Cross-Atlantic divide: an American in London

Liberty skyline London

Just under two years ago, a fantastic opportunity was presented to me.

Resources Global Professionals, the company where I had spent four years in
various offices within the US, wondered if I would be interested in a ‘senior
secondment,’ in London, heading up the UK region.

To me, it was a complete no-brainer. As part of a growing global company
(Resources was formed in the US in 1996, opened its London office in 2001 and
now has more than 80 practice offices and 4,100 professionals worldwide), it
seemed like a great way to experience a different culture without moving from
the company that I loved.

London calling

London seemed the best possible choice for an overseas assignment for many
reasons: a leading financial centre; the perfect base to explore Europe;
cultural similarities and of course, the same language.

Before I came to the UK I was familiar with the idea that, in some respects,
the English language has evolved differently on either sides of the Atlantic. An
American says ‘awesome!’ a Brit says ‘brilliant!’ But they are just words and it
is easy to work out what is meant.

However, many people like to focus on the differences. In fact people often
ask ‘how does it differ from the US?’ Sometimes the honest answer is, ‘it
doesn’t.’ A lot of the big issues are exactly the same.

Major management trends and techniques tend to evolve on an international,
rather than national, scale. Multinational companies have grown on the premise
that there is a market for similar products and services across different
countries and cultures. But if I think about it carefully, there are subtle
behavioural differences which affect the way that I relate to my British
colleagues or clients, compared to those in the US. Here are some examples.

An American manager tends towards impulse decisions and is quicker to ‘pull
the trigger.’ British managers are more likely to question, and re-question
before giving their final verdict. Recent business history points to successes
and failures for both techniques. Should the Bank of England been more decisive
during the Northern Rock crises?

Should US investors have been more circumspect when it came to the sub prime
mortgage market? Different situations require different techniques. However, in
my experience, the slower decision-making process in this country tends to mean
there is greater commitment to the final verdict. Once convinced fewer people
back out.

Communication in the US is all about the words. It is much more likely that
you will know where you stand with a colleague because they have told you.
American managers tend to expect their teams to be open in sharing their
thoughts and feelings. If someone likes an idea they will say so immediately; if
they don’t they will be equally as honest.

Deciphering the body language of an American in the boardroom isn’t that
hard, after all; ‘high fives’ are a common way to celebrate success. Being a
business manager in the UK means that you have to keep your eyes open and accept
that body language and tone often speak much louder than words.

The cliché is true. Americans are much more direct in their business
communication. Americans will dive straight into discussions in a way the
British could regard as distasteful. In the UK you start with small talk, get
down to business and then sign off with some pleasantries. It seems that the
famous British reserve still exists in the boardroom. This is where the language
is different.

‘That’s interesting’ will mean ‘no way.’ If someone starts a sentence with,
‘Oh by the way’ or ‘incidentally,’ it usually means that the speaker has got
onto what they consider to be the primary purpose of the discussion.

There is no doubt that the British are highly motivated by success and
rewards, but somehow it doesn’t seem right to be open about it. A recent report
by the Centre of Economic Performance suggested that British managers can’t cut
it against their international counterparts.

In my time here, I can’t see any evidence to back that theory. There is no
shortage of talent in the accounting and finance, information management and
supply chain professions. But I can’t help but wonder if the so-called British
reserve sometimes holds managers back on the international scene.

Like all good things must come to an end and I will return to the US. I will
leave however, with a deeper appreciation of the subtle differences and a
greater understanding of what it means to be a manager in an increasingly
‘globalised’ world.

It’s a London thing

My PA: the British tend to use Pas more strategically than
Americans. Good ones can provide so much value to executives and also wield a
lot of power and influence. Befriend an executive’s PA and you’re more than
halfway there!

The pub: a British institution like no other and a great
place to socialise and talk business with colleagues and clients.

M&S Takeout: Hoisin duck salad, Chicken Tika Masala –
even a great bottle of wine to take home after a day in the office.

Don Alvarez is UK managing director of
Resources Global

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