25 Jun 2015 16:44 IST

Make it in India and outside too

Tips on living and working in the US

Overseas projects, out-of-country kick-off meetings, responsibilities that transcend national boundaries — the new Indian manager is going places. Professionally, we Indians can be confident about being able to hold our own against any other nationality owing to our language skills and technical expertise. But many of us, when we step outside our comfort zones, experience a sense of unease. We find that things we take for granted in our own environments are simply not present in the new one. We discover that there’s a whole new set of rules for the game, but there’s no one to give us the rule book.

Over the years, numerous Indian managers, having been exposed to a Western work-cum-social milieu, have at our workshops asked questions on ‘Being Upworldly Mobile’ — on topics that most business establishments and B-schools don’t seem to spend time on. In this article, I share a list of FAQs and our responses. I have mentioned the US as a case study, but most advice works for other Western nations too.

In India, relationship building at work and socially is very important — I know Americans are transaction-oriented and not people-oriented — what are some tips for good relationship building?

Take interest in their interests. Learn a sport they all rave about, a holiday that is coming up and how they celebrate it. Read their newspapers and watch their TV shows. Talk about what they’re currently talking about. An interesting conversationalist helps build relationships. Also, it helps if you can run errands together or share tasks in and out of work. Car-pooling is a good relationship-builder.

But most of all cultivate a sense of humour and learn to laugh at yourself. Americans like light banter and humour.

Finally, make an effort to be knowledgeable about India, to explain via facts and figures in bite sized pieces. Americans like to learn from those who are succinct.

Three things that I can do in the US that will make me a success:

Don’t promise or say “yes” for something unless you are absolutely sure you can do it.

Be proactive about raising questions or issues if you see likely challenges or delays at work

Observe how they behave and communicate and adapt to that to succeed.

What is the etiquette to be followed at the coffee station or in the use of the microwave?

Queuing is sacrosanct.

Leaving the microwave as clean as you found it is good etiquette.

Not eating pungent Indian food would be wise in a common microwave area.

Water cooler conversations are usually light and non-substantial but are important to build rapport. Examples would be your plan for the weekend, or a film you ‘caught’ recently. Remember, unlike the frequent extended breaks we seem to take in India, in the West breaks are infrequent, short bursts and filled with small talk for rapport building.

When invited to someone’s house in India, we never go empty handed. Is it the same in the US? What would be appropriate gifts?

This courtesy works in most countries. Wine, chocolates, flowers, something small from India — maybe silk scarves or ties. The ubiquitous carved Indian elephant would be a nice touch. Arrive on time, give the neatly wrapped gift after you enter the home to the hostess.

When making small talk is it correct to ask about family? What can I talk about and what should I avoid?

Be friendly but don’t attempt to discuss intimate details about the family. For small talk, it is better to stick to the subjects of food, sport, weather, vacation travel. Family can be a topic only if they bring it up first, although you can offer a little bit of information about your family to start off. If they reciprocate with information about theirs, then show interest in their family too.

Avoid talking about wars and sensitive subjects between India and their country, like outsourcing bans or race-related issues.

How come they leave work at 5:30 sharp? We never do that.

They work hard and play hard. They make a clear distinction between efficiency and time spent. Unlike us, they don’t let personal time interfere with professional time. So they come to work and leave exactly on time. Theirs is a culture that works to live. We in India, on the contrary, might be veering towards living to work; we take several breaks, are relaxed about finishing, have no problem mixing the professional and personal. So we are ready to stretch our time too. But do we stretch efficiency is the question to ask ourselves. In India, a good employee is often one who is willing to work late, while in the West it would be the person who meets deadlines.

Are there any cultural tips for building a team in the US?

Competition is healthy and inter-team rivalry is considered good. So playing one group against the other builds motivation. Incentive schemes work well too, so plan some, and watch your team perform!