The lucky lonesome European cowboy: leadership preparation before entering the US market

European companies invest large sums in developing and launching their products in the US but lack the same investment in developing and launching their managers and leaders.

Epic stories of wanting to conquer the US have been told by generations. The variables for how to be successful in the US cannot be easily distilled. Many adventures have turned into huge successes and others became very public failures.

We are interested in understanding the leadership challenges and opportunities Danish companies face in the US; how they prepare their leaders and managers to enter the US market and how they continue to develop them to grow their business.

We sent out a survey to more than 200 companies followed up by several interviews. The survey respondents cover a large spectrum of industries from shipping to banking, pharmaceuticals and furniture to fashion and food.

The lucky lonesome European cowboy

Surprisingly 77% of leaders taking up an assignment in the US had received little or no training or coaching prior to coming to the US. This trend continues throughout the assignment and Danish leaders in the US receive significant less leadership development than their colleagues in Denmark.

It was put this way by an executive; “The company does not spend money on leadership development in the US, but they do in Europe.” We call him “The lucky lonesome European cowboy.” He got the international assignment, the promotion, and the benefits – from there he has to figure things out himself.

Many European companies could speed up the integration process significantly by preparing the leaders and their families. One executive put it this way: ‘focus is on finding the right house, the car and the schools for the kids, after that not much thought has been given to quickly integrate and get a normal day at the office and at home’.

The US market is much more complex than the European market. One CEO directly advised against making the US the first international assignment for any Nordic leaders in a multinational company because of the complexity of the US market.

How different can it be?

NONE – 0% of the respondents with a European cultural background that had been in the US for less than 1 year thought that understanding the US culture was a challenge. After the first year though this number rose to 14% and after 9+ years the number rose to 16%. The longer you are in another culture the more you understand the fine nuances in cultural differences.

One CEO we spoke with was wondering whether it was even worth the investment to send an employee from Denmark to the US if they were not prepared; “It takes 1-2 years for someone to get used to working here in the US and then there are only another 1-2 years left before they leave again.

Many Europeans believe they know enough about the world and the US to perform well in the American market.  But neither they nor their spouses are prepared enough. They resist change and question everything from tipping to the medical system instead of embracing the US culture upfront.”However, 75% found Teamwork to be challenging in the first year. The European way of working in a team is very different from the US way of working in a team.

Making employees take on responsibility was mentioned from several executives as especially challenging. There is a reason for most behaviors and one executive explained the differences this way: It is not because an American cannot make a decision, but there are so much more‘Compliance’ and ‘legality’ in the US and that is why they are more careful when making decisions on their own’.

Hello – America calling

In general, we had a lot of feedback indicating that the European headquarters have some issues understanding the US market and the business terms that executives work under in the US.As one executive said: ”It does not seem that HQ understands any of the issues we have here, they just want to see results.”29% of leaders with a European cultural and 40% of leaders with an American cultural background found the cooperation with the European headquarter a challenge. As one American executive said: “I am very straightforward and direct, but when I write my reports to Denmark, it seems like I lose my audience quite quickly and they miss the details.

”The learning by doing model is still going strong for European companies in the US. It shows a lack of emphasis on the importance of the human capital for a business to thrive in a complex global market.

European companies invest large sums in developing and launching their products in the US but lack the same investment in developing and launching their managers and leaders.