Celebrating and appreciating our similarities and differences in the workplace is a great way to bring people together. Holidays, inspired by cultural festivities such as St. Patrick’s Day, offer a good opportunity for teams to consider the cultural differences in their workplaces. Differences show up in big and small ways. How can we focus our differences in positive ways to ensure that we make room on our teams for mutual learning and growing respect?
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I talked with longtime friend and deeply committed organizational leader, Brendan O’Dowd, an Ireland native, who after many years of leading teams in the US, has returned to Dublin to lead a young, smart team. Below, Brendan shares his insights into some differences he’s noted.
Q: As an Irishman returning to your homeland after many years working in the US, what were your first impressions of the differences between the two workplaces?
A: I spent 20 years of my time in the US with an organization that was very focused on culture, change management, and investment in training and development. It was a good experience, and I assumed that every organization would be similar. Four years in an international organization, followed by a year in education taught me that not all organizations are equal in the U.S. The one thing that the organizations had in common is the low level of vacation days awarded to employees. It never felt right that people would work all year with just 10-15 days vacation. I think the law of employment-at-will keeps people on edge a little, and employees tend to put in many hours, and work very hard. However, I am not certain that long hours, harboring an innate fear of losing a job and sacrificing work-life balance leads to productivity.
I found there is a bit of cultural difference in the Irish workplace alright. For one, people use “colorful” language at the drop of a hat, often dropping the “F” bomb, and can be very direct and blunt in communication. I found that 25 years in the US had made me very politically correct, and once I got over the bluntness of the Irish workplace culture I quickly came to appreciate that lack of ambiguity around expectations and what people really think. There is no waste of energy and time figuring out what people want, they will tell you what they want 🙂 Typically, Irish people work very hard and focus on outcomes and deliverables. They may joke, cuss, laugh and cry while getting something done, but all the while they are getting that thing done and there will be a satisfactory outcome. I would say that pressure for results is similar to the United States, but there does seem to be a stronger focus on delivering actual outcomes here in Ireland. So, perhaps there is a little more efficiency here. Perhaps having 6 weeks vacation, a social aspect to the workplace and job security enhances those outcomes. We don’t work 50 hours a week, and we get more done in Ireland, that’s my observation.
Q: How does your experience leading in the US give you an advantage now leading in Ireland?
A: This question makes me smile… a lot. What I bring to the table is the ability to create a sustainable, high performing team. I joined an amazing team in Ireland. My first day was a mixed bag, but I noticed how the team communicated and supported each other. I saw visible patterns of people moving around and collaborating and I thought “yes, I can work with this team.” I had a challenge as the team had experienced 120% attrition in the 18 months prior to my arrival, and I had to use all of my team building techniques while focusing on building value propositions, and not losing sight of the outcome. After a few weeks, one of the senior team members came to me and said that a lot of my theories and “fluffy stuff” was very American, he encouraged me to consider the Irish way of doing things. I almost gave up, as I sat through weeks of meetings and a sea of blank faces not knowing what to make of me. But then one wonderful morning, during a workshop on purpose, and creating a team mission statement, something started to change, it was tangible. Magic was happening and team members were becoming vocal, engaged, excited, and buying into the process. It was the turning point. In a year, I managed to drastically reduce attrition, build skills, introduce business processes and knowledge management, and achieve the highest ranking employee satisfaction metric that the team ever had, or that my division ever had. So perhaps the American management style has its place.
Q: Any exciting Irish business insights you wish to share?
A: Yes, I am very pleasantly surprised at the gender equality in the Irish workforce. In my first month, I attended a senior management retreat. When I returned home, my (American) wife asked sarcastically how many women were present at the leadership summit. I was thrilled to say that 40% of the leadership team are female and they are not token members. They are vibrant, funny, smart, capable leaders, who are not afraid to drop the “F” bomb as readily as their male counterparts. The wit and fast paced interaction can be hilarious to watch at times, but also there is a focus on that all important outcome. There is a social aspect to the workplace in Ireland. It’s not unusual to go to a pub as a team a couple of times a month. People tend to eat lunch together. I have been caught off guard at times at the care and support that can materialize for a team member experiencing some form of distress. In some ways, the Irish workplace is very similar to the US. I do feel that in the US people have more options and choices to recreate themselves, re-launch careers, and reach levels of success that is related to effort. In Ireland, one does not necessarily get so many opportunities. It is a smaller economy and a little “luck of the Irish” is needed to reach levels of success that come with effort.
One final note, Ireland has a very highly educated workforce, one of the highest in the world with 50% of the workforce between the age of 22-44 years old holding at least a bachelors degree.