Clash of cultures

I returned to Australia to resume working at Telstra the month before the current CEO joined the company. Sol Trujillo took up his position in July 2005, and brought in a number of trusted people he’d worked with at previous companies. The result was a dramatic increase in the number of Americans in top positions in Telstra. This is hardly news, or particularly interesting.

However, what I have found quite interesting is the intersection between the American business culture and the Australian. In particular, what is often taken by Australians as brash, arrogant, or undiplomatic behaviour can be seen alternatively as plain talking, “speaking their mind”, or direct behaviour. I suspect that this is to be admired in American business circles while seeming unsophisticated or suspect in an Australian context. This is most clear in the Australian business press.

For example, concerning the recent submissions to the national broadband tender, Telstra put in a 12 page letter. Earlier in the process, as quoted in The Age, Telstra had stated that they would not bid if there wasn’t a guarantee that structural separation was not on the table, and this was not a bid. Optus agreed, stating “This is not a bid; it’s not even a partial bid”, as quoted in the Australian IT, but later in that article claiming “Telstra has once again proven that they are all bluff”. Clearly this was the opposite of bluff, but once again we see the continued assumption that Telstra’s culture of keeping the commitments of senior management is actually an elaborate game.

I have seen many examples of where Telstra would officially, publically make a commitment and then do everything possible to follow through on that. Even when, in my humble opinion, occasionally information subsequently turns up suggesting that it might not be the best thing to be doing. But so ingrained is this culture of doing what has been promised, that not doing it is not an option.

And yet, still the media treat every commitment made by Telstra as mere positioning. If it were Australians running the show, we would understand it as such, and statements to the press would be part of a negotiating game, to be bargained up or down from. It took me a couple of years to notice that this has not been the case, but the media still doesn’t seem to have twigged that it isn’t the old Telstra, and there’s a different culture at work.

Perhaps the Australian media itself could benefit from more foreigners in the mix, or even in control? And if there’s a more contentious statement than Telstra speaks the truth, it’s that we might benefit from foreign control of Australian media. Hmmm. I’ve said enough.

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