Mapping and reinventing cultures. Radical responsibility. Counting tiles and waiting in line. That long lunch may be your ticket. And other insights from a conversation with business thinker Erin Meyer.
In Erin Meyer’s first book, there’s a point where she assumes the persona of a Danish designer exasperated at how much time she’s having to spend socializing with would-be manufacturing partners in Nigeria: “Can’t we just get down to business and sign a contract?” The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business answers that by mapping cultural expectations around the world when it comes to leading or communicating, persuading or disagreeing, giving feedback or setting an agenda.
Meyer served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana 1993–95 and is a professor at INSEAD in Paris, one of the world’s leading business schools. Published in 2014, her book quickly caught the attention of business thinkers and leaders around the world. One of them: fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and Netflix founder Reed Hastings. That led to Meyer’s second book, co-authored with Hastings and published in 2020, No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention.
She spoke with WorldView editor Steven Boyd Saum. Excerpts.
BEGINNING: TEACHING AND LEARNING
I always wanted to be in the Peace Corps. My parents were psychologists, really interested in other parts of the world; we often traveled to kind of remote areas. I served in Botswana, and I taught English in a rural school. There was no electricity, no running water. When I look back, it’s clear my whole career started in Botswana. Teaching junior high school classes of 40 and 50 kids, I had to learn how to be engaging in front of a group. I’m often a keynote speaker; everything I learned started with trying to figure out how to get these kids’ attention.
I had a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? and I would come home from teaching and spend hours working through the activities. I determined I was going to be a cross-cultural consultant and teacher. Then, back in Minnesota, for a couple years I ran the English Learning Center, a program for Hmong and Somali immigrants and refugees. Most were illiterate; they needed to learn how to read and write and speak in English. It was a natural step from what I had been doing in the Peace Corps, where I had learned so much about curriculum development.
BOOK 2: NO RULES RULES
There is no way that I would have written that book with Reed if not for the Peace Corps. He seemed to trust me more because of the Peace Corps experience. He reached out to me as a Peace Corps Volunteer, not as the CEO from Netflix. That was the second point. The first point was, I was in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, just around the corner from where you were.
We spent dozens of hours together preparing the book. I always felt we had that grounding. Swaziland, now Eswatini, is the same tribe as Botswana; the languages are very similar. The words that he knew are really similar to words I knew in Setswana.
Photo by Brett Simison
TILES AND BUSES
Reed doesn’t generally think in stories, and I really needed a story from him to start the chapter on Netflix going global. I kept asking, and it was like peeling an onion. Finally he said, “Here’s a story you might like.”
When I moved to rural Swaziland in 1983 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, it was not my first international experience, but it was the one that taught me the most. It took only a few weeks for me to recognize that I understood and approached life very differently from the people around me.
One example came in my first month of teaching math to 16-year-old high school students. The kids in my class had been selected because of their strong mathematical abilities, and I was preparing them for upcoming public exams. On a weekly quiz I provided a problem that, from my understanding of their skill set, they should have been able to answer:
A room measures 2 meters by 3 meters. How many 50-centimeter tiles does it take to cover the floor?
Not one of my students gave the accurate response and most of them left the question blank.
The next day in class I put the question on the blackboard and asked for a volunteer to solve it. Students shuffled their feet and looked out the window. I felt my face becoming flushed with frustration. “No one? No one is able to answer?” I asked incredulously. Feeling deflated, I sat down at my desk and waited for a response. That’s when Thabo, a tall, earnest student, raised his hand from the back of the class. “Yes, Thabo, please tell us how to solve this problem,” I said, jumping up hopefully. But instead of answering the question, Thabo asked, “Mr. Hastings, sir, please, what is a tile?”
My students lived mostly in traditional round huts, and their floors were either made of mud or concrete. They couldn’t answer the question because they didn’t know what a tile was. They just couldn’t fathom what they were being asked to assess.
In Botswana we had combis, vans that run on prescribed routes. People would wait and the combi would come. The first time I went to get on one, the combi pulled up and I thought, Okay, I was here third, I’m going to get into the combi third. But everybody just muscled their way in. It didn’t take me long to realize, Erin, you better just muscle on like everybody else.
I have a chapter in The Culture Map about waiting in lines. That’s not the way I was taught in Minnesota — but you know, it works.
In The Culture Map, my trusting scale looks at two different kinds of trust. There’s cognitive trust, from your brain: You’re on time, you do good work, you’re reliable, I trust you. Then there’s affective trust, from your heart: I feel this emotional bond, this personal connection with you. Because of that, I trust you.
In a country like the U.S., we have a strong emphasis on cognitive trust in a business environment and affective trust for home. In most every emerging market country in the world, affective trust plays a much larger role in a work environment. There’s a concrete reason: If institutions are not reliable yet, and legal systems are not reliable, it makes it very difficult to do business with strangers. In the U.S., we can easily do business with people we don’t know, because the legal system supports us. You can buy my product; we’ll sign a contract, and if you don’t pay, I’ll sue you. The legal system will allow that to work.
But if we’re in many countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve, the legal systems may not be so reliable. We have to find ways to use our relationships to get things done.
When I think back, when I was teaching in Botswana, I had a very transactional relationship with the headmaster, whereas many of the local teachers had these father-child relationships. He was the paternal figure. I felt, I try to do a good job, get my students learning as much as possible, and that’s it. I never had a trusting relationship with him. As an older person, I’d go back and do it differently the next time.
Of course, in today’s world things have become more complicated with COVID. It’s hard to build emotional bonds when we can’t meet face to face. I’m always telling my clients that they have to invest in their Zoom calls — get to know each other personally.
LUNCH IS YOUR TICKET
For U.S. Americans, trust is all about: We sit down, figure out how we’re going to work together — how can I help you and how can you help me, and how can this project work out? We want a friendly relationship, but mostly we want to invest time in getting that project done well. If you’re trying to do business in Colombia and you take that route, you’re not going to get anything done. I worked with a U.S. team trying to do a merger in Colombia; they went to Colombia for a meeting, and in the morning they got down to business. Then it gets to be lunchtime and they go out to lunch. An hour, and the Americans are looking at their watches. An hour and a half, two and a half hours — that’s making the Americans really nervous. I know Peace Corps Volunteers have had that experience: How am I going to get anything done with all of this wasted time? When I was 23 years old or so, I felt, This is my first opportunity to really make a difference. I wanted to come in, get stuff done: set up the school newspaper and the art room, get my kids learning. I didn’t take the time to invest in relationships with the people that I was working with — that ultimately would have led to more success.
When you’re working in relationship-oriented societies, if you don’t take the time to really develop emotional bonds, you’re not going to get anything done. That’s the first part of the work: investing the time.
That said, I work a lot with Silicon Valley companies. All meetings are 30 minutes long. Here in France, we don’t have 30-minute meetings; their meetings here are 60 minutes — except for Netflix, Google, and Facebook.
FREEDOM, TALENT, AND RESPONSIBILITY
At INSEAD where I teach about cultural differences, my colleagues were always saying, “Why don’t you study corporate culture?” I thought it sounded so boring. Then I came across the Netflix culture deck, which has been downloaded over 20 million times. When I read it, I thought, That’s not boring. It was so honest. But there were things that I was just really taken aback by. First is: “Adequate performance gets a generous severance.” In business, a buzz phrase everywhere is “psychological safety.” But here’s the most innovative company of our time saying if you don’t perform at the super top level, you’ll get a generous severance. Then there’s: “Our vacation policy is take some”; “Our expense policy is act in Netflix’s best interest.” Those things didn’t bother me; I just couldn’t figure out how they could work in real life.
But when I started doing interviews at Netflix, people never led with those things. What they always lead with is: “I have been given so much freedom to do bold things and make decisions.”
When I started doing interviews at Netflix, people never led with those things. What they always lead with is: “I have been given so much freedom to do bold things and make decisions.”
At Netflix, people are given an enormous amount of freedom to do these huge things that no other company would let them do at their level — like sign off on a multimillion-dollar deal that you believe in. That really resonated with me. How great, I thought: a corporation where you can freely do big things, even at pretty junior levels.
Then I started to understand the other stuff, like adequate performance gets a generous severance. That was the foundation.
I have never thought about it this way before, but this is what happens in the Peace Corps. I didn’t have much teacher training, but I was able to use my creativity and my brain to make an impact. If we want to make a further correlation, that system works if you do a really good job getting good Volunteers. But if you don’t, and you send them out and give them huge amounts of freedom — well, Volunteers don’t get lots of money — but perhaps it’s not going to be money well invested. Until now, I’ve never thought about it like that: Peace Corps is just like Netflix!
WE ALL COME FROM SOMEWHERE
In my work, it used to be that people were resistant to talking about cultural differences. People would say, “But we’re all just humans, right?” We are. But we also all come from somewhere.
If you started bringing up culture, people might have responded, “I don’t want to stereotype. Let’s just talk about individuals.” That sounds great, but it’s really flawed. If we don’t talk about differences and what we believe it means to give feedback constructively, or what it means to contribute effectively in a meeting, we’re always observing behaviors from our own cultural lens.
If you started bringing up culture, people might have responded, “I don’t want to stereotype. Let’s just talk about individuals.” That sounds great, but it’s really flawed.
I’ve found lately that the conversation has shifted. When I start talking about cultures, people say, “You’re talking about national cultures. What about the subcultures in the countries?” Now there’s more a focus on: “I come from a different type of family, a different kind of culture in the U.S. than you do. And I would appreciate it if you understood me, and what I have to bring to the table based on the fact that I have a diverse background, and not that I am like you.”
I have really enjoyed that shift to a greater awareness, thinking about all of the positives that can come from diversity, and starting to shake ourselves a bit more to say: We can all bring something to the table, and we can seek to put ourselves in one another’s shoes and understand the roots of behaviors, the way we view one another. And we can seek to have a better, more inclusive approach that leads us to adapt our behaviors to improve our effectiveness.
That’s my life goal. And I do think that’s foundational work the Peace Corps is doing, too.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and co-authors: Erin Meyer and Reed Hastings. Photo by Austin Hargrave