The world is a book and those who do not travel, read only one page.
Recently, I was given an opportunity to read an entirely different chapter and dive headlong into a new environment. On a month-long mentorship program organised by the US Fortune/State Department, I journeyed to Washington DC and New York to work with an extremely dynamic and innovative organisation—Airbnb. This experience helped broaden my horizons, enhanced my worldview, and also helped me discover the finer nuances of a so-far alien workplace. By extension, such an understanding has helped me tailor-make my approach while communicating with a global audience.
So just how different is the work culture abroad when compared to ours back home?
Here’s what I learned:
Unlike most of us, Americans are sticklers for time. Even a five-minute delay means they text ahead and inform the other person. This ties back to a book I’d read earlier on sales, which said punctuality is one of the most important aspects of selling. If you’re late, you’ve already alienated your client by making a bad first impression, and he or she may or may not accommodate you. Try your best to stay on time as far as possible, barring exceptional cases involving unforeseen circumstances.
Leaders, especially those higher up the ladder, must do everything they can to keep themselves both mentally and physically fit. While in the US, I heard about this program by Johnson & Johnson, called the Corporate Athlete Course, which helps leaders stay ‘physically energised, emotionally connected, mentally focused, and mission-aligned.’ Many of the CEOs I interacted with believe that as you grow, your job starts to become less fun—there is more firefighting and less of the actual creative stuff. That’s why you need greater energy reserves for critical thinking and problem solving (both customer problems and people problems). I also loved seeing people eating smart. I definitely intend to incorporate more fitness into my daily regime and read the book on Johnson & Johnson’s Corporate Athlete Program.
Contrary to popular belief, women at work are not the catty creatures they’re made out to be. I was thrilled to see women working together and not trying to bring each other down in the least. Some women went out of their way to be gracious to us mentees, hosting us in their homes and doing a hell of a lot for people they don’t even know, who’ve come from the other side of the world! Alice Kendall, for instance, hosted an opera in her house, and so did the Clinique Global Brand President, Jane Lauder. They honestly did this just so that we could get the exposure and meet new people. This made me realise that as you’re growing, it’s important to bring others into your sphere and help them learn by just being in that environment.
One of my most vital takeaways from watching Airbnb’s senior leaders was seeing them encourage everyone be a specialist at what they do. As your organisation tastes success, you must invest in the right people and empower them to do their jobs well. As a mentor said to me, “Give them the tools and then get out of their way.” I saw many people looking, learning, and developing themselves—and that was a massive a-ha moment for me.
I noticed that women in senior positions are much more confident of themselves and their work. Women lower down the ladder, conversely, face challenges similar to the ones their counterparts in India do—shyness and a fear that their voices won’t be heard in meetings. However, there isn’t much choice when it comes to working or not working. Most women abroad do tend to work for a large part of their lives, unlike in India where there still is, to an extent, a masculine work tapestry, with men being the sole breadwinners.
People there are extremely concerned about the community they live in and the impact their business has on the community. There’s a high social bent among everyday citizens and a lot of dialogue around sustainability and the environmental impacts of their actions. I think we as Indians should certainly take a leaf out of their book and start thinking about the larger issues.
This isn’t so much a difference, but an observation—people in the US have a lot of respect for one another and are inherently disciplined. I loved seeing how people interact with each other in a dignified yet relaxed manner. I got lucky because I got to meet people with personalities and mindsets similar to mine—open, warm, friendly, and not cut-throat and cold, the way some people in corporate America are bound to be. My experience of Airbnb was one where I witnessed a happy startup work culture, akin to our own back home.
Brainstorming sessions at Airbnb were a blast! I loved how people took time to read up before any meeting and made solid contributions by putting forth their ideas. The leaders were wonderful as they gave everyone in the room an opportunity to speak, and solicited opinions from those they knew to be especially timid. I witnessed how sharing the agenda for each meeting beforehand enables everyone to research, making them more likely to contribute ideas. Another wonderful learning was seeing how senior leaders took time out to interact with people, even by just writing to them, to keep the connection going.
The higher you climb up the ladder, the longer your hours are going to be—there’s no escaping this fact. Almost all the leaders I know take work home and log back in later. As a leader, everyone wants a piece of you—there will be people walking into your office and you will have to make time for them, abandoning your emails and other tasks for later on. Work-life balance is a myth; you have to decide your own work-life ratio, based on your priorities. And that ratio will rarely ever be equal.
While witnessing a new culture and seeing how the other half works was a major win from this programme, I’m also grateful for some of the softer aspects I picked up while interacting with the amazing women I met there. Dina Powell of Goldman Sachs says that when you mentor someone, it’s worth asking yourself where that person has landed up today. That’s a straight measure of how successful your efforts have been. Similarly, a lady called Susan Davis, who I met at a Vital Voices friend Nora’s organic restaurant, told me her own secret measure of success. She said her mother taught her if you leave someone smiling at the end of the day, you’ve had a fruitful day. That is a very simple yet powerful way of viewing success.
Meeting new people, exploring a different culture, and learning a new way of life has been a remarkable experience, and I am definitely all the richer for it.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)