From the book – Of pain, suffering, and inefficiencies


Not quite as romantic as you'd like to think...

Not quite as romantic as you’d like to think…

God, was that painful. You couldn’t get a damn’ thing done. Weather-related disruptions threw a wrench in everybody’s schedules and working styles, putting already tight deadlines at risk, and putting everyone on edge. Patience wore thin, tempers got hot, and nobody seemed able to reach anyone else – by email, phone, or IM. Exasperated and feeling the fetid warmth of management’s goal-oriented, results-driven breath on the backs of our necks, Anglo and Gallic factions spent a whole lot of time bitching about each other behind their backs, with managers doing double duty as confidantes and referees.To say there was tension, would be an understatement. The political divide was pronounced, and the antagonism was clearly bilateral. Our French colleagues made precious little effort to understand or accommodate American working styles, and those of us stateside returned the favor. There didn’t seem to be the least bit of interest in resolving our “dynamics.” Confusion ruled day, in terms of how things got done, and nobody was budging, either way.

Only one thing would solve our fractiousness, as we leapt from the starting gate of the new year. The American half of the team were ordered to get our asses to Paris for a little Kumbaya, shared meals, and an all-day team-building session led by an official facilitator whose job it was to strengthen the Franco-American connection. The intent was to rally and unite us as a cohesive new organization. The only thing the experiment accomplished was keeping us from getting our work done and giving us new reasons to dislike and distrust one another, as we sat around a U-shaped configuration of tables, Americans on one side, French on the other. But it checked the “team-building” box on our manager’s goals, so victory was declared. Now that we were all in alignment, we could continue with our first quarter meetings and calendar year agendas, which now included even more trans-Atlantic collaboration.

So, less than a month later, it was back to France.

 

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From the book – Winters of our discontent


FlowI was more than happy to quit traveling after three back-to-back trips. I love to travel, but I also love sleeping in my own bed in the heart of winter. Most of the nomadic enthusiasm was in the hearts of middle managers, who seemed to delight in turning their direct reports’ lives upside-down for the first three months of each year. It was expensive, counter-productive, and it came at a terrible time of the year. Every traveler had to pay out of pocket for up-front travel expenses; company credit cards were available, but reimbursement usually lagged enough to require personal funds to cover the amount.

What’s more, three trips to Paris in the first quarter was murder on project planning and execution. A full schedule in the US is not helped by a week of trip prep, followed by week-long absences from the offices, followed by another week of jet-lag – for every trip you make. To top it all off, northeastern snowstorms had an uncanny ability to coincide with my travels abroad, which put me in deep debt to neighbors who repeatedly cleared 18-24” of snow from my driveway, so I could actually reach my house on my return. And to top it all off, being away from U.S. winters was no great relief; the weather was often just as crummy in France as it was in the northeastern United States.

I’d had some less-than-stellar visits, with gray skies and damp cold, in the past. But the 2013-2014 winter was one of the most challenging ones in recent memory – and that was on both sides of the Atlantic. Winter in Paris is seldom fun, with lots of rainy, gray days, and sometimes a bit of snow. But the weather had turned nasty in a big way, dumping more snow than the Paris municipality was prepared to clear out of the way, and screwing up the flow of their already cold and gray daily grind. Several times that winter, they’d gotten not one or two, but four inches of the stuff. And without proper plows, shovels, and ice melt, the city and its vicinity had skidded to a halt. Buses didn’t run. Drivers were told to stay off the roads. People were told to lay low. Many folks worked from home, but nobody went to the office. And from home, their connectivity wasn’t great, which made communication even more of a challenge. In short, that winter sucked.

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How it all began…


From the book Zen and the Art of Moto Taxi Survival:

When I stepped out into the blinding glare of a Roissy morning, little did I know I’d feel like a different person, by the time I got to my hotel. I was a senior web manager with one of Europe’s top technology companies, overseeing a team of 20+ associates, running projects that spanned the enterprise in 25 countries on 5 continents worldwide. When I wasn’t on conference calls with Japan, China, Korea, or Singapore, I was coordinating marketing activities with colleagues throughout Europe, Latin America, and ANZ. I was on-call pretty much 24/7, my days often started around 4:30 a.m., and the action could keep coming till around 10:00 p.m. A 40-hour work week was a nice thought, usually reserved for lulls when my European colleagues were on vacation for the month of August. That dreary spring day was nowhere near August, and there was work to be done.

I’d flown to Charles de Gaulle International Airport on the red-eye, hoping to get a jump on my meeting schedule before my American colleagues arrived the next day. This was my third business trip of the year, and it was barely March. It was also my second trip to the Paris area in less than a month. And another was in the early planning stages.

Groan. 

You might think this was a great thing. Who wouldn’t love going to Paris – let alone three times a year?

Well, I, for one.

Looking back, it seems odd that I would feel the way I did. After working for a global corporation based in Paris, France, for four years, I’ve been stateside since March, 2014. How time flies. And how different my life is now, compared to then.

When I tell my current coworkers about my last job — when I tell current coworkers about my last job, actually — they almost always tell me how envious they are of my past opportunity. The chance to travel, the chance to spend time in Paris… What could be wrong with that?

See, here’s the thing — traveling to Paris for fun and pleasure is a very different experience than traveling there for business. You’re not there to enjoy the cuisine and take long, langorous walks by the Seine. You’re going there for work.  And when you’re working in an environment where people normally fly around the world as a matter of course, it doesn’t actually seem like that big a deal. Everybody does it. A lot. It’s just part of your life. It’s just part of your regular day. Talking to people all over the planet and flying to and from to visit them, is just what you do for your work.

Looking back, the contrast between my “grounded” life now, and my life in a global corporate environment seems like night and day. They really are two different things, and “going global” doesn’t come naturally to everyone. I’m one of those people who really took to it. I lived in Europe for several years, back in the late 1980s (before the Berlin Wall came down and East and West reunified throughout Europe), and I’ve been back and forth across the Atlantic a number of times, since then. I actually grew up in a very global village — literally. We had one stoplight in town, just down the block from the little grocery store, but because there was an international agency headquartered there, you could walk down the street and encounter people from anywhere and everywhere in the world.

So, “doing the global thing” came naturally to me.

However, having to haul myself all over creation in back-to-back trips, left something to be desired.

I discuss this a lot more in the book.

You wouldn’t think that France is all that different…


Everyone’s driving at top speed – who will cross the finish line first?

… than America. After all, the populations are very similar, with a fair amount of diversity overlaying a Western Caucasian “base”.  We have a lot in common, France and the United States, and we’ve been fighting on the same sides in a number of conflicts. Heck, the USA even inherited conflicts from France — I’m thinking of Viet Nam. Not always to our advantage…  but there you have it.

In any case, when we travel abroad, especially to Western European countries, we Americans can lose sight of the considerable differences between our countries and cultures. We may not even be aware they exist.  A lot of us go to Paris for vacation — passing through or staying a while — and plenty of American college students spend at least some time in la France.

But traveling for pleasure and business are two different things. And when you’re doing business — as a full-fledged adult — in a commercial context, the separation between the two countries can become quite pronounced.

Prohibitive, even.

In the years that I worked for a company based near Paris, the differences were a source of constant bafflement and frustration for both sides. A lot of what  Americans did, didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to the French. And vice versa, for sure. The odd thing was, there was no concerted effort on the part of Management to help anyone overcome the blocks. I’m quite sure it impacted the bottom line, but there was an almost carefree indifference about the cultural divides between France and the USA.

As though it were simply our jobs to deal with it.

As though “it” (being the divide) didn’t exist at all.

Looking back, it seems odd. Or maybe it was A French Thing, where you pay no attention to the seething chaos around you, and simply go on your merry way as though all is well. I certainly saw plenty of that in the lower ranks. Perhaps it reached northwards up the ladder as well.

In any case, we were left to our own devices to figure things out, sort out how to deal with one another — or not. Some of us did it better than others.

Some of us just picked up and left.

Others hung in there and toughed it out.

Bottom line is, France and the USA are really quite different – especially when it comes to corporate culture. And when you’re an American working for a French company, be aware. And beware. There’s potholes on that thar race track to greatness.