Accountant at TradeDoubler*, an international performance marketing company

Linnea grew up in Stockholm in a “typical Swedish family”. She was the first person in her family in about one hundred years to pursue studies beyond high school. Her parents and grandparents worked in trades such as shop keeping, house painting, etc. However, lacking a university degree does not necessarily stop you from having an interesting and varied job experience. Linnea’s father is a brilliant example of this; he moved the family around Europe, and himself as far as to the Middle East, working with everything from construction to establishing casinos in Eastern Europe.

Linnea studied economy at Stockholm University, and did a six months’ exchange with the Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand. There, she studied various subjects related to economy and marketing, but also had time to squeeze in a course in Thai (“which went really bad” she says, without any qualms) and a course in Thai Buddhism. The teacher was the equivalent of a Christian bishop, she explains, and extremely well read on other religions, after studies both at Harvard and Oxford. “He helped us understand Thai Buddhism by drawing parallels to religions that the students had experienced or grown up with. It really was great fun,” she says.

Linnea is convinced that the frequent moves as a child helped her become who she is today. She lived in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and had to change schools often due to the various moves. She experienced different languages and cultures, and quickly understood that differences between people were nothing more than just that: differences.

“Differences do not mean that one way of doing things is better or worse than another, it is just different, and you have learn to adapt” she says. This has allowed her to integrate to new work places without too much apprehension, and to dare change jobs when others might have stayed on for pure comfort or fear of change. Also, communicating with people of different nationalities, each of whom had a different type of broken English, helped her become more open to what people actually try to say rather than just drawing hasty conclusions based on the semantic meaning of their words. This is otherwise a common barrier to understanding other people when you work in a multi cultural environment.

Linnea graduated in 2002, in the middle of the economical crisis, when, as she puts it, “there were no jobs at all”. As she had worked part time at a manpower company during her studies, she was able to continue on a full time basis. She worked at a multitude of different companies, which required a capability to quickly adapt to new environments. Finally, one of the companies she worked at needed to fill a full time position, so she took the opportunity. After a merger four years later with an international company, the employees were offered to stay on without any real prospects, or wait around for a potential redundancy package that may be offered later on.

As Linnea is not the type to sit around and do nothing, she was quickly re-employed by another company, this time through LinkedIn. “It was the first time I got anything out of my account there, she says. I was contacted by an Indian recruiter who took me by surprise, as I hadn’t thought about working in India before. It turned out an American group was hiring, in Sweden, using Indian recruiters for the hiring process. As the Swedish office was small and everyone had to help out with a bit of everything, I learnt a lot at this position and it was extremely interesting as well.”

Today, Linnea works in a Swedish group that provides IT services in eighteen different countries. After being responsible for the accounting of the mother company, she has now moved to being responsible for the largest company in the group that is based in England.

Herring & Crisp Bread: What has been the biggest challenge for you in terms of work/career? How did you deal with it?

Linnea Nas: The biggest challenge has been the many cultural differences I have encountered over the years, and adapting to those. There are challenges with every culture, I’ll give you a few examples.

My Asian experience is limted to India but there, at least, things are very hierarchical. In Europe, France and Germany are also hierarchical. It is not at all as in Sweden or the US where organisations are very flat; you can go and talk to anyone and ask for help and if they can help they do. But the US can also be very bureaucratic.

I worked with SOX audits in France and Germany. Looking at my own experience, the French are really the most complicated to work with, although at the same time they are extremely pleasant to have to do with outside of work. At work they can be very restrictive. Depending on which level you’re at in the company, in order to get a reply to a question and not offend anyone, you have to start with the right person. If you start with the wrong person things can really turn terribly in the wrong direction. People you should have talked to become upset, and you won’t get any help even when you try to make things right by going back to the right person.

Being Swedish, I have never thought that titles are particularly important. Whether you are junior, regular, or senior doesn’t change much; it’s the job you do that’s the most important. Once, when I had just become senior accountant, I contacted some senior managers in France. Only I hadn’t changed my title in the e-mail signature, and I couldn’t understand why I never got any replies until a French guy I worked with suggest I change my signature title. I did, resent the email, and got a reply back in ten minutes…

Another example is India. The people I have worked with there are extremely well educated and knowledgeable. In spite of this, people don’t take any initiatives on their own, they follow instructions. ONLY. When you give instructions you have to adapt and be maddeningly thorough. If you miss one point in the work description, even if it obvious that you missed it, that point will not be covered even if the team is aware of the omission, and knows it should be done. To a Swede this may seem completely incomprehensible; if you see that something is missing, you just do it anyway. In India you don’t, because the boss is always right. And you can’t tell a boss about an omission, because you don’t want your boss to lose face. Sometimes I think it’s just a waste of talent, but if you are aware of it, you can adapt.

A third example is procedures in large American companies – I worked for one with over 10,000 people. There were zillions of layers of approvals before a decision could be made. And once it was made, and you wanted to make a change, you had to start all over again. After a while it was just not fun anymore. So I changed jobs.

Lastly, a challenge in Swedish, flat organisations, is that it is almost impossible to have someone make a decision. There is such a need for consensus that nobody dares decide anything.

Navigating these differences has really been a challenge over the years, and at the same time it is part of the fun with international work.

H&CB: What tops your list of things that create a good work environment? What makes you motivated, what makes you unmotivated?

LN: I’m motivated by challenging tasks, by colleagues I have fun with and who help each other, and having a team spirit where everyone is happy to team up and help out. It is also very motivating when people help each other by sharing knowledge.

I become discouraged by bureaucratic hogwash, or when you don’t get anywhere and you hit your head bloody without progressing or getting the answers you need. And I’m not a fan of people who isolate themselves and don’t share information or knowledge.

H&CB: What is typical for a good manager, in your view?

LN: A good manager has to be perceptive, allow the team members to take on responsibilities, and should have a good overview of the team’s activities without meddling in every detail. A good manager should also be ready to jump in and provide support if someone is stuck, and should care for the team members.

One good example is my new boss, who called me to ask if I wanted to join an after work right after she became my manager, even though I was on maternity leave.

H&CB: How has your outlook on work been shaped over the years, by whom, what, etc? 

LN: I think both my father, who changed jobs many times and who moved us around a lot when I was young, as well as the start of my own career, shaped my view on work quite a lot. It made me think that changing jobs is not dangerous, but fun and challenging. It’s great to try out new places and meet new people. Although I have to admit I have become more “safety conscious” with time; there is not necessarily a new job waiting for you around the corner if you’d like to resign, especially not these days.

H&CB: From your experience and perspective, how do you look at the subject of women and leadership in the area of paid work? What comes to mind when you hear these words?

LN: Men laugh more. Many women take their role as a manager very seriously, though I don’t know if they really think about it. Men seem to do more of “go with the flow”. It might be because the women I have seen in managing positions have often been young and relatively new in their roles as managers. The men have often been more experienced. This has probably influenced my perception of female vs male managers, unfortunately not in a good way with regard to women.

I can also feel that women are less straight to the point in their communication. We might not want to hurt other people’s feelings, so instead of saying the whole truth we complicate things (I’m being very general here), and then, when we finally speak up we have thought about it so much that it has grown to become disproportionate to the initial issue. Men are more direct in their communication style and say what they want to have said immediately, that way it’s done away with.

H&CB: How do you think the IT industry deals with a) diversity and b) leadership at the workplace, and why do you think it is the way it is?

LN: In the IT business there is a lot of diversity in terms of where people come from, and my experience tells me that it is a lot of fun when many nationalities work together. Many IT companies are successful exactly because of this; they are international and therefore have to embrace diversity. Then again, in Europe people sometimes have a hard time accepting people from other continents, compared to non-Europeans who seem to accept Europeans more easily.

When it comes to leadership, I think it depends on the culture in each company more than the industry as such.

H&CB: How do you see your future, and how do you see the future for women in leading roles in the IT industry?

LN: I think women will make it further in the future than what they do today. There is a glass ceiling, which you unfortunately hit now and again, especially with regard to parental leave. I am convinced that if you are less at work, compared to being there all the time, you don’t get as far. I can understand this from a company perspective, but it’s a bit sad. Managing a family is also important, and it should be valued as well. I’m a bit torn on this point. I do think that women would be less discriminated or left behind if they took less maternity leave, say around three months (rather than the nine months or up to a year and a half as is common in Sweden). A big help in Sweden is that fathers share the responsibilities and take time for parental leave too. The more both parents mind the kids, the more it will become accepted that everyone is away a bit each.


*Note: This interview is made with Linnea Nas on a purely personal basis. It does not reflect the opinions of TradeDoubler, has no link to its business or other activities, nor is it made on behalf of the company.

This entry was posted in Diversity and Equality, Everyday Women, Interviews, Leadership, Management, Multi-National, Women at Work, Work Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Navigating Cultural Differences While Working Internationally

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