It’s Not You, It’s Me: Leadership and Culture Change

by Alli Polin on March 15, 2013

It's Not You, It's Me Leadership and Culture Change

“It’s not you, it’s me” is usually reserved for crappy break-ups but it’s also a truth that shows up in new starts.  Expats, leaders, and new hires have all experienced an “it’s not you, it’s me” moment.  It’s the moment we realize that we’re the oddball, strange, weird, different person on the scene.  When we shift cultures, not only do we see our surroundings with fresh eyes, but also we see ourselves reflected by the new culture too.

Australia is my new home but I’m also a visitor.  My lifetime of experiences came with me on the plane; I’m still an American.  Here are a few of my “it’s not you, it’s me” moments over the past few months.

  • My daughter’s good friend came to dinner last week and during the meal turned to my daughter and said, “You know, I can’t understand a word you say most of the time.”
  • My son’s friend came for a play and when it was lunchtime, I offered peanut butter and jelly.  His friend looked mortified and asked, “Do you really eat that or are you joking?”  When he realized I was serious, he asked for Vegemite (Unfortunately, just the thought of Vegemite makes me gag).
  • I can’t buy my favorite Dannon coffee yogurt, turkey bacon, real bagels, or find paper towels that are larger than a small pocket square but I can easily get my hands on some fresh kangaroo mince (yuck!).

I see opportunities for improvement everywhere.  Part of me feels like there should be a suggestion box so I can help them embrace some good ol’ American goodness here in the Outback.

  • Local stores have been known to stop carrying items because they’re too popular to keep on the shelves and constantly have to be reordered
  • They sell 25,000 kinds of ham but only one choice of turkey
  • Most businesses close by 5:00 PM and have few weekend hours

Reality is I’m not going to change the way they speak in Australia, instill a magical love of PB & J or convince them to import Bounty just because I like it. 

I have a choice:

  1. Import everything I can’t live without so I make living in Australia just like living at home
  2. Embrace the great things about the Australian culture and accept what is instead of wishing that it was more familiar (as if that’s better)

I didn’t move here for more of the same.  Have you ever taken a new job or moved to a new team for more of the same?  I doubt it.

Don’t change for you

Don’t change a thing, for me

~INXS

Leaders, expats and new hires, we all face the same choice – embrace or resist.  New countries, new teams, new organizations all have their own culture that comes with strengths and challenges.  The trick is to shift your perspective from a me-centric view of the world to the new we-centric.

Being human, we long for what’s familiar and assume that our way is the best way to live, work and lead.  Too often, leaders join new teams and organizations and the first thing that they want to do is show that they’re adding value.  How?  By making their mark through immediate changes and implementation of “best practices” (meaning: the way I like to do it).  The thing is, when we’re so quick to compare old to new and assume that old is better, we miss the strengths of where we are right now and only focus on the weaknesses.  

Have the desire to get into immediate action?  Do this:

Instead of jumping in to make things better and change the culture, defer judgment.  Spend some time, get to know people, ask a million questions, listen with beginner’s ears, open mind and open heart and then decide what needs to happen next.  Immediate judgment clouds our thinking and locks us into a world that only has right and wrong.

I no longer ship my favorite sugar-free hazelnut Coffee Mate.  Now it’s too sweet, too artificial.  I wonder, when I move back to the USA, how many things from Australia I’ll long for and try to ship?  Will I be that obnoxious person that says at every meal and every meeting, “When I was living in Australia…” How many times will people roll their eyes before I’ll realize that each one of us has unique stories and unique experiences.  Yeah, I lived overseas and you worked for some really cool companies.  Still, what matters, is that we’re committed to bringing our whole selves and whole experiences to where we are now.   

Embrace what’s new in the present instead of trying to replicate what’s known from your past and you’ll be surprised that you’re no longer an outsider.  That’s the moment when “it’s not you, it’s me” becomes us.  

How have you embraced newness in your life?  What tips can you share to ease the transition?

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Forbes March 15, 2013 at 7:13 am

Alli, This post is a real Gem. Be sure to set yourself a reminder to come back and read it after your Australian odyssey. You are having so many teachable moments that I almost envy you. Almost.

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Alli Polin March 15, 2013 at 7:43 am

Great advice, Dan! I think that not only will this serve as a great reminder when I’m back from Australia but a few year after that and onwards. Living in the present moment instead of longing for the comfort of where we came from is definitely an ongoing practice.

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Chris March 15, 2013 at 7:16 am

Hello Alli!

Having moved extensively over my military career I can definitely relate with your post. What we get used to, find comfortable, is safe and predictable. But how do we grow, if we don’t expand? I love the statement about perspective. And in keeping with the leadership theme…open-mind/heart equals development and growth which in turn creates a sense of comfort in the new versus the old. I have always thought I would like to visit Australia, and you have been blessed with the opportunity, even if the food is, uh, different! ;) Stay safe and will talk soon!

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Alli Polin March 15, 2013 at 7:46 am

Many thanks, Chris! I’m always amazed how people in the military move so often and always commit to where they are instead of looking back and obsessing over what’s next. They are some of the most resilient people I know because they, like you, can integrate old and new experiences without forcing each new one to be just like the last. I love to learn from you and your experience too, Chris!

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Stephen Lahey March 15, 2013 at 7:32 am

Great that you’re embracing the idea of cultural immersion – inspiring!

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Alli Polin March 15, 2013 at 7:47 am

Thanks, Steve! Yes, if all I want to do is make it feel just like living in America, I might as well move home now.

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Karen Jolly March 15, 2013 at 10:19 am

Fantastic post Alli – something everyone of us feels when we face huge changes in our lives. Will we resist it and make it a painful experience or will we embrace the change and find new things to love in our new environment? Life is full of challenges, it’s in how we choose to see and feel about them that matters. What a great reminder – thank you!

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Alli Polin March 16, 2013 at 1:33 am

Thanks, Karen! When we resist change, we’re also resisting relationships. It’s absolutely a choice we get to make – challenge or opportunity, resist or embrace. Appreciate your comment and pointing out how we choose to see and feel truly matters.

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Terri Klass March 15, 2013 at 10:36 am

I loved your beautiful post, Alli! You have a way of being vulnerable with so much humor that I can’t help but smile and relate to what you share. Your experiences in Australia will now be a part of your narrative. I am so glad you are embracing the differences. Keep on writing!

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Alli Polin March 16, 2013 at 1:35 am

Thanks, Terri! I definitely see a lot to laugh about these day and every time I spot a new difference between our cultures, I’m able to smile and learn – definitely helps! Many thanks for your kind words!

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John March 15, 2013 at 8:31 pm

We moved to Oz two years ago and have transitioned to be frustrated like locals. I work for a government agency and lead a group of 70. In the last few months I have struggled with the Star Trek “observe but don’t alter” approach I began with to a point which is, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. More to the point, if you want to grow, you have to accept change and not be afraid. The question then becomes, I can’t help you if you don’t want help but I need to do what’s right to lead by example. I don’t know what the answer is but it’s a really interesting experience to work through.

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Alli Polin March 16, 2013 at 1:41 am

John ~ Happy to see another expat in Oz here on my blog!

It sounds like you face some big challenges balancing the Star Trek approach (love that name for it!) and you desire to truly lead. When I’ve stepped into new organizational roles it’s always hard to know the point when you’ve given it enough time to learn and understand and the point when it’s time to make some meaningful changes. Sounds like you’re definitely at that point. Your team is lucky to have you and your desire to lead by example instead of someone that just wants to make change and sit back and see what happens.

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Katy March 15, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Wonderful post Alli! It’s a challenge to be patient in a new situation and to wait and learn why another culture (work or life) likes things a different way. But a true shift in perspective happens when you wait to see the whole picture.

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Alli Polin March 16, 2013 at 1:42 am

Katy ~ It can be so tempting to make immediate changes! You’re right – the shift happens when we see the whole, and not just one little corner of the picture. It takes a lot of self control and patience to listen & learn but the payoff is huge. Thanks so much for adding your perspective!

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kay March 16, 2013 at 6:00 am

Wonderful article and I wish I had read this before joining my most recent career change. The same should be said for the people receiving the visitors too though. Learn HOW to welcome newcomers to your region/country/business/department. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Oh yeah I guess…I forgot what it was like when I first came here. I’ve been here so long I just take for granted that everyone knows (insert topic).”

If both sides would pause to consider… Imagine the possibilities.

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Alli Polin March 16, 2013 at 7:56 am

Kay – I’m so glad that you shared this insight! You’re absolutely right! Sometimes we feel like outsiders b/c the inner circle doesn’t get just a little bit wider to let us in with warmth and transparency. The welcoming is so incredibly important to the team, organizational and individual success. A sincere thanks for bringing this forward into the conversation! ~ Alli

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Lalita Raman March 16, 2013 at 9:27 am

Loved your post Alli. I for one get into the desire of immediate action. I still have some of those moments you mention in this post despite having been 15 yrs in HK, away from where I grew up which is India.

This post is a true gem.

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Alli Polin March 16, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Lalita – I too fight my desire for immediate action all the time! Glad to know that those moments never end. Knowing that I can appreciate the moments instead of feeling like “I should have known” or somehow I’ve fooled myself into thinking I belong. Life and work are so much more interesting and inspiring when we’re not all the same but instead bringing our varied lives and experiences with us.

Appreciate you!

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Amber-Lee Dibble March 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm

LOL! Alli,
This is a lesson I remember from the first day of fourth grade, after I had spent a miserable year in 3rd grade in Ripley Central School, the only time that I was away from Sherman Central School, growing up. (Lotsa lessons in that, lotsa self-discovery)

I remember this: The teacher turning and looking at me, in front of the class and saying, “Well, Amber-Lee, now that you are back where you belong, what else are we doing wrong?” I have never forgotten that.

Later, when I was in the Navy, we (the newbies) were coached before leaving on our first deployment about the cultures of the different countries we would be visiting and living in over the next six months (which turned into 17 months of Philippine-Hell and Operation Desert Storm) and that meeting reminded me of my Grandfather’s etiquette lessons. Try EVERYTHING. Listen, observe, try EVERYTHING… do not be assuming, do not be insulting (which could be unintentional).

Thank you for sharing this. It serves as a wonderful reminder that we cannot learn or experience ANYTHING (new) if all we see and compare to is what we already know.

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Alli Polin March 16, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Amber-Lee – WOW on what your teacher had to say to you! No wonder it stuck with you all of these years!

Also, your Grandfather was clearly a wise man. Do not be assuming and do not be insulting. Yes, insult can be unintentional but it can also be done through the duo of ego & arrogance and the assumption that we’re the only ones that know what’s best.

You’re right, we can’t learn or experience anything if all we’re doing is comparing!

Your experience is so rich and varied every time you share, the learning is immense for me! Thank you for bringing you over here :)

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Jon Mertz March 16, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Insightful, fun, and useful! Thank you for writing this, Alli. I especially like that point of getting to know the people and culture rather than just jumping in and trying to change things. This is an important leadership lesson, especially when we start at new organizations or engage with new partners. It helps to get perspective and understand the culture first.

Anyway, great post! Thanks. Jon

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Alli Polin March 17, 2013 at 6:10 am

Thank you, Jon! I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve been a part of new leadership teams where we thought the pressure was too great to show immediate results that we felt forced to forgo the time to really understand the culture. Huge mistake. After that, we were tinkering instead of making strategic changes based on the true strengths and challenges of their processes and culture. Many thanks for your comment!

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PM Hut March 17, 2013 at 11:55 am

Hi Alli,

Actually the “It’s not you, it’s me” concept applies the other way around as well. For example, I remember when I started working in Canada several years ago – the CEO of the company used to come to me and tell me: “Do you think it’s possible to do this?”

I used to answer “Yes” without doing anything about it – eventually, it turned out that in Canada (and in North America in general) asking someone such a question means: “Can you please do this?”

So it can be “It’s not me, it’s you!”

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Alli Polin March 17, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Interesting perspective to add here! Really appreciate your comment! Even the language of the organization can be a mystery until we live in it for a while. I’m sure it didn’t take you too long to catch on that you’re yes put you on the hook for doing the work. Makes me think back through my experiences and ask myself when I sat down with team members to ask them if our approach was do-able, how often did it then ask them if they “wanted” to work through the idea more and figure out what’s next. Hummmm. Thanks for adding a new spin and additional depth to the conversation!

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Connie Woodson March 18, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Very, Very, interesting post. I zm living and breathing professionL and personal crossroads. Thank you for this well, written article

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Alli Polin March 18, 2013 at 10:11 pm

Many thanks, Constance! Totally know what it feels like at the crossroads of the personal & professional. Will feel great when you’re on the other side.

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Keith Flanagan March 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Hi Alli,

What a great post!

I also spent the best part of a year in a foreign land (France) and at times, at least in the early weeks – I did all that I could to turn my new surroundings into a ‘little England’. Over time, you have to open your heart, mind and arms to embrace your new surroundings. Now, I long for many of the days I spent in France – wishing I could re-live them all over again.

I like the comparisons you’ve drawn from a leadership perspective. The need to sweep out the new before ‘the new’ has a chance to prove itself is overwhelming for some. I’ve noticed this as being particularly prevalent in Sports as well as in Business. New Managers or Coaches arrive complete with their entire backroom staff. And seem to do all that they can to eradicate any remaining evidence of all that were there before they arrived. Perhaps more oddly in sport – the new era of management are only available because they failed elsewhere. And so it goes on.

Australia has always appealed to me. I wish you well in your adventure. For what it’s worth, here is a blog post that I wrote whilst in France – but with a different yet I believe relevant set of issues than you appear to be facing … thankfully!

http://keithflanagan.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/attention-le-monstre-aux-yeux-verts.html

Hopefully you’ll soon be reciting ‘Waltzing Matilda’ by heart!

Best wishes,

Keith

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Alli Polin March 18, 2013 at 10:17 pm

Keith – No doubt that every place we go, a part of it comes with us. This time in Australia, and my time in England and even across the USA make my story (and life!) that much richer. I love that you’ve brought up sports. Absolutely true that not only do new head coaches tend to bring their staff and approaches with them but frequently they failed and needed to move on. Definitely important for organizational leaders to realize that when they fail, it’s not the end but could truly be opening up new beginnings Your sports analogy has me thinking – appreciate that!

Enjoyed your post too. “Jealousy is like a boomerang” and nothing is perfect… Although I long to return for a visit to the South of France someday, living in it and visiting can be two very different experiences!

Best,

Alli

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Mable Aigoro March 20, 2013 at 11:43 pm

Hello Alli,
Every day I learn something new that opens my mind to new ways to seeing how I can improve. Recently, I worked as a Chief Cultural Office for a global NGO. Just as you alluded to in your post, I wanted to show value and observe the culture from the outside inside. However, my resistance to being emerged in the culture to maintain an objective viewpoint was not fully embraced immediately. Reading your point of view, helped me realized the “WHY”.

Even in the USA, cultural perspective raises it head. I loved the way you put it into context.

Thanks – Mable

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Alli Polin March 21, 2013 at 6:14 am

Mable, Thank you for your comment and bringing your personal experience to the conversation! So many ways that culture shows itself to us & as it does, we learn about ourselves in the process! Heard a fascinating speaker today, the author or Walking the Talk, and now my mind is working and thinking about how we can be intentional about our learning & shifting of organizational cultures. Sounds like your experience is one to learn from as well!

Many thanks!

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