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Sweet as! Or is that Sweet Ass?

One unexpected benefit of the past five weeks at Stanford is a much-increased portfolio of great music. I’m sitting here listening to an album of Spanish hip-hop recommended by one of my classmates, having already listened to an Icelandic rock album and some Swiss-German punk (apparently in English they were singing about how they can’t get a girlfriend without a three-day-old beard).  Not as bad a musical cocktail as you might think. And a great example of how our classmates are both the same, and different, from each other.

I’ve spent the last few days learning a lot about other cultures, helped by a few classmates, as we went on a weekend trip to the Napa valley. If you’ve never been, Napa is a sleepy little town – think Palmerston North without the nightlife – but has the attraction of being the main wine-growing area of the US. And by God they want you to know that when you are there – pretty much everything about the place screams “We make wine!”

Still, to be fair, it’s smashed my prejudices about American plonk, as I tasted some outstanding wines from small wineries. In fact, they are ALL small wineries here. It’s an area about the same size as Hawkes Bay, with almost every inch covered in vines, hotels or places offering expensive tasting tours.

And when I say expensive – try $60 for a single tasting glass of wine.  Pretty much all the wineries charge for tasting the wine (which always annoys me – it’s like a restaurant charging you to see the menu). It made me realise how lucky we are in NZ to have such outstanding wine on our doorstep. The American wine is good – very good even. However I’ll parochially assert ours is better and cheaper. Perhaps we should just increase the price…

This difference was one of many we discussed through the weekend as we learned more about each other’s cultures. For example, if you do business in Switzerland, you should always shake hands with female counterparts, but if you are in Quebec and don’t kiss on the cheek, you are being rude.

In some countries, there are 52 weeks of fully paid parental leave; in others, you are expected to be available on email or phone 24×7.  Some people find the way we NZers ask for things to be too indirect and apologetic (sorry); others find Russians and Germans abrupt and rude (“Give me a coffee”).  After a long discussion about managing people in the Ukraine (summary – be very direct), we concluded that the basic lesson is that we shouldn’t take our prejudices or expectations into other business cultures unchecked. What makes sense for one, seems crazy for someone else. 

Certainly this rings true from what I hear from our many NZTE teams across the world, who tell me that the #1 mistake NZ companies make when coming to the market is to assume that the way they work in NZ translates into a foreign context. It almost never does.  We need to dive in, learn what the local culture is like and then adapt.

Our strategy professor quoted Napoleon: “First we engage, then we see”. For me, a good lesson in this has been in my choice of tee-shirt. I was proudly wearing a shirt that quotes the great NZ phrase ‘Sweet As’ for the past few weeks, only to find out today from the concierge that this phrase has no meaning in US life, and worse, they interpreted the stylish text as having a extra ‘S’ at the end, meaning that instead of walking around with a positive message of relaxed happiness, I’ve been crudely telling Americans they have a great bum. Oops!

It was good to have such in-depth discussions about cultural differences to finish last week, as that was also been a big part of our classwork – building culture in organisations.  Disappointingly, there doesn’t seem to be any shortcut or silver bullets for this, it’s just careful hard work.

That said, the subject seems to be full of clichés – “If you can’t change the people, you should change the people”; “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”; and my personal favourite “You can lead a horse to water, but if it doesn’t want to drink, shoot it and have it made into glue, because it’s going to die of thirst anyway”.  Ok, I might have made up that last one, but I think it’s true and if I ever get around to it, I reckon I could write a whole business book with that title.  I wonder how it translates to Ukrainian…

Weight change since arriving: +1kg again. I was upset, but then I remember that muscle weighs more than fat so I assume that explains the change…

Exercise: 3 hours, but that included some serious boogying at the Australia / NZ / Africa party – better than any bootcamp.


David Downs is on the scarily high-powered Stanford University Executive Programme. When he isn’t there, he’s GM products and services for NZTE. He is also the author of No.8 Re-wired.

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