Important knowledge in order to succeed as a European leader in the US

Svend has packed his bags and is ready to leave Copenhagen and go to America. He has been a successful leader in the Nordic countries, and he cannot wait to introduce his style of leadership to the American employees he soon will be leading. He is going to head up his company’s US subsidiary and is convinced they will love both his style and him for his ability to delegate and involve the employees in planning and asking for their opinions. 

Don’t all people want that?

Ten months after Svend ventured to the US I got a call from the HR department that was worried about the speed of which people were leaving the US company. I met with Svend shortly after and when we sat down and talked he said:  “I do not understand – it seems to me like they want me to tell them what to do. And they are so focused on money. I have asked for their opinion, asked for ideas for our strategy, really tried to involve them in everything, but it is like we talk on two different frequencies.”

It was not the first time I met a non-American leader being frustrated about the American way of leadership vs the European way. But what goes wrong for European leaders in the US?

The first thing is that we underestimate our differences or don’t even think there is a difference. We think we know the American culture because we speak English and we have been exposed to the American culture in movies and American products we use daily.

Secondly, this underestimation – or blind spots – makes us less observant. If Svend had gone to a culture that was visibly different from his, he would be vigilant of the cultural differences. He would have prepared and worked on his leadership style in this new culture. Since Svend thought that the American leadership style was close to his, he did not prepare and actively worked on it from when he started as a leader in the US.

So what could Svend have been aware of from the beginning?  What can you be mindful of if you are in the same situation? Below are a few, but very important tips, to get you started.

Leadership style switching 

Look at yourself as the guest when it comes to leadership. YOU, as the leader, have to adapt to what is needed to make people perform!

A lot of us define ourselves by specific criteria’s: we are good at delegating, or we are funny etc… We think it is part of our personality. But being a leader in a different culture, being a leader in the US means: NEVER assume that what worked in Europe will work in the US.

US leaders tend to be hard drivers and have a much more “push-oriented” approach. They focus heavily on execution, with the weight on individual accountability. European leaders tend to focus on planning, dialogue, and being what we call a “change ambassador.”

You do not have to change who you are, but you have to learn to switch style. Switch from your usual way of leading to the US way of leading.

Fighting the urge of constant consensus

An American client put it this way when she was airing her frustration with her European colleagues. She thought it took forever and a lot of unnecessary meetings before anything was done! The need for consensus was driving her crazy.

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She told me this – true – story:

First meeting: My European colleagues called me so we can plan when to have a planning meeting.

Second meeting: The planning meeting ended with us booking a new meeting since we did not agree on HOW we plan.

Third meeting: In the planning meeting on how we plan, we agreed on the method to plan, and we booked a new meeting on how to implement the planning method and start planning.

Fourth meeting: In this meeting, we outlined the agreed planning method. There were a few inputs and adjustments, and we ended the meeting by booking a new meeting where we will start discussing actual execution.

Fifth meeting:  FINALLY, we started to discuss execution and action.

Especially in the Northern European countries time – a lot of time – is used to make sure there is a consensus. It is frustrating for many Americans since they do not have the same need for consensus, but they have a strong need for execution.

Teamwork in the US is much more about ‘pulling one’s weight’ and execute, where in Europe it is a lot about contributing to the discussion, planning and agree.

Learn sports jargon.

The frequent use of sports jargon is worth spending time on learning for a European since it is used in business, politics and all other places for that matter.

Learning sports jargon is like uncovering an extra layer to the US English language and the US culture.

Some of it is quite evident, e.g.: ‘dropped the ball’ or ‘you have someone in your corner.’ But other phrases can be more challenging like:

  • Monday morning quarterback (Amrican Football) – a person that gives critical advice from a position of hindsight. I don’t like to Monday morning quarterback, but I do think it is evident that you cannot come to the US and think you know how to lead from day one without any professional help.
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  • Curveball (Baseball) – if one is dealt an unexpected and/or unpleasant surprise. Svend was thrown a curveball when his CFO announced she was leaving the company.
  • Batting 1000 (Baseball) – To be successful in everything that you do. He finally understands how to lead in the US. He’s batting a thousand!
  • Go to bat for (Baseball)- support someone or someone’s idea. Since you know Svend, do you think you can go to  bat for me? 
  • Out of left field (Baseball) – “unexpectedly”, “odd” or “strange”. Some of Svends comments came from left field. I have no idea what he was thinking. 
  • Step up to the plate (Baseball) – take care of something. We’re all counting on you to step up to the plate and now get to know how to lead in the US culture.

Do not try to use this from day one. Listen to how it is used and slowly implement the phrases most used in your company. It takes time to be fluent in the local workplace jargon.

An absolutely ‘no-go’ as a leader in the US

All talk about religion, sex, and politics and swearing is an absolute .no-go’.

You will hear your US colleagues and employees talk about sex and religion, you will hear them joke as well. You will even hear them swear. It can be very tempting to chime in.

BUT the boundaries and nuances are so ‘subtle’ that we, as Europeans, do not know where they are, and very quickly we are in deep s… (never say s…!!)

You might think that it will affect your likability as the leader when you do not contribute to these areas of interacting,  but trust me, it will not.

If you can make people perform, make them show results, that is what counts in the US!

Stay 100% clear of this – no exceptions!


We might think that Americans are blunt, transparent communicators. But when it comes to giving feedback in the office, this isn’t always the case. According to a cross-cultural management expert Erin Meyer, Americans give the strongest, most explicit positive feedback of any country in the world and tend not to criticize their coworkers or employees unless they have first gone out of their way to compliment them several times beforehand.

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Americans are so overwhelmingly positive when they talk to others in the workplace that it can be hard for people from Europe to figure out when they’re being criticized and when they’re being complimented.

As a European leader in the US remember not to jump directly into what you think can be improved. Focus on the positive first! Use the positive reinforcement method – preferable daily. Feedback is given more frequent in the US and employees need to hear they are on the right track more frequently than you are used to in Europe.

I often hear American employees criticize European leaders for being unapproachable. In Europe being serious often equals silent introvert behavior. ‘Of course, we in Europe accepts that the boss does not have the time to say hello in the hallway because he is so serious and concentrated on the work. And he does not have time for frequent feedback.’

BUT in the US that behavior is looked upon as very rude. It will be a talking topic and disrupt the performance from your employees.

Final tips

Pretend you are on another planet! Be curious and read about American history – there is always a reason for why things are the way they are in any culture, also the American.

And hire that ‘global performance coach!!!’ You can save so much money and time by actively working on your leadership style. It is not about changing your personality; it is about training your ability to switch leadership style according to need.

What happened to Svend?

It was a happy ending for Svend. He was able to stop, think and learn. He implemented, among other things, the above recommendations and he kept working on the ability to switch his leadership style. He has been through an emotional rollercoaster ride learning to lead in the US, but he tells me it has been worth it.  He feels he is a better leader than he has ever been before.

About the author

Lena Beck Roervig makes people perform, locally and globally – she makes them reach their goals. She is a global executive, leadership and performance coach based in Copenhagen, New York and Cannes with a proven track record of enabling her clients to perform better – be it reaching their personal and/or professional goals as well as getting closer to living a life being truer to themselves.

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