Cultural Differences in International Business

So the basic premise of this question, is about cultural differences in businesses, in particular Europe.

I currently work for a large healthcare consultancy and was contemplating international rotations in certain European countries (spain and france). I have lived in Europe before while growing up, and can speak fluent spanish, decent french, and bad german, but left to come to the US when I was 15, thus never really saw what the world looked like for young professionals in these countries. I wanted to get a bit more information from those of you who have international business experience on what they found was different in Europe vs stateside.

To be more specific, one of the things that stuck my odd when I Eame to the US was the very "country clubby" feel of the business class in general. My dad was a high ranking Egyptian diplomat when we lived in Europe, and back then, when I had no frame of reference, the European business elite we met seemed to be very "gentry" like, which was completely different to the feel I got when I came to the States, where executives acted a lot more like regular people.

So how is the corporate culture in france/spain? Is it any different working at Total SA vs a smaller business. I am sure there is less pressure to put the hours in, but are there other pressures/cultural differences that I may not be aware about? Also I am looking for cultural differences in the continent not for the UK. I am very familiar with Britain.

Also if anyone has any experience in Russia, please feel free to chime in as well. Not relevant to me directly, but would love to hear stories about working in ex-soviet nations.

Off to you @brotherbear I would greatly appreciate it if you could add any of your insight. If @APAE or @thebrofessor could chime in when they have the time, that would be wonderful.

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Comments (21)

Mar 8, 2019

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Mar 10, 2019

figures lol

wasn't the type of question that would get answered on WSO anyways

Ty

Most Helpful
Mar 10, 2019

This is a broad question. I think your instincts about European businesses being more elitist or 'country clubby' (as you put it) are perhaps a bit unfair. While it was certainly my experience at large French and English companies that C-suite executives tend to come from a more aristocratic background, that seems to hold true in the US as well. I think a lot of Americans imagine European societies to be more egalitarian and multicultural than ours, but that hasn't been my experience.

I'm currently interviewing for new jobs, and have said as much in a recent interview. I think the American system (for all its flaws) is probably more welcoming to 'outsiders' than just about any system in the world. There might not be as much diversity at the very top as some might like, but a lot of other countries have no diversity whatsoever at the top. I worked at one of France's largest companies directly for the C-suite of the firm. Everyone that worked in the Paris HQ was very white and very French. That's markedly less true in London and to a lesser degree Berlin or Amsterdam. I haven't lived in Spain since I was a little kid, so I can't speak intelligently on the business culture there.

As I think about it, one reason you may encounter more aristocrats in European offices is that they now have to work. Their family fortunes are largely gone. The days of European colonialism and empire are now several generations removed. A lot of European fortunes were built on those empires. Now, a lot of those families can't afford to replace the roofs on their chateaus or manors and have to hand them over to the state for maintenance. The children of such families may descend from wealth and status, but are now forced to mingle with today's professional classes. Because that situation is so common across Europe, I think the upper echelons of the European professional classes are probably a lot less meritocratic than Americans might imagine. Of course, that's a largely unsubstantiated hypothesis which I crafted as I wrote it, so I'm happy to hear arguments against it.

In any case, from a career perspective, I think the job prospects for a lot of young people in Europe aren't especially rosy. I think you'd find a lot of younger Europeans thinking you were crazy for leaving the US to pursue work in Spain or France, for instance. There are a lot of good reasons to live in either country, but career progression and compensation aren't among them. And until Brexit is sorted, I'd make the same case for the UK and to a lesser extent Germany. As I mentioned above, I'm looking for a new job at the moment, and could rather easily return to Europe, but am not even considering it despite my language skills and taste for European women.

I'll finish by saying that the US doesn't have nearly as long a legacy of an aristocratic class. Most people in the US came from poverty just a handful of generations ago. After all, if things were going swimmingly where our ancestors came from, they probably wouldn't have come to the US looking for a better life. There aren't many American families who are on their third or fourth generation of wealth already. Obviously, you'll never encounter a Walton, Cargill or Rockefeller working at Goldman. What would be the point for them to do so? But you might find a now-impoverished son of a viscount or marquis working alongside you in France or the UK. I'm not sure whether that makes the European systems more egalitarian or less.

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Mar 10, 2019

Another point to consider about European business culture is that it's certainly not monolithic. I've bought and sold businesses in half a dozen EU countries and my experience in Norway was quite different from my experience in Italy, which in turn was quite different from my experience in France or Switzerland. As a result, I don't think you can generalize about working cultures in Europe any more than you could generalize about working cultures in various US cities.

A lot of Americans seem to think Europeans work fewer hours. That may be true for some firms and may not be true for others. Working in France, I spent a lot more time in the office than I would have ideally liked. I was regularly working from 8am-8pm in Paris even as a director. And I was in corporate development/ventures at the time, so I think those hours are comparable to what you'd expect in NY at that level. We used Lazard and Rothschild for our bankers, and the analysts and associates in Paris and London would regularly work past midnight. Our outside counsel matched their hours.

I guess the point here is simply that if you work in finance, you're going to work long hours. If you're good at what you do, you'll eventually make good money. The path to making 'good' money is perhaps a bit more protracted in most European countries, but you'll eventually get there. That said, I think you generally get paid more at virtually every level of seniority in the US.

Still--everyone should have a crazy European sex odyssey once in their life, so there's always that.

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Mar 11, 2019

How do you approach looking for another gig given your wideranging experience? mostly curious, as youve been one of my favorite posters on the board in the last year.

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Mar 10, 2019

It's a question I'm currently asking myself. When you have a unique career path, you sort of have to continue paving your own way. I'm much more entrepreneurial than most people. That's clear from my CV given the various jobs I have had. That's valuable to certain firms and not to others. A lot of late-stage companies pay lip service to the entrepreneurial culture their firm purported espouses, but the preponderance of people who work at large firms are more risk-averse than risk-loving, so I'm not sure that's a great cultural fit for someone like me.

Moreover, as I'm sure I've said before, my broad knowledge across a lot of fields (while rare and perhaps interesting) is in many ways less valuable for companies looking for rather deep expertise in a single area. As a result, I'm probably more suited to a jack-of-all-trades type of role like a 'chief of staff' position to the CEO of a major company or family office. I think the family office space has a lot of potential, but CoS positions within that arena tend to include non-investment related activities like estate management or hiring household staff. I don't have a 'servant' mentality, so that's probably not ideal for me either, but an investment principal role in a family office would be interesting given the range of potential investments across various asset classes.

In the same vein, I am considering endowment and foundation investment positions, though not at the very largest funds. The sweet spot in the endowment and foundation space seems to be above $1 billion, but below $4B or perhaps $5B. Below $1B, you probably don't have enough capital to have a direct investment or co-investment program, and your asset allocation is almost necessarily more conservative to protect your capital given that you can't weather too many exogenous shocks to your portfolio. Above, say, $5B the fund will have too many people involved in it, and you'll start to get asset class specialists. I don't want to just look at investing solely in PE funds or solely in HFs or solely in RE funds. I have a fair amount of knowledge across several asset classes, and I'd like to use it. That's why I'm more interested in family offices than endowments or foundations.

That said, I'm keeping an open mind since I'm not entirely clear on the nature of the role I want to do next. Part of the reason I have had a unique career path is because I'm open to allowing serendipity guide me a bit. Therefore, I am having a wider range of conversations than I would probably advise most people to entertain.

The thing is--your value proposition differs slightly from firm to firm. In searching for a new role, you may feel the need to guess what that company desires and attempt to present yourself in the way you suspect they want. That's a mistake. In reality, you're only likely to be both useful and satisfied at a firm where you naturally exude the qualities they seek. The same is true in reverse. That's banal, but true.

I think that past a certain point in your career, you sort of have to figure it out on your own. There is only so much advice anyone can give you. Most people can only intelligently speak to what worked for them, not what's likely to work for you. I'd love for someone to give me useful career advice, but in my experience, even people in rather rarefied positions aren't especially good at guiding others to repeat their success. I think the principal reason for this is simple--their careers all involve a measure of serendipity. You can't plan for that. You just have to position yourself so you have as many shots as possible for serendipity to smile on you. Right now, I guess I'm looking for a little bit of that.

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Mar 11, 2019
brotherbear:

I'm currently interviewing for new jobs, and have said as much in a recent interview. I think the American system (for all its flaws) is probably more welcoming to 'outsiders' than just about any system in the world.

This is very true. Immigrants in the U.S. are viewed as American, through and through. In France and Spain, immigrants aren't viewed as French or Spanish; they're people who happen to reside in France or Spain. Americans often imagine Europe as more welcoming to diversity, but this is not always the case. Depends on the country in Europe like you said; UK/London are more along the lines of the U.S.

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Mar 11, 2019
brotherbear:

Obviously, you'll never encounter a Walton, Cargill or Rockefeller working at Goldman. What would be the point for them to do so?

You are one of the most knowledgeable posters on this forum and it really is great to see any of your insight, but on this I do believe you are wrong. I grew up with some families that summered with a Rockefeller branch, and having joined them occasionally myself, I can say that it is common for some younger scions to join prestigious groups like Goldman, MS or McKinsey, as those that want to pursue management of the family fortunes get pressured from their parents and grandparents to prove their worth, so to speak. After a couple years in the trenches, they often return to family funds. For those that do not wish to take control of the finances (the majority I'll add), of course they won't be found in Goldman, they'll be starting philanthropic ventures or art or medical breakthroughs. Yes, the American aristocrats already carry enough prestige in their name to rival European royalty, but they often seek employment prestige just as much if not more so. It's that need to show that they really are better, that they can compete in the field with the laymen and still come out on top.

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Mar 10, 2019

I suppose there may be a couple members of famously wealthy families working at GS, but I don't know any. Perhaps you could cite your claims? I don't think it's 'common' for scions of such families to join GS, MS or McKinsey. Perhaps on the banking side you might find a couple in wealth management. But the idea that a Rockefeller is spending 80-90 hours per week working as an analyst at McK or GS seems far-fetched to me. There are certainly easier ways to prove yourself. Like I said, though, any examples to the contrary would be welcome.

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Mar 11, 2019

If you think classism and nepotism are problems in Europe and North America, then you'd be horrified at what passes for "professional working relationships" in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

"Work ethic, work ethic" - Vince Vaughn
Mar 11, 2019

OP, thanks for the tag, but I've got limited experience in europe and zero experience outside tourism.

@Disjoint is British, @GoodBread is French, and I'm sure there are others but I know they both have good experience, perhaps they can opine

Mar 15, 2019

France is what I know best. There is definitely a "BCBG" culture that permeates the upper echelons of French business that goes beyond mere preppiness in the US. There is a very famous sociological study about upper class culture called Distinction by Bourdieu which gives a lot of empirical examples of it all. To a certain degree you gain this culture by going to a French high school and then doing a "prepa" which are two very intensive years of extended high school that count as the beginning of college.

The great differentiator in French meritocracy is "culture general" which is the intangible little cultural tidbits you sprinkle into conversations and essays (if you pay attention to French presidents, they outdo themselves in quoting moderately obscure authors to display their "culture g"). This stuff really ends up being an insider's club of cultural references which make it very hard for outsiders to break in. Programs to give less wealthy students a shot at tops schools like ENA invariably fail because of this infamous culture generale component.

Ultimately, the biggest ceiling in France is which grande ecole you went to. A lot of big firms actually pay more or less to fresh graduates depending on what school they went to. And at the upper levels, having gone to ENA, X or HEC are pretty much a necessary condition. At the extreme, having done Inspection des Finances out of ENA is the golden ticket for all the big corporate jobs.

Generally speaking in Europe, income inequality is less pronounced than in the US while wealth inequality is more so. That's how how top civil service jobs in France (like the aforementioned Inspection des Finances) can pay what might seem like a moderate salary by NY standard while people are living in multi-million euro apartments they inherited from their grandparents.

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