The Differences in Corporate Culture in the U.K. vs. the U.S.
It's well-known that growing a startup is no easy task at the best of times. But, growing a startup in a foreign country holds some of its very own challenges. Having spent 10 years in the U.S. at Intuit before moving to London in 2016 to kickstart the growth of Judopay, a digital payments processing company, it has been a steep learning curve for me to understand the differences in corporate culture between the U.K. and the U.S.
Many companies have tried and failed to successfully launch businesses from the U.S. to the U.K. and vice versa.
In 2008, Best Buy came into the U.K. market through a 50 percent stake in Carphone Warehouse for $2.1 billion. The intention was to grow significantly and open 200 stores across the U.K. However, Best Buy managed only to open 11 stores, and even then, they all closed due to unsatisfactory results before the end of 2011.
Famously, Tesco gave it a go the other way around. Trying to break the American market seemingly ran up more than £1.5 billion of investment bills and accumulated losses over a five-year period. Unsurprisingly, Tesco decided to retreat from the U.S. market. And it wasn't alone. Tesco's withdrawal followed the withdrawal of a lot of British favorites before it: Marks & Spencer, WH Smith, Dixons and HMV all failed to be successful in the U.S. market.
There are multiple reasons these companies didn't succeed, and each failed for a different reason when compared to the next. Coming from the U.S. to the U.K., to run a U.K. business, I was conscious of these challenges and I wanted to make sure I fully observed the landscape before implementing any big changes.
When I first arrived, there were a few cultural differences that immediately struck me. Some I have taken to; some I have tried to alter slightly with an American slant on British culture.
For example, one of the biggest things I noticed was the focus on the needs of the shareholders in the U.K, and the fear the board brings. This is a British thing. In America, the focus is on the customers and the employees, and that's where I push Judopay to spend its time.
America certainly has a strong reputation for being customer-centric. There's an honesty and positivity to American companies' communication with their potential consumers. Examples of this are everywhere in the States. My favorite might be the Dollar Shave Club. With advertising that is truly honest, it tells the truth with bells on. Or more accurately, it tells the truth through a man in a bear costume, swinging a machete.
And there are many learnings we can take from the customer-centric nature of Americans. Judopay has a company ethos to "wow and delight" its customers and employees. For customers, this means (among other things) providing 24/7/365 customer service and celebrating their successes with them. For employees, this means monthly goal setting, skip-level meetings and unlimited holiday.
Judopay focuses on customer-driven innovation. It grows with its customers. If there is a piece of technology the client requires to meet the needs of its own customers, then Judopay build it. Judopay proactively develops to be ready for the expansion of its customers. If development does not help the end consumer, that development is not a priority.
The second big learning was around long-term versus short-term decision-making. Training in the U.S. centers around knowing when to make each type of decision. Sometimes you have to make a snap decision that is immediately implemented. Sometimes a longer term play is needed. It's hard to know which one is needed when and making that call can be as difficult as making the decision itself. In the U.K. this is not the primary thought. I often find my employees taking the "consultantcy approach," deep in research and data, pulling together PowerPoints on various options, before they have considered whether this needs to be a snap decision.
The final and biggest adjustment has been understanding that American employees behave differently from British employees. In the U.K., it's more challenging to create culture employees love. In America, there is an expectation that employees work hard and work long hours. If there is working to be done, they knuckle down to complete it. In the U.K., you have to capture the heart and minds of your employees. Only when your employees are truly invested in the direction of the company do they choose to work the American way. Perhaps it's a generational shift here in the U.K., but it's certainly a different way of working. This is not something you can lift and shift and then simply implement in the U.K. It is a culture you have to understand and nurture.