Meet Maria (we agreed to change the name to preserve anonymity), an HR professional with close to 20 years of experience which started in one of the Big 4 consulting companies in Russia by giving her great exposure to a highly processed and organised international business and took her on projects to Russia, Ukraine and USA. Maria then went on to work for a small HR Consulting Boutique, where she was responsible for setting up all the processes herself and developing new business in parallel, she then joined a well known FMCG and worked for them for eight years before the job took her to Switzerland first and then to the UK. We met up with Maria in London to talk about her background, experience, and approaches to embracing change.
First things first: How do you identify your cultural background? (where did you grow up, study, started to work?)
I grew up in the Soviet Union, spending time between Western Ukraine and Moscow. I studied and worked both in Ukraine and in Russia and speak both languages. I understand and like Ukrainian culture a lot, but I feel Russian inside.
When did you first start noticing cultural differences?
When I was on an international assignment in the USA. I guess some food habits were very different. I was also surprised that offering lady a seat might be considered sexual harassment. For me that whole area seemed quite exaggerated.
So, what did you do?
I tried to understand what the expectations for behaviours were and follow the rules (when in Rome, do as the Romans do).
I then started paying attention to more and more cultural elements and traditions. A recent example is from Switzerland: if you move to an apartment building, you might be expected to invite your neighbours for a house warming party. It does not mean you need to develop friendships, rather acknowledge that you are a part of the neighbourhood.
I know you have worked in a couple of countries, please describe work culture peculiarities / differences that were most striking to you?
Very careful attitude to nature in Switzerland, high level of punctuality, and everything works there and comes on time. You are expected to follow the rules and there are no shortcuts.
I guess both in Switzerland and the UK, work is work but you are expected to have work life balance. And people actually mean it. I would feel very uncomfortable to bother my colleagues during the weekend or outside of the working hours, unless it is an emergency. I had worked in Moscow before and did not see this sharp division between work and life time there. One of possible explanations for this might be that all the companies that I worked for in Moscow were going through a massive growth wave and everything not done today was definitely going to be done by the competitor, so staying after work was considered to be a contribution to the accelerated company growth in a way and was supported by the corporate culture.
In the UK, people are very polite but sometimes you need to figure out what exactly they are trying to tell you as things are said in a round about way. Sometimes, by the end of the meeting it might not be clear what exactly has been decided.
In the UK when you talk to people, you also need to be less straightforward and avoid using “black and white” approach. It took me approximately a year to get used to things around and learn what tonality would suit different conversations. Humour can be lots of fun if you understand itJ.
But eventually you learn to understand the meaning behind the conversation.
How did you learn to understand the meaning behind conversations?
I was fortunate to have good friends who I always used as consultants – I would give them examples of situations and phrases from my day and ask for their interpretation.
I read books on cultural differences.
Another approach that worked for me was to learn to totally switch off my predictive thinking in regards to what the English will do or say in a particular situation and simply wait for them to do or say it first, sometimes what comes out is different to what you expected.
It is good to find a confidant, almost a cultural ambassador, and check in with him/her whether your understanding of certain things is correct.
I also observed a lot. I tried to remember the phrases that my English colleagues used in the meetings and then compare them (in my mind) to how the same things might have been said in my own culture. There are big differences in the degrees of straightforwardness that we use. So little by little I compiled by own “phrase book”, if you can call it this way, to make sure that I convey messages in the way they are more used to.
For example, if I do not agree with something, in Russian I would just say – I do not agree with this. In English it is better said in a less straightforward way – I am afraid I do not entirely agree with you. Practicing this took a while.
Yes, in my company in the UK the stereotype of a Russian colleague was that of a very straightforward person. And this all when those who did make it to the international assignment in the HQ were not the most typical straightforward talkers as you can imagine. This difference is very strong and difficult to work on for us I guess.
What surprised you in the professional world of HR when you moved countries?
In the UK I noticed a very deep tendency for narrow professional specialization. This, of course, could have been a coincidence, but I have noticed that people I worked with in the UK had been in their field of HR all their life, whereas in Russia the tendency was for HR professionals to change HR areas to gain wider experience, which was valued, especially in large organisations. I know, I myself, always looked for ways to let HR Business Partners on my team join a project on Talent or Culture for them to gain a wider HR outlook. I was surprised that such moves in the company I worked for in the UK were close to impossible. I will not generalize for the whole country though, but I suspect it is true.
Another interesting peculiarity I noticed was the amount of basic details my colleagues went to when explaining their areas and plans. At times it felt like repetition of what all already knew. I realized that back at home at professional meetings we assumed that all who came to the table were up to speed on what the subject was. Here I noticed such things have not been assumed.
I think another reason for this has to do with the skills of self-presentation, which, as you know, unfortunately, were not taught at schools in our part of the world. I could see how my colleagues were talking about basics with such self-confidence that infected all who listened. The conclusion I made then was that we are really not good at self-selling and self-promotion – something we have not been taught at school or university.
How would you describe your personal style now? Have you stayed true to yourself? Have you merged different cultural styles in one?
I think I have merged. I think I have taken on some elements of the UK culture while I am working here. The best indicator for this would be a recent comment I received from a British colleague after I said “I am afraid I do not disagree with you” at a meeting. He laughed and said: That was top notch Britishness.
So yes, I think I merged the styles. But I also think I have remained true to myself in things like always knowing that I am Russian, and never feeling that I need to hide or mask it. I believe there is more to Russians than what people see on TV in the news and I am always open to talk about it with people around me. I am always ready to talk about our people, about their values, about their respect for culture.
An important explanation that I once made to myself was that I am a person from a different culture, which I love from childhood, living in a country, which I like and respect, and I respect the culture and traditions in this country. It is important for me to have balance in this equation. And I see that people here treat me with respect for having found this balance.
Your top cultural tips for international professionals planning to work in Russia, UK, Switzerland?
Although people do not smile at you as often as they do in the West, do not take it at a face value – Russians can build deep friendships. Russians value professionalism and deep discipline knowledge in managers. There is a stronger hierarchical structure in the organisation, and it has two scales: by rank and by age. Respect to people who are much older than you is shown by addressing them by their first name followed by their patronymics, for example. You need to be ready that older generation might appear quieter and waiting to follow the rules, as this comes from their heavily regulated past.
Follow the rules and enjoy the beauty around. High degree of precision in everything and impeccable punctuality is expected. Swiss will have a great deal of respect to you if you try to learn their language, Swiss German especially, and concentrate on talking about how beautiful their country is rather than how impossible rules regulating noise in apartments and rubbish collection are. This shows them that you want to integrate into their society rather than critique it.
Value the traditions the country has to offer and learn their way to deliver the message. Because UK hosts HQs of many international companies one of the biggest tips is to learn to navigate corporate office politics. The following tip might be relevant to people from Eastern Europe only – expect to “plan” your coffee catch ups with friends two to three weeks ahead and mark it in the calendar, people plan their after work time.
Your top cultural tips for professionals thinking of an international career.
Do not underestimate the stress of moving to a different country: ask for the support, it is not a sign for weakness. Be open and do not judge, make most of your experience, but keep to who you are and your identity.
Looking back at your international experience what else you could have done to better understand the cultures you were part of?
Probably look for more opportunities to socialise in the local community. I guess it might be easier when you have young childrenJ