What Traveling Abroad Reminded Me About Improving Corporate Culture

What Traveling Abroad Reminded Me About Improving Corporate Culture

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine

This past winter break, my wife and I decided to travel to Italy for seven days. I almost couldn’t do it.

I was leaving my HR consulting business and entrepreneurship podcast for the longest stretch of time in the past seven years, and I was going overseas!

What happens if there’s a fire only I can put out?

Will my employees and consultants work as hard as they usually do?

Will my business crumble?

These are all of the irrational fears that crossed my mind leading up to our seven-day excursion to Milan, Rome, Italy and Venice. Thankfully, not only did I return from Europe with my business intact, I returned refreshed and inspired by the people and Italian culture.

Here are a few lessons about corporate culture I learned on vacation.

Think of New Hires as Foreigners Visiting a New Place

Have you ever considered how scary it is to drop into a new corporate culture?

The fact that I was heading to Italy did not sink in until my wife and I were traveling to the airport. Sure, I had packed our luggage and checked into our flight, but as a frequent business traveler, none of that was new to me. It was a routine I could do with my eyes closed thanks to my constant schedule of traveling for client visits, conferences, and family vacations here in the U.S.

But as we were heading up I-95, my wife did something different. She started playing an Italian language tutorial on Spotify. That’s when I realized that this was going to be a new experience, and I didn’t even know how to ask, “Where’s the bathroom?”

People who join your organization are new to all of the cultural norms, coded language, and ways of doing things. It shouldn’t have to take a trip overseas for you to step back and ask, “How newbie-friendly is our organization?”

Here are some practical suggestions to help make the transition from outsider to insider much more natural for new hires at your company:

Establish cultural ambassadors or mentors within each department who can speak to the history, future, and ways of getting things done at your organization

Prepare new hires with more than just onboarding paperwork before their first day. Create a welcome video or set up phone calls with future coworkers so they can ask all their questions and alleviate anxiety.

Develop an “I’m New Here” survey. Ask new hires to share the top five things they would like to know before their first 90 days at the organization. Follow up with them after those initial 90 days to see how well your company helps new employees adjust.

Understand Your Company’s Subcultures and Help Everyone Get Along

What are the rumors and misconceptions floating around your organization? What are different departments saying about each other?

As eager as my we were to explore our home base of Milan, we were just as excited to for our day trips to Venice, Florence and Rome. That excitement cooled a bit when one of our cab drivers shared negative views about the cultures, safety and people of these other cities. To be honest, his outlook had us slightly nervous.

“If Rome is so much more dangerous than Milan, should we even go there?”

People who have been working in your organization for a while tend to develop opinions about other people and departments. Office politics are often rooted in misunderstanding, and those misunderstandings cause people to speak ill of each other. Sometimes it only takes one Negative Nancy or Pessimistic Peter to sour the perspective of a whole team.

Here are some practical suggestions to help acknowledge sub-cultures and ensure they all work together for the greater good of your business:

Create cross-functional team meetings where every department sends a leader to share progress and challenges. This type of cross-functional status reporting helps leaders understand the value of other components of the business and creates pathways to holistic problem-solving.

Give different departments the opportunity to interact for reasons other than work. Plan social events, encourage mingling at lunch — anything to get people to communicate with one another and build trust.

Establish an unbiased way of celebrating wins and big news in every department. When you share remarkable stories without bias, you create trust across department lines.

Celebrate Your History, But Keep One Eye on the Future

Does your business worship monuments of the past or does it create an innovative culture focused on viability and success?

Have you ever been to Rome? It is amazing! We wound up not listening to the cabbie and had a blast on our one-day excursion. The city overall has a very urban feel, but some areas are preserved in time, as if you’re walking through an outdoor museum. I admired that the city is focused on developing new industries and infrastructure. Rome was not built in a day, and it will not continue to thrive on buildings created long, long ago.

How relevant would Rome be today if it relied solely on its legacy?

Here are some practical suggestions to help navigate the delicate balance between growth and preservation of culture:

Remember those cultural ambassadors? Invite their input when shaping new strategic goals for your organization.

Assess the competitive landscape. What trends do you see outside your organization that aren’t being implemented in your organization? What can you let go of in order to get in line with where your industry is moving?

“Because we’ve always done it this way” should be a trigger word for an early grave. If you find this mantra being often used in your organization, question it. If you build a culture rooted in preserving old ideals and beliefs, people who want to grow will do so by leaving your organization for something new.

In summary, the best way to improve your culture just might be to experience something new. Never lose sight of what it means to be an outsider in a foreign land and never forget that you can still honor your past while progressing toward the future.