While guest lecturing for my friend’s entrepreneurship course at Purdue University, a student asked me, “As a global company, do you run into cultural barriers when working with companies in different parts of the world?”
It’s a good question. In Germany, we’ve learned to avoid making jokes about German culture during business meetings (oops). In Asia, we’ve learned to respect titles and take business cards seriously. In eastern Europe, we’ve learned to use vocabulary words other than volunteering in order to avoid any association with Stalin’s forced “volunteer Saturdays” from the Communist era. We’ve learned that it’s two kisses in France and Spain, in the Netherlands it’s three, and in the UK … well, I’ve never quite figured out what the rules are in the UK. We learn by trial and error, by research, and mostly by gentle guidance from our global friends.
But what about Australia?
In August 2016, Realized Worth co-founder Chris Jarvis and I traveled to several major cities across Australia to provide workshops for companies and nonprofits interested in employee volunteering. These workshops were initiated by Volunteering Western Australia and hosted by the country’s other “peak bodies”[ref]An association of organizations – similar to United Way in the US[/ref] including Volunteering SA&NT, Centre for Volunteering (NSW), Volunteering Victoria, Volunteering Queensland, and Volunteering ACT in Canberra.
Australia’s Lessons for the Rest of Us
First of all, it’s one kiss. (And the Sydney Herald published some strong opinions about it!) Second, this country knows how to host a guest and Realized Worth could not be more grateful for the incredibly warm welcome, eagerness to learn, and willingness to teach.
Don’t be the US, but don’t be Canada either.
Apologies for the stereotypes I am about to perpetuate, but here goes: the US is perceived to be a culture that will do whatever it takes to be first to market. Fail first, fail forward, go big, be loud, don’t miss out. There are clearly pros and cons to this approach. Canada, on the other hand, is perceived as an incredibly cautious market that requires multiple proofs of concept before taking the next step. This approach also has its pros and cons. But which is better?
In terms of corporate programs, Australian companies seem to have discovered a reasonable middle ground. Evidenced by the strong attendance at the workshop series, companies are eager to learn about innovative, global practices. They’re inquisitive about what works and why. Rather than diving headlong into the most recent “best” practice, they weigh the options and take conscious steps forward into ideas that are likely to succeed as well as push past the boundaries of what’s been done before.
Want some examples of companies in Australia doing great work? Check out Bankwest, Atlassian, Woodside, Deloitte Australia, and Alcoa. We heard incredible stories and saw great work coming from the men and women leading the charge at these organizations.
Earlier, I described Australia’s “peak bodies” as being similar to United Way here in the US, with autonomous expressions of the main organization in strategic locations across the country. The incredible thing about Volunteering Australia is the collaboration and coordination that takes place between the peak bodies.
While Volunteering WA initiated the workshop series and informed each state of the opportunity, they let the peak bodies choose how to advertise and hold an event in a way that made sense for their area. Because of this coordination, companies and organizations were able to send their employees in each state to the workshops and receive the benefit of similar training and the resulting shared language.
The peak bodies also meet on conference calls regularly to share updates, ideas, and innovative practices. Together, the whole of Volunteering Australia is working together to move their country forward effectively. As a US citizen, I admire this willingness to share and make progress together as opposed to competing and holding each other back.
Know your own challenges and opportunities
Check out this report, State of Volunteering in Australia, published by Volunteer Australia and sponsored by PwC to learn more about the challenges and opportunities Australian companies face when it comes to volunteering.
In comparison to organizations in the US, Volunteering Australia may seem tiny, but they are mighty in their efforts to spread awareness of the challenges the country faces in order to innovate toward solutions. The studies and research coming out of Australia related to volunteerism is strong. In fact, Realized Worth has been reading the country’s reports since 2008! The simple commitment to an honest assessment of the current situation is positioning Australia to take over leadership in the field of employee volunteering in the next 5-8 years.
Adopt a humble posture
Maybe it’s a stretch to offer this observation as learning, but there’s a practice in Australia that demonstrated a meaningful posture of humility. It allowed me to believe without hesitation in the authenticity of employee volunteerism efforts around the country. It is the formal acknowledgment of the original owners of the land – the aboriginal people – whose presence and history in Australia remains a complicated one.
Before every formal meeting or presentation, the host begins by saying: “I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land…“ They then name the local Aboriginal tribe and pay respects to the elders. It’s a little different each time. Here’s how it sounded at a workshop in Canberra:
I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land on which we are meeting, the Ngunnawal people, and pay respect to the Elders of the Ngunnawal Nation both past and present. I extend this respect to all Aboriginal peoples in attendance today.
It’s expected. It’s heard silently and respectfully by everyone in attendance. It’s always a little emotional, at least for me. Perhaps for some this ritual carries other meanings that are not particularly positive. Perhaps there are issues that deserve greater acknowledgment than simply the history of who once lived on the land. My guess is that this ritual represents one small step toward major work that has yet to be done. And that’s okay. It’s reality we’ve signed up for, not false optimism. Beauty and ugliness walk hand in hand.
Want to learn more about the great work of Volunteering Australia and the peak bodies? You can find more information as well as contact information for each organization here.
Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs for companies around the world. Want to discuss your program with us? We’ll be happy to hear from you! Find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.