David Smith

Dave Smith is a former US Marine and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. He is an avid adventurer, backpacker, and volunteer with travel in over 40 countries. Dave moved from the USA to Norway in December 2014 to pursue a serious relationship with his beautiful Norwegian girlfriend.

Technoport 2014
2David Smith

David SmithFebruary 10, 2015

An Introduction to Norwegian Business Culture

This week, I have continued to search for jobs, attend Norwegian language classes, work with recruiters, and attend networking events and conferences here in Trondheim in an effort to make myself a better candidate for job opportunities. I have learned very quickly that Norway has one of the most competitive and technical job markets in the world. My last blog post focused on some of the interesting aspects of US business culture and this post will focus on some of my reflections of Norwegian business culture thus far.

More than just oil

Norway is known for being an oil-wealthy nation and rightly so but that does not mean that Norway relies only on its oil exports as the main source of revenue. On the contrary, Norway (and Trondheim in particular) is one of the most technologically advanced and innovative societies in the world. Far from the days of fish, potatoes, and a strong reliance on agriculture, Norway is now a world leader in many technological sectors. In fact, Norway was ranked the #1 most prosperous country in the world for the sixth year in a row in 2014, according to the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index.

Priority of education

In the US, education is highly valued and the name of your university carries almost as much weight as your actual degree field. In Norway, all schools are viewed as being relatively equal and grades are commonly the most important factor. One of the biggest differences in Norwegian education is that students choose their intended career field very early on in life. Grades are extremely important and you can only receive a Masters or PhD in something that directly relates to your previous education. This in particular has been very difficult for me because I have a Bachelor’s in politics and international relations but wish to pursue a Masters in business. In the US, most people tend to get a mixed background of education as they progress through life, often moving from social sciences to business or from engineering to law, for instance. It also leaves me in a difficult place in terms of job search.

I think there are upsides and downsides to both approaches. Few people truly understand what they want to do at a young age so flexibility in degree choice makes sense; however, it is very understandable that in order to pursue a higher degree you should have previous training in that field. Regardless, Norway’s education system is world-renowned and the universities are especially good at teaching the math, science, engineering, technology, and business fields.

Never be late!

In my previous blog, I wrote about the importance of time management in US business culture; what I did not realize is that Norway pride’s itself on being one of the most punctual countries in the world. I found this out the hard way yesterday when I was two minutes late for an informal resume help meeting. In a follow-up email after our conversation, the person wrote “Next time, we can also talk about the topic of how Norwegians view the topic of being punctual”. When I asked my girlfriend, who is a HR coordinator, about this I was told very politely but very seriously “Norwegians pride ourselves on being on time. We are the second most punctual country in the world behind the Germans. We believe that if you are not on time, then you do not care”. It was a lesson that I will never forget. In the US, we are very timely but being delayed a few minutes is never a very big deal. Needless to say, I will be at least 15 minutes early for any meeting or business function from now on.

Job security

In Norway, it is quite difficult for an employer to fire an employee after the initial 3 month trial period. It is also uncommon for employees to be fired for under performing. Compared with the US, this is quite a novel concept. In the States, employees can be fired with almost zero notice, although 2 weeks is common notice. Although there must be proper grounds for firing an employee, job security is a key topic that is always at the back of Americans’ minds. It does make many of us work much harder, but it is also extremely stressful, especially if you have a family to support.

The Technoport Crowd

Bridging the income inequality gap

Norway ranks #1 in the world for overall equality, according to the Human Development Index, Norway also has some of the lowest paid CEOs in the world, in comparison with fellow employees. There is a much smaller gap between income classes in Norway and this translates into a much more overall feeling of equality. Compared to the United States, which has some of the most striking income gaps in the world, this is a new concept for me. I believe it enhances feelings of fairness, equality, and respect.

A casual workplace

In Norway, attire is generally more casual and working relationships are a bit more informal than in the United States. For instance, at my girlfriend’s company, she shares cake and soda with her coworkers and even the CEO on Fridays. In fact, the CEO sits at an open desk right next to her. This is quite a big difference from my working experiences in the US where CEOs work in plush corner offices down long, beautiful hallways guarded by security officers while most employees work in tightly crammed cubicles several floors below. Aside from banking and finance industries, casual attire is also common in most working environments.

Work-life balance

This is a key difference that sets Norway apart from the rest of the world. In the United States, we often feel like we live to work; in Norway, the approach is much more that people work in order to live. At first glance, Norwegian working hours appear somewhat lax, as normal business hours start and finish promptly from 0800-1600. In fact, you would be lucky to reach even a CEO after 1600. The truth of the matter, however, is that Norwegians are extremely efficient and task-oriented at work and when the working day ends, they are on to more important things such as family.

In Norway, family takes a huge priority even at work. It is not at all uncommon for someone to leave work 30 minutes early regularly in order to pick their kids up from school or take them to sports practice. They also can use sick days to take care of children if needed. This is in stark contrast to business in the USA where you are expected to work your full day and find a sitter or nanny to take care of your children. Sporting events, gym memberships, health classes, event discounts, leadership classes, and team building exercises are also commonplace and widely offered to employees.

Parental leave, Norway v USA

In the USA, there is no paid parental leave required by law. Mothers and fathers may each take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This often results in women who stay at work up until the baby is ready to be born and returning sometimes as soon as 1-2 weeks after giving birth. The physical and emotional stress that this can put on families is absolutely enormous. In Norway, on the other hand, parents get up to 12 months paid leave for 49 weeks at 100% salary or 59 weeks at 80% salary (split between them but there are some requirements).

By law, the mother MUST take 9 weeks paid leave after the child is born and the father MUST take a total of 14 weeks paid leave before the child turns 3 years old. Employers are generally very respectful of the parents’ choice in how to use the rest of the paid leave days. To me, as an American, this is absolutely incredible that a country cares so much about the health and welfare of it citizens and children that such parental leave policies are in place. A standing round of applause for you, Norway.

Equality is essential

This is hands-down one of my favorite aspects of Norwegian culture. Norway is staunchly pro-equality and works very hard to promote fairness and general welfare in all aspects of life. This week I attended a conference entitled “hvor bled et av alle jente”, which means “where have all the women gone” in business roles. The topic focused on women in leadership positions and equality in the workplace. Representatives and panelists included members from a variety of different business industries. It focused on the leadership, innovation, quality of work, and spirit that women bring into the workplace. It is good to see so much open and healthy discussion on the importance that people of all genders, races, beliefs, and backgrounds bring into the workplace.

Although Norway is a primarily heterogeneous culture and very proud of their background and traditions, the lifestyle and business culture here is very open and welcoming to all people which allows the country to be a melting pot for diversity, thought leadership, understanding, and values.

Gi Bort Dagen

Volunteering for all

In Norway, volunteering is a key aspect of work life. Many organizations encourage employees to volunteer in their local communities and will often allow some paid time off for those who wish to participate. Recently, I was introduced to one such idea that is put on here in Trondheim by Engasjert Byrå.

The idea is called Gi Bort Dagen, which roughly translates to “Give Away Day”. This idea came about when Marianne Danielsen realized there was an extra day in her calendar. Now a yearly event, on this day (February 26 this year), companies and employees are encouraged to clean up their offices, work space, or other areas and donate any unneeded items to charity. Volunteering in other services such as health, development, and children’s programs is also encouraged. As an American, small things like this that show the massive support, respect, and caring nature that Norwegians share, has truly helped me to understand why Norway is one of the happiest countries in the world, as ranked by the Human Development Index.

Summer time off

In Norway, employers are required by law to offer 25 paid vacation days per year, plus public holidays. Compare this to the incredible 0 (yes, that’s correct, ZERO) paid vacation days required by law in the USA. In the US, 15 paid vacation days is the average given to employees. So, no wonder that when the ice begins to melt and the sun comes out again to play, the Norwegians commonly take off about 4 weeks in the summer. During this time, business slows to a crawl and people will rarely even check their work emails. It is expected that in the summer, you enjoy time with friends, family, and nature.

Conclusion

There are some very stark contrasts between US and Norwegian business culture, primarily in income equality, holiday leave, job security, and work-life balance. While many of the advantages which Norway provides to employees are becoming more common in the USA, especially in leading companies like Google, there is still much catching-up to do. It is no wonder that Norway is ranked as the world’s happiest country.

Photos: Technoport 2014 & Maria Peltokangas

Captain America
2David Smith

David SmithJanuary 26, 2015

Doing Business in America

I’ve spent this month applying for jobs in Trondheim. It’s has made me think about some of the differences in business culture between the USA and Norway. I know a lot of people probably see shows like The Office and wonder how accurate that is to true US business culture. The answer is: it depends.

The US has a very aggressive “sink or swim” capitalism model that is supported by the availability of just about every imaginable good and service. In fact, the failure of some businesses and their replacement by a better-performing business is seen as a natural cycle. It is part of what drives the US business culture to continuously aim for peak performance. If you aren’t doing it well, someone else will, and you will be out of business. So, here are few basic concepts of US business culture:

Time is Money

Schedules, deadlines, and punctuality are essential assets of the working culture. If your project is not on time or early, you can expect to hear about it from your supervisor. If you are regularly late or if you consistently leave early, it will be noticed. Occasionally, picking kids up from sports or school events may be okay, but it is generally expected that you will work the full shift of your assigned hours. Likewise, business meetings generally are expected to start exactly on time and be very direct. Chatting and small talk should be done at another time and place.

If you really want to annoy your colleagues, show up to a meeting late and talk about things that are not directly related to the conversation. You will quickly notice people begin to check their watches or fiddle with pens as they wonder why on earth you are keeping them from the direct task at hand. In the US, attention spans are at a premium and anything not directly related to work is just causing that person to be away from their family or frozen TV dinner or gym class or whatever they have lined up for the evening.

Small talk

Most regular daily greetings such as “how are you?” or “Hi Bob, how are the wife and kids?” are generally more of an expression than a real question. As such, responses like “great”, “fine, thank you”, or “very well, and yourself?” are proper answers. These are not usually questions of interest so much as they are pleasantries. Go into too long of an explanation and you will likely find your partner looking at his/her watch and squirming for an escape route out of awkward conversation. Likewise, parting words such as “let’s get together sometime” or “we should do lunch” are also simple pleasantries, unless a date and time is suggested. Don’t be that weird guy who accidentally chases down a dinner meeting when all that was really meant was “goodnight, see ya later”.

Business cards

Photo by Tojosan

Business cards

This one in particular really cracks me up. In the US, business cards are exchanged almost as often as handshakes. Often, it is just the quickest and simplest way of transferring contact information. At cocktail parties or business luncheons, I generally go home with an entire pocketful of business cards. Throughout the night, I make it a point to keep a pen in my pocket and write notes following the conversation if I am interested in following-up.

For instance, if we speak about a particular position or program that I am interested in then I will most likely keep that card at the top of the stack and write a couple of short notes about our conversation so that I can start the conversation via email form where we left off. This shows initiative, attentiveness, and true interest. Most of the other business cards, however, go into a rolodex just in case it should prove useful later.

Yes. No. Maybe.

Generally speaking, in US business culture, “yes”, “no”, and “maybe” mean exactly that. In many Asian cultures that I have traveled to, the answer is almost always yes, simply out of courtesy. In the US, this is not the case. When we say no, we mean it. Likewise with yes. Maybe literally means “it’s a possibility, let’s follow up”.

Facts and figures

When I worked on Wall Street, we were told to read the Wall Street Journal daily and to be able to hold conversation on things such as the current prices of oil or gold, the general trends in the stock market, and any major news relating to the financial industry. You never know when you may find yourself in an elevator with an executive or on the trading floor with a curious visitor from one of the listed companies. Knowing specific details and numbers will set you apart from your coworkers immediately and give you a reputation for being quick and knowledgeable. You definitely don’t want to be that guy who responds with “yep, the market sure is up today” when in reality it’s down 50+ points on the DJI. When I worked at NYSE, I checked the main indexes at least every 15-20 minutes.

Mind your manners

In American business culture, proper greetings and good manners are a necessity. Opening doors for others, especially for women, holding the elevator door, and using words such as “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me” are expected. In some places around the world it is perfectly fine to run through an open door and then let it crash in someone else’s face. Not in the US. Don’t be that person.

Dress to impress

There is a saying that “clothes make the man”. While this is not directly true, it does have some truth to it. Whether your suit costs $100 or $2,000 is not so much of an issue but what does matter is how you wear it. A suit that fits well, a belt that matches your shoes (brown/brown or black/black), trousers that are properly tailored, hair that is neatly combed, and general hygiene are extremely important. I believe that you should show up to work every day as if it were an interview. Depending on your sector and job function, casual clothing may be more appropriate; however, even casual clothing should be clean, well fitting, and professional. Never be sloppy. You are a direct representation of the organization you work for.

After work drinks

Grabbing beers or cocktails after work is an extremely common part of US business culture. It is a good way to get to know your coworkers, relax, and have fun. Business culture in the US is so formal and strict that getting a chance to know one another outside of business is a really great way to build personal relationships. However, make sure that you don’t drink too much or make a fool of yourself. Although you may not be working, you can guarantee that it will be held in a negative light if you are clearly drunk. Limit yourself to one or two casual drinks and then head home. It shows self-control, professionalism, and still lets people see that you can take the tie off and relax after work.

Remember, although you are off the clock, you walk a fine line anytime you are together with coworkers. You should always be professional. If it’s your desire to go out and have a lot of drinks, that’s fine, but part ways first and head to another venue. If you’re the one dancing on top of the bar all night, it will definitely get some laughs, but it may also cost you your next promotion.

Have fun!

Even though all of these previous tips make it sound like US business culture is scary and always serious, that’s not the case. Work should be fun, regardless of what you do. My first day at the New York Stock Exchange as an intern, I “high-fived” everyone in the office; and then I sat down at my desk and got to work. It was my way of saying “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m friendly and I like to have fun but I’m also here to get work done.”

By being the positive, upbeat, happy guy at work, I always build amazing relationships and help others realize that even though there is work to be done, there is also room to smile. Everyone wishes work was more like The Office and a little fun goes a looong way in US business culture if you do it properly.

In my next post, I will cover some of the most interesting aspects of Norwegian business culture and how they pose difficulties or benefits to foreigners.

Do you have the mindset to succeed globally?

Join us in Trondheim, Norway, on 18 & 19 March as we seek to awaken the entrepreneurial mindset at Technoport 2015.