By Shweta Maniar

Businessman and businesswoman reviewing contract; business team working in the background.

I’ve been fortunate to have a global role that allows me to travel internationally for work. Over the years, this has not only provided me with an opportunity to gather souvenirs but also invaluable business insights. What I’ve learned is that each country has a unique approach to conducting business. Just as there are unique aspects of serving different regions in healthcare and life sciences, business is conducted differently, too. The knowledge and insights gained from these trips have proven instrumental, providing fresh perspectives that I’ve been able to apply in my own work.

As I reflected on my recent business trip to Japan, memories of my work-related travels to France resurfaced. Both experiences served not only as opportunities to explore different cultures but also self-discovery expeditions, enabling me to grasp the subtle nuances in communication and observe the unique business etiquettes inherent to each culture.

The allure of international travel for me is that it forces you to rethink how organizations are run. It introduces you to different hierarchies among teams, as well as new uses of, and approaches to, technology and business practices. These are governed by a different set of rules and regulations, along with other factors we may not be exposed to in our own countries. I experienced this firsthand when I was given a tour of a medical device company in Europe. It was clear they were operating in a different market from ours, just by how the product was manufactured, the lab environment, the guardrails, and the regulations they were working under — and how the region’s customer preferences and cultural norms shaped all of these factors.

Every international work trip, in its own unique way, has provided me with invaluable insights. Reflecting on these diverse experiences, I’ve distilled them into three essential lessons. These lessons accompany me on every journey, acting as guides to forging more impactful and meaningful business connections.

1. Prepare beforehand

Before I arrive in any new place, I do my research even on things we might think are obvious like: What’s the appropriate way to greet someone? How do you exchange business cards? I even consider simple habits such as, can you eat during a business meeting? (In France, I found, this is not the norm.) Not only was I evaluating these things in the context of interacting with clients, but also how I engaged with my international peers.

Japanese culture, in particular, is known to be fairly unique. So, on my latest trip, I familiarized myself with the correct manners, such as who should walk into the room first, whom I should make eye contact with, and how to best address each individual’s name or title.

Being (proactively) culturally sensitive isn’t just good business practice — it’s also key to building trust. Or to put it another way, “breaking bread” with others. So, make it a point to challenge your conventional views of social norms.

2. Be observant and humble

A lot of what I know about cultural norms I learned through observation. But the only way I could take in that information was by first acknowledging what I didn’t know as someone who wasn’t from there. That enabled me to show respect in how I interacted with others while being open minded and flexible to whatever new habits I may come across.

When I came to Google, I was a little surprised at how casual people dressed in the office. But I found that in France, Japan, and during my time in Switzerland, there was definitely a more formal atmosphere when it came to work attire. Another thing I noticed in both France and Japan was a deference to the most senior person in the room. It wasn’t uncommon, for example, to have the CEO or biggest decision-maker sitting at the head of the table.

In Japan, I was particularly humbled by how much time the team took to host me from morning until night — unlike typical interactions in the US, my Japanese colleagues would meet me at the train and accompany me to meetings, and always invited me to dinner.

Good observation also helps us to understand the nuances behind how decisions are made. What similarities and differences to U.S. business dealings could I extract? We may think the US is a central driver of life sciences, but there are actually more life science organizations outside our country we should be learning from.

3. Consider your audience and what context is needed

When walking into a business meeting abroad, there are likely those who know exactly why you’re there and what you’ll be discussing, and those with much less background to go off of.

As I do my research before a trip, I also take into consideration what context I’ll need to provide my audience. Can I jump straight into the content, or do I need to do some level setting?

Offering up who you are and where you come from can also be valuable for building connections. During one presentation with the CEO of a pharmaceutical company in Japan, I mentioned my time working at Roche and in hospital systems, and how the challenges I faced in those roles shaped my thought process around what I was presenting to them. Immediately, I could see their eyes light up. By opening up about my experience, I showed I understood their world — and I started every conversation after that with an introduction on my background.

Of course, domestic travel can provide many of the same benefits as international travel. California’s culture, for example, is much different in a lot of ways than New York’s. But traveling abroad, in particular, creates an appreciation for the expansive and diverse world that exists beyond your immediate environment.

Perhaps most importantly, having the opportunity to travel internationally has been eye-opening in terms of understanding different cultures, perspectives, and approaches within my field of life sciences. It has also made me realize the importance of being openminded and adaptable. By embracing what others teach me, you can build a highly collaborative, engaged work environment to realize everyone’s potential, including your own.

Shweta Maniar

Shweta Maniar

Shweta Maniar is the Global Director, Strategic Industries – Life Sciences for Google Cloud. She also serves on the boards of RXSight, Orthofix, and the scientific advisory board for the Allen Institute.