Growing up I always loved cultures. I loved learning how different people from different countries could hear the same stories and understand them in different ways. I wanted to see the world through the lenses of other cultures, so that I didn’t miss those other meanings to the common stories of my childhood. As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to see that culture affects far more than just stories. The effect of culture and language on brain functions, values, and business has only become apparent to me recently. But now that I have been exposed to these new sides of culture, I thirst to learn more.
Earlier this week, I had the incredible honor of working as an honorary intern at an event hosted by the Texas TriCities chapter of NACD, a nonprofit that works with boards of directors. This particular event was a fireside chat with Lady Barbara Judge, a pioneer and champion for women in international business. She has worked in the United States, Great Britain, and Japan in both the public and private sectors. Listening to her discussion of cultures and the business climates of these three vastly different countries was exhilarating. Although I wish I could cut off my words here and instead post a transcription of the conversation, neither of us has time for that. Instead, I will share her analogies for the specific business cultures of the three countries.
The United States, where I and probably most of you live, is filled with cowboys. As a native Texan, I fully understand this imagery. Cowboys like open spaces. They live freely and ride out towards the horizon with little thought to where exactly they are. However, cowboys don’t trespass. In general, if they see a fence, they’ll stop and find a new direction to ride. This is how business in the United States works. Generally, people do what they want and ride as they will. But we have laws, and they are not meant to be broken. We keep our fences brightly painted to make sure they are not missed.
Unsurprisingly, Great Britain is not inhabited by cowboys. The Brits can best be described as gentlemen. Gentlemen, unlike cowboys, don’t ride alone. Gentlemen sit in clubs and their actions are defined by the group. There are no set rules most of the time. And yet, people all do essentially what they are supposed to because gentlemen have codes. These codes keep the gentlemen together and in line. Unlike rules, which are meant to be followed, codes have an underlying theme of “comply or explain.” Not every code will be followed by everyone, but those who choose not to comply must explain why the code is not best for them. This allows for more flexibility in cases of diverse interests, but also limits the freedom of exploration that cowboys tend to embrace.
Lastly, you have Japan. In Japan, the idea of corporate governance is still new, and so isn’t as well defined yet. Most of what they have has been imported from the West, so elements of cowboys and gentlemen mix with the native culture. Lady Judge suspects that we will find that Japan is still filled with samurai. Samurai are strong, with the freedom and independence of cowboys and the codes of conduct of gentlemen. But samurai have something all their own: honor. Samurai and the business culture of Japan will be ruled by honor. Rules or codes will be enforced by the thought of the shame that would result from breaking them.
After Lady Judge finished her description of these cultures, the moderator, Anna Catalano, who has also worked extensively abroad, made a comment about having spent five years in London trying to work as a cowboy in a gentlemen’s club. Although intended to be a humorous comment, I realized that she was right. I was born a cowboy in a lot of ways. But if I want to find a niche abroad and actually succeed in other business cultures, I’ll need to learn to be a gentleman and a samurai and any number of other things. I will never succeed if I try to go abroad as a cowboy. Instead I have to become a part of whatever culture I’m trying to work in. Only then will I succeed in this vast and diverse world.