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The International Entrepreneur – Cultural Tips from Israel: Insights from Arlene Marom in Tel Aviv


Temple Mount and Western Wall during Shabbat

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This week kicks off a series on cultural insights from professionals engaged daily in cross-border business. Born in the U.S., Arlene Marom is a long-time Israeli resident and international marketing professional. I am grateful to Arlene for sharing so many tips for doing business with Israelis. Here is my interview with Arlene:

What do you see as unique cultural characteristics of Israelis that comes out in Israel’s business culture?

Israelis are known for a number of characteristics. They are risk-takers, usually not afraid to fail and to try again. They are often ingenious in their solutions to problems – and by nature, they think out of the box. In fact, they hardly ever think inside the box. Typically, they are not fond of too much small talk and like to get to the point quickly. They can be tough negotiators, though they understand that only a WIN-WIN relationship will work for the long haul. They are very informal in their dress, their speech, and their mannerisms, and can be seen as rude when they are actually only being open.

What are Israel’s most competitive industries that compete in world markets?

I would guess that security software and hardware solutions are probably number one – given Israel’s history, its ongoing need to develop technologies to defend its population, and its experience on the conventional battlefield as well as in counter-terrorism. This situation has also led to superiority in networking and communications, including mobile and wireless applications. Israel has also established a reputation for advanced chip design, semiconductors, every type of software, Internet applications, medical devices, biotechnology, and clean tech. It also has a very well-developed diamond industry, and is a major exporter of agricultural products including fruits, vegetables, and flowers, as well advanced drip irrigation systems and greenhouses.

What’s the best way to find potential Israeli business contacts?

I would say that the first stop should be the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute (IEICI), which can provide extensive information on Israeli industry and business opportunities. http://www.export.gov.il. The new English website is currently under construction, so check back in January 2012. I would also suggest Israel-oriented LinkedIn groups, US-Israel Chambers of Commerce, and of course, the Economic Attaches at Israeli Embassies.

What do you wish people knew about doing business in Israel before they arrive in country?

You should be prepared for Israeli directness, and not be offended by it; be ready to work hard and play hard; be flexible in negotiations; be willing to put logic above convention; don’t assume that Israelis don’t understand your language (this tiny country has people from every corner of the globe); be prepared for impossible time-tables (I never had a client in Israel, whether startup or multinational, who didn’t need the job done yesterday) and pressure to conclude negotiations immediately. But, be assured that your Israeli partners are working at least as hard and as fast as they expect you to do, and they will usually manage to accomplish incredible feats in the nick of time, for everyone’s benefit.

Punctuality is not a strong suit, though it’s improving; be prepared to start meetings a bit late. Meetings usually begin with an invitation to coffee or other drinks; cookies are usually on the table; be prepared to work through lunch with a meal delivered to your desk. Interruptions during meetings are common, and not considered rude; everyone is multi-tasking; phone calls may be answered and people may enter the room to ask questions.

You may find that Israelis have an insufficient focus on marketing, and the line between marketing and sales may be blurred.

If you look at things in months and years, you may not be considered serious or dedicated enough for the project. Israelis are persistent, don’t easily take No for an answer, so if you mean No, don’t understate it.

Israelis can physically stand too close to you, inside your personal space, but it’s normal, not pushy. They make direct eye contact but are not so good at shaking hands, which they have learned to do, but their handshakes are often very weak and they often don’t look you in the eye when shaking your hand; don’t take this to mean what it means in the US, it doesn’t. Call Israelis by their first names and let them know that they can call you by yours.

Israel’s have a unique gesture for asking you to wait, or letting you know that it will take a little while longer, palm up and cupped, fingers together, moving hand front and back at the wrist,  often combined with a facial expression. They often shout or speak quite loudly; this is not  necessarily a sign of anger, just emotion. At dinner, ask about family, culture, sports, history, and business – but not about the current government, politics, or religion. If your colleague is religious, be sure that the restaurant is kosher. Most Israelis don’t drink a lot of alcohol, but beer is acceptable.

From your perspective, what’s the business climate like for entrepreneurs (supportive vs. unsupported, culturally accepted profession vs not accepted, etc.)?

Israel probably has the world’s best business climate for entrepreneurs. There is extensive government and societal encouragement and assistance available for startup companies, as well as many sources of solid business information and a number of high quality MBA programs. Most citizens serve in the army, where they have often shouldered significant responsibilities at an early age, and have gained knowledge and skills that can serve them well in business. Founding a startup is a respected career choice, even among those who marry young and become parents early, with the risks being seen as balanced by the potential rewards.

For more information about Israeli entrepreneurs, I encourage you to contact Arlene Marom ([email protected] ). Arlene also regularly contributes content to EntrepreneurCommunityOnline.com as a business advisor.

Stay tuned next week when I interview another cross-border business expert!

Onward and Upward,

Becky Park

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The International Entrepreneur: Machismo in Latin American Business

I recently had a string of business experiences that have brought home the “Machismo” aspect of Latin American business culture, particularly Mexican culture. I’ve been asked to fetch coffee for colleagues. One director automatically assumed that I was the intern, not the strategist. Sometimes comments made by me or by another woman are conveniently ignored. The Latin American markets are more important than ever. Knowing how to deal with this issue is important for women doing business in parts of Latin America.

I think that the cultural traits underlying Machismo is that many Latin American business cultures give men and women well-defined cultural identities. Men are to be more prominent in business, including leadership positions. Women, particularly younger women, are assumed to have a lower status than their male counterparts. It’s not to say that more defined gender roles is necessarily bad or good – it’s just not part of my home business culture so adjustments are needed to be more successful. So here’s what I recommend to women finding themselves in this cross-cultural situation:

Remember It’s Not Personal

It’s easy to jump to taking offense. But taking a cultural behavior personally won’t advance you towards your business goals. Stay calm.

Dress the Part

Know the dress standards that your cultural counterparts expect. In many Latin American cultures, women hold a higher standard of grooming and a more traditional expectation of femininity. Dressing away from those expectations could make your counterparts feel very uncomfortable about your gender identity, which could impede business talks.

Assert Yourself and Your Status

If men are treating you at a lower status level than your real status, keep asserting your proper role. If you’re the head of your delegation, then make sure that your colleagues are openly deferring decision making to you. A more extreme example I’ve heard from a woman on a trade mission to Veracruz, Mexico was never to stand on the edge of a group picture. She was literally cut out of the official pictures on the Mexican side. So stand in the middle of the group, while at the same time showing off your impeccable business etiquette.

Don’t Forget the Ladies

There are women in all Latin American countries who have risen to the highest levels of business and government. Feel free to work on building camaraderie and relationships with these female colleagues. We can certainly work to help each other.

Best of success to all.  Onwards and Upwards,

Becky Park

The International Entrepreneur: Practical Advice for Cross Cultural Teams

teamwork-383939_1280A good friend of mine was recently hired into a sustainability marketing position at a U.S. company. “Sally” is an intrapreneur (someone who brings entrepreneurial innovation and passion into a larger organization). She recently invited me out to lunch to talk about the cross-cultural team questions that have come up on the job.

As with many cross-cultural teams, Sally won’t likely meet her team in person. They communicate over phone and through email. However, so far Sally feels like much of her team does not give her projects the attention and interest that Sally thinks they deserve. Her team is located in South Korea, Japan, 13 different EU countries, Canada and Mexico. Here was my advice:

1. Make sure that Sally’s initiatives are prioritized from the top. If the company views sustainability as a priority, then do the performance metrics for overseas offices reflecting that? Some countries value sustainability while others see it as a low priority. It may be time to do some internal campaigning.

2. Develop rapport and understanding individually. I know, I know, who has time to figure out what makes each team member tick? This effort pays off as a multiplier effect with international teams. In most of the countries, trust must be built before any serious business can be conducted. And if you’re the only one from corporate doing this, guess whose projects will get a boost in priority?

3. Keep groups on conference calls small. Sally currently talks with 13 European managers on one weekly call. Participation is low. Why not break up the call into smaller group calls? Sure it takes longer, but the results including buy-in and understanding increases significantly.

4. Find the right level of formality to make team members comfortable. Americans normally have a casual business style. In many Asian and Latin American cultures there are more rules, for example- about how people address each other (Mr./Ms. Or by job title in some places). If you’re trying to help team members to appreciate you, adjust to their style or some middle ground. My favorite reference book for business cultural rules is Negotiating International Business by Lothar Katz.

5. Make and laminate a “greetings cheat sheet”. People will appreciate you more if you can greet them in their own language. Sally’s list of 10 sets of language greetings should include “hello”,”goodbye”, “thank you”, and “please”.

6. Watch Mexican telenovelas. Sally has trouble connecting with her Mexican counterparts. They are all businesswomen who treat her with detachment. Besides Tip #4 (use more formality), you can start watching a popular Mexican telenovela. Mexican soap operas are wildly popular throughout Latin America. Since you’ll be new to watching, you can ask basic questions like: “Can anyone help me understand why Arturo was so cruel to Pamela when it seems like he is attracted to her?” It can really break the ice!

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The International Entrepreneur: Think you know American values?

American culture values doing business internationalLike most of my readers, my business focus is on the world. As an American doing business internationally, I see my fellow countrymen sometimes make assumptions about other business cultures and fall flat in business relationships. The American cultural traits listed below all have implications for Americans doing business abroad.

The world keeps changing, but I think it is important to note that cultural values tend to remain steadfast over time. The United States does not have a long cultural history compared with cultures like in China or India. But its cultural characteristics have been present since before the American Revolution. These traits may be applied in new ways to work within our changing environment, but understanding them gives key insights into how Americans approach business.

Caveat: These are culture generalizations and all traits to not necessarily apply to all Americans in all situations. They may be more or less pronounced in specific regions of the country.

Mainstream American Cultural Traits

1. A high value on “Material well-being”.Anyone traveling through one of the American suburbs can see this cultural trait in action. In its more extreme form, it is materialism. While some cultures share this trait, there are many cultures that rank this as a lower priority. Americans are often willing to sacrifice leisure time for work time, meanwhile all of France goes on vacation in August.

2. 2-fold judgment based on principle. Americans often look for the simple answer to complicated questions. This may be a reason why American businesspeople conduct business so quickly. We don’t always spend the time to understand the fuller context of a situation. Most international situations are nuanced and complex because of culture, business environment and customer preferences. We jump in based on a quick decision we’ve made about a potential partner or an opportunity. It is much more difficult getting out of sticky situations when we are wrong. This cultural trait explains a lot about American politics too. But that is a whole different subject.

3. Tendency of moralizing.In the American culture, we often judge based what is perceived as morally right or wrong without first understanding the context of a situation. For those wishing to do business with Americans, it may help to explain a situation when Americans throw down their opinion prematurely. For Americans, this means ask questions about a situation to understand context & don’t verbalize your conclusions.

4. Distinction between “work” and “play”. Americans do not usually socialize with colleagues and clients as much as in countries like Japan. In Latin America this distinction is blurred too. As Americans doing business abroad, you may be expected to be on call after work if the local culture expects it. For those doing business in the U.S., while there may be occasional dining together, do not expect that your American hosts will always see to your schedule outside of normal work hours. Also, do not necessarily expect to meet an American colleague’s family or friends.

5. Special attitude towards time. Americans focus on “Time Management” the ability to carefully plan our time in order to produce the right outcomes. A common expression in American business is: “Time is money.” The emphasis is on completing the task, the sales transaction, the hiring of new staff, etc. as quickly as possible. For Americans, please understand that the rest of the world knows about this trait and frequently uses it against us. That long, drawn-out negotiation in Thailand may actually be stretched out to encourage Americans to give more concessions. Americans, don’t share your actual timeline with international contacts. For those doing business with Americans, understand that when you feel Americans getting impatient with your long story, it may be time to make your point and move on to the next task or topic.

6. High value on Individual Efforts and Optimism. The American culture is supposed to be a meritocracy people’s fortunes rising and falling based on their individual efforts. This fuels the famous “American Dream” where anyone is supposed to be able to succeed with enough hard work. Americans want to be judged on their efforts, instead on the basis of their family name, socio-economic class, race, age, or gender. At work, we want to be compensated based on their efforts and results relative to their peers.

7. High value on Individualism and Individual Freedom. As Americans, we often focus on the “I” before the “we”. Others may see us sometimes as selfish and disconnected from the group dynamic. We need to be mindful of group context in order to be most effective internationally. When doing business with Americans, it is helpful to know that when the American decides to leave the group early to go do something they prefer, it is not necessarily considered rude in our culture.

8. When it’s man vs. nature, man wins. As Americans, we feel that we should have control over our physical environment. We can design structures to withstand most natural disasters. With medical procedures, we hope to avoid death. This trait also plays a role in some American’s view of Global Warming and our desire to find technologies that allow us to continue current energy usage with less environmental consequence.

9. Avoid uncertainty through legal process (courts, contracts, etc.) and goal setting. For Americans, a legal system should protect individual and business rights. Once someone signs a contract, they are legally obligated to follow its provisions. The contract serves as the foundation of most business relationships. In contrast, for many cultures a contract is not legally enforceable. The business is based on the relationship forged with individuals or enforceable by having friends in power. While such a foundation is much more flexible over time, it is difficult for many American businesspeople to adjust to relationships being more important than contracts.

10. Egalitarianism and Fairness. This value is part of the work environment as access to opportunity. While Americans have a wide range of socio-economic status, we at least try to give equal access for those with talent and drive to success in business. Women now get most of the same opportunities as men. Young people can lead older colleagues if they have the right skills. As a culture, Americans don’t like what they perceive as being unfair. Other cultures may feel that there is no way to be completely egalitarian, so there is little point in trying.

11. Importance of “belonging” – membership. While I believe that more “group-oriented” cultures stress “belonging” more than Americans do, I think Americans associate with others based on shared values. This could be by religious affiliation, hobby or interest, shared education, a passion for a cause, etc. Examples include: Methodists, Harley bikers and those raising funds for cancer research. The important aspect is that Americans decide for themselves what groups with whom they affiliate.

12. Humanitarianism and generosity. Americans are not the only culture to emphasize individual generosity and humanitarian traits. But we do expect that people and companies take social responsibility for issues around them. As an American, realize that not every culture expects similar actions. As someone doing business with Americans, consider contributing to or at least acknowledging a cause championed by the American company.

13. Nationalistic and patriotic. Again, Americans are not the only culture with this characteristic. But Americans need to be mindful that with our country’s relative size and might. Overt nationalism needs to be toned down in the international business environment or be perceived as arrogant and ignorant. And anyone still convinced of America’s exceptionalism should do their homework (education, healthcare, economic opportunities, best countries to do business, etc.) and join the 21st Century.

14.Religiosity (very religious). Religion does play a significant role in many Americans’ lives. It can provide structure for “belonging” to a same-values group. A religious organization often provides ways for its members to donate money and time to help others. Generally, it is wise for those doing business in the U.S. to avoid the topic of religion all together.

(Source of the original cultural trait list: Cross-Cultural Management by Dr. Kang-Rae Cho at the University of Colorado Denver)

I hope you found this article helpful as a perspective on doing business culturally as an American or as someone wishing to do business in the United States.Best of success to you in all of your international business dealings,

Onwards and Upwards,

Becky Park

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