illustration: Jim Pavlides
Doing business in Australia should be easy.
After all, they speak English, right?
True, but after living and working in Australia for 35 years (from the US), I can tell you that Australians see the world very differently than you do.
Australia and the US share many economic, political and cultural antecedents but they’re still two different places.
11 things to remember if you want to do business successfully in Australia.
- Australians Are Worldly. Australians travel abroad young, early and often. Australians follow US politics, sports and commerce. Consequently, Australians know far more about you than you know about them. In business, your ignorance is their edge.
- We Ride In Front. By custom, the Australian Prime Minister rides in the front seat with the driver and prefers to be addressed by first name. The US President, however, always ride in the back of a town car and must always be addressed as “Mr. President.” In business, the title on your business card impresses nobody, unless you back it up with expertise.
- Bridges not Towers. Leadership is fraternal in Australia. Business leaders build bridges with followers so that staff and colleagues can see a future and feel secure about taking the necessary steps to arrive there together. The US style of authoritative, ‘take charge’ leadership simply grates here. Australian leaders win the respect of peers and followers by virtue of character and competence rather than by title or position. Issuing orders from on high won’t accomplish much here.
- Tourist or Transplant? Within 20 minutes of meeting an American business person working in Australia I can tell whether they’re a Tourist ie, just spending time here getting their ticket punched for their next corporate role; or a Transplant ie, someone fully engaged with the local Aussie culture. You don’t have to go native to succeed in Australia but who wants to work for a Tourist? Far better to be a Transplant and take an active interest in your new surroundings, especially if you want to be respected and listened to by your peers, staff and customers.
- Love Our Labour Laws. US employers may find Australian labour laws as odd and generous. Privacy rules restrict what you can ask candidates, employees receive a bewildering array of entitlements, and laws can differ from state to state within Australia. What applies in the US simply doesn’t apply here. So seek professional advice (contact me for recommendations) because, as one lawyer told me, “employment law is one area of business where operating without good legal advice is like walking around with a ‘kick me’ sign on your back”. So embrace the local labour laws and remember that every problem you may face has already been solved by someone now operating successfully in Australia.
- Non-Risky Business. Australians purportedly take fewer business risks than the US and significantly fewer than the British but are ranked far ahead of conservative nations such as France, Belgium, Japan and Greece. Moreover, research indicates that Australians do not regard failure as a learning experience, as do Americans. If Australian business is risk averse it’s probably due to being a small—but robust—economy that gets buffered significantly by trade winds emanating from the US, Europe and China. Australia has had 22 continuous years of economic growth and it’s not accidental. Prudent management of risk is the Australian way.
- Whatever works. Leadership studies highlight Australia’s readiness to accept something that works, whereas US leadership requires reassurance that everything is done to specification. A flexible and practical style is a strength of Australian management. It’s why Australians work well within teams and get on with the job.
- Football Tells All. Among a 50 nation study, Australia is 2nd only to the US as the most individualistic. But unlike the US, Australian organisations prefer flexibility and autonomy in the workplace. Issuing orders to Australia from an overseas headquarters, without local input, generates either resistance or rebellion. A sports analogy illustrates the difference. Australian football is fluid and lacks structured play. There are plans but the team relies on flexibility and innovation among individual players to achieve team objectives. American football uses structured plays (identical versions of which are used by every other team) that are highly detailed, explicit, and tailored to each player’s designated purpose. Both approaches work well, but not in both sports.
- Life/Work Balanced. Work is only a part of life in Australia. It’s not the all-consuming activity that dominates life in the US. Evidently the balance is correct because Australia is not only ranked the happiest country in the world, it’s also the richest (judged by median income) and has the best distribution of wealth among developed nations. You keep your work ethic, we’ll keep ours.
- We’re all equal here. Really. Australian business is much less hierarchical than other countries. Senior executives are more open and accessible than in other societies. For example, I passed in the street recently John Howard, Australia’s 2nd longest serving Prime Minister. He was unattended and walking alone, just another citizen on a stroll. Once, several years ago, Australia’s 3rd longest serving Prime Minister, Bob Hawke and his wife, sat at the table next to me in a restaurant. Nobody stared. Nobody commented. Nobody did anything, except the young waiter who said, “hi Bob, the usual?” We really are equal in Australia. That’s how we like it.
- Borrow Some Fluency. You don’t really need to understand the intricacies of Australian culture when doing business in Australia but somebody does. Australians and Americans speak English but, to quote G.B.Shaw’s joke, they are “two peoples separated by a common language”. So if you’re not fluent in Australian ways, you can borrow mine.