Read A Geography of Time, by Robert Levine. It’s a really witty, well-written book about time culture – how different cultures behave with time, based on his personal experiences and his own and his students’ experiments. We all do time differently. In Brazil, arriving at 4pm for a 1pm appointment is not necessarily being late. Hopi North American Indians have no verb tenses for Past, Present and Future. The Spanish use one word for “expect”, “hope” and “wait” – esperar.
Levine has a unique way of measuring the pace of life, and he’s measured it in 31 different countries.
- Walking speed in downtown areas (time to cover 60ft)
- Waiting time in the post office to buy a stamp
- Accuracy of public clocks
He adds these proxies together, to rank countries by pace of life. The 1,2,3 is Switzerland, Ireland and Germany. Mexico brings up the rear in 31st place. There are all kinds of surprises in there – I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland and would describe my experience overall as relaxed, rather than fast paced. The USA is only in 16th place, when it feels like they should be higher (yes, they walk fast, but have massively long waits in the post office, and the clocks are way out of time).
So all countries have a time culture. And within countries, all regions and individual cities have different time cultures. In the US, Boston is the fastest pace of life, Los Angeles is the most laid back. In general, the North-East industrial area occupies the top slots, and California takes four of the six bottom places (together with Shreveport, Louisiana, and Memphis Tennessee).
“CFOs tend to look rearwards, at last month, or last quarter. “
What does this mean for you at work? Well, if you work for an international, or multi-national, there will be many sub-cultures, where time works differently. You’re regarded as an alien if you fail to see this, and conform to those (often hidden) cultural norms. Even within departments, it only takes a moment to imagine how differently they perceive time:
- Finance – essentially looking in the past. Last month, last quarter.
- Sales – In the present, but slightly future focussed on the next quarter
- Legal – trained to look at the past to assess risk in an imagined future
- R&D – looking way into the future
- Operations – existing in a continuous present. The past is rewritten.
- Maintenance – issues occur in the present. But they plan for the future
- CEO – Strategically working to a 3 year plan
Now imagine you’re a CFO, whose looking for their next move to CEO. This article Forward Looking CFO (pdf) by the Wharton Business School describes how CFOs find it so hard to make the transition from a rearward looking discipline to a forward-looking CEO.
Have you experienced a culture clash like this? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave a comment below. And read the book, it will get you thinking.