The biggest cultural differences between companies in Australia and Asia, according to an Asia Pacific executive

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Brad Paterson is the managing director and VP of Intuit Asia-Pacific, a global company which provides accounting software for small businesses such as Quickbooks.

Since stepping into the role two and a half years ago in August 2013, Paterson has overseen operations across Sydney, India and Singapore, which is the company’s regional hub.

But certain cultural differences have stuck out to him in this time and he’s had to make a number of changes to keep the company culture intact across waters but also to remain flexible to accommodate for these differences.

Brad Paterson. Photo: Supplied.

Paterson explains that he looks at company culture through a fixed and a free model.

“So the fixed part is our values. We have eight values we live by,” Paterson said.

“It’s grounded in integrity so we will never compromise integrity. Scott, our founder, says ‘just make sure do something that your mother would be proud to read on the front page of Wall Street and don’t do something you don’t want turning up on there’.

“That’s fixed – that does not change by country. What changes is how we bring it to life per country and that’s the free model.

“How do we let our inner personality come out and fly free? How do we turn those values into something that is uniquely Australian or uniquely Indian or uniquely Singaporean?

“So a couple of examples where I’ve seen that come out is in India, it’s very much a culture that’s based on relationships first. And it’s very much of ‘we want to succeed, we want to say yes as much as possible’. So we’ll always find ways to get to the yes.

“So being decisive does not work as well in India… we want to test a whole range of different things first before we actually get there whereas in Australia, we’re going to be very decisive and make decisions very fast, we won’t go through as long a process as we would in India.

Paterson said the rule he followed as a leader was threefold – listen, learn, adapt.

“For the first three to six months, I didn’t make any decisions. I didn’t try change anything within the culture. I just listened and observed: what are people happy with? What are they not? What’s consistent with our values and what’s different?

“Learn what’s working. What are we seeing that we can actually pick up and put somewhere else?

“Adapting is key. We can’t expect the company to have the same thing happening in every market.”

Here’s what Paterson had to say about working in Australia and Asia:

Work hours

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“There are very different cultural aspects through Asia that would not apply in Australia or the US,” Paterson said.

“For example in Singapore, it’s not unexpected to have folks turning up at the office 11 o’clock 12 o’clock in the morning but they’ll work though to 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock at night. So they’re much more open to doing late night calls there but they don’t want to start early.

“In India, it’s very similar as well. ‘I don’t want to start early. In the mornings I’m with my family, take the kids to school et cetera, the mornings are very important to me but I’ll work all day. I work to 2 in the morning.'”

Paterson says that overtime is “normal” in Asia whereas in Australia, there are a lot more early starters.

“Here [in Australia], people like to finish early and go back home to spend time with their family in the afternoon or the evenings and I think what we need to do as a leader is make it completely free for the folks to do what they need to do.

“If you have a happy family and you have a happy personal life, that’s more important to us and to us as a business and to our values and to me as a leader, than when you work.”

Interaction with seniors

When I first stepped into the Intuit office, Paterson was sitting in the middle of the sales team with a handmade placard that reader “Reserved for Brad Paterson”.

The concept of sitting on the floor is very much embraced in Australia whereas in Singapore, he occupies his own office separate from the rest of the employees.

“What you may see in a larger financial services company is yes, there’s very much a hierarchy. I try to break that down completely,” Paterson said.

“Our values are not prescribed to a hierarchy. A person who cleans our office in Singapore is treated with as much respect as I am or a person who is running marketing.

“I really believe that the most important kinds of businesses are ones that serve their customers. They’re running the business and we serve them. Now in Asia, that’s not the way businesses are run. It’s very much the boss is treated with the utmost respect, open the door and roll out the red carpet.

“I try to bust that model. It’s taken longer to do that in some countries than it has here in Australia.”

Paterson says that the Intuit office in Singapore will soon be knocking down the walls with “complete bench-sitting the whole way through with a view that we want to be collaborative — you should be able to talk to anybody, there’s nothing to hide”.

However, the move to an open plan office, he admits, has still yet to be embraced by some of his colleagues in Asia.

“In Asia, it’s less expected and some of the folks are saying you absolutely need an office.”

Despite this, Paterson says open plan offices are a product of “changing times”.

“The millennials coming in expect it and embrace it. People from other generations probably expect more privacy and hierarchy.

“I would say that it is generally being embraced and people work here for change — we’re a change driven company. It’s part of being a 30 year old startup, you need to continually reinvent yourself.”

Food and socialising

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“On a social aspect, in Australia it would be very much based around events and Friday afternoons whereas in India or Asian countries, it’s very much about family on the weekend so a lot more of the socialising happens earlier in the week,” Paterson says. “And that’s done much differently. You cannot build a relationship with folks in the office unless you’re going out and sharing meals with them.

“Here [in Australia] it’s a little bit different. You can socialise over a few drinks on a Friday afternoon so there’s little quirks in each culture.”

Surprisingly, food also plays a huge social role within the company.

“In the Singapore office, at least once a week — it’s normally every other day — everyone stops for an hour and comes around and socialise around food. So we’ll do anything from where everyone will bring in food from their nationality because it’s a multicultural place, so we’ll see food from Malaysia, the Philippines, Arabic food, Australian food. It’s just a great way for people to come together, socialise and get to know each other outside of a team meeting.

“In Australia, you often see a lot of breakfasts here. I know that there were a few folks coming in earlier on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning cooking pancakes or waffles for everybody.

“You create this culture around food and socialising or around drinks because you’re going to get more people together in a much more social and accepting environment.”

Office layout

The Intuit Sydney office. Photo: Supplied.

Walking through the Intuit office, there’s a real sense that the company has gone to great lengths to “Australianise” the office with small touches including a surfboard table, faux koalas, kangaroo prints on the wall and maps of Australia in the meeting rooms.

Although there are many local touches to the Singapore and India office as well, Paterson says the Australian office has “gone uber creative” in their design.

“This is probably recognised as the most creative and in terms of letting your inner personality fly free, the Australians have embraced this more than anywhere in the world.

“It was deliberate to make it much more Australian, an Australian flavour on our culture. You’ll see a lot of the design here is from a collaboration with staff to bring this to life… the room names… everyone feels a sense of ownership.”

Asking questions

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One of Intuit’s new recruits recently pulled Paterson aside and said: “I’d love to get a bit of career advice.”

Paterson noted this as one of the benefits of sitting on the floor.

“You have offices and you have hierarchy, people will not do that. They’re more likely to try and set up a meeting time,” he said.

But for Paterson, the manner and type of questions asked differed the greatest when it came to Q&As.

“Australians are much more direct and informal. So if we have our CEO visiting and he will ask for Q&A, he will be bombarded with very direct questions for an hour and we have to cut it off.

“If he comes to Singapore, it will either take the team a while to warm up to ask questions, but they’ll be probably a lot more respectful and probably a lot more business-focused whereas in Australia, I’m much more likely to be asked the question, ‘Brad, how did you overcome this failure which I read about so that you could be in this role? I don’t get it.’

“In Singapore, it would be much more: ‘Could you tell me about your business strategy?’

“What I still can’t get my head around is the stark differences to really understand what’s on my team’s mind. You really need to have a different approach. I almost have to ask questions of the team in Q&A or our visitors do to extract what’s on peoples’ minds in Singapore, India or in Hong Kong.

“In Australia, you just open the mic and it comes.

“I think both work… but I do enjoy coming home and just getting hit with a tough question straight up.”