The American Workplace: Can We Learn From Israel?

I just read a fascinating interview on the New York Times “Freakonomics” blog with Dan Senor and Saul Singer, the authors of a new book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.  The book explores how and why Israel, a tiny (7.1 million people) and beleaguered (to say the least) country, has the highest density of tech start-ups which attract by far the most venture capital dollars per capita in the world.  One reason: Israel is a nation of immigrants.  Two other points made in the interview (and book) were also relevant to U.S. workplaces.

First, the authors say, Israelis have an abundance of “chutzpah” – gall, brazenness, effrontery combined with arrogance, or gutsy audacity – which has both positive and negative connotations.  They quote Intel executive Mooly Eden, who ran cross-cultural seminars on “Israeliness” when Intel came to Israel in the 1970’s, “from the age of zero we are educated to challenge the obvious, ask questions, debate everything, innovate.”  Eden adds, “it’s more complicated to manage five Israelis than 50 Americans because [the Israelis] will challenge you all the time – starting with “Why are you my manager; why am I not your manager?”

This is all quite different from American workplaces.  But it’s food for thought: maybe we need to figure out a way to encourage (and allow) more boldness and questioning of the status quo on the part of employees, while still maintaining our essential politeness and respect for order. 

Second, at age 18, all non-Arab Israeli citizens must serve in the military for at least two years.  Some serve in elite tech units, obtaining superb technical training, and all get experience in teamwork, mission orientation, leadership, and public service.  This gives them a level of experience and maturity early in life that most young Americans don’t have. 

So how does this apply here?  In the interview, the authors suggest that U.S. employers need to learn to “leverage the business talents of young people with military experience.”  They say many corporate executives are “illiterate” when it comes to reading a military resume and discount the leadership experience many soldiers gain.  Given our ever-growing number of young veterans, this is important advice.

Though it does raise a question: Can U.S. workplaces both encourage and allow more questioning boldness and at the same time incorporate more military veterans into positions of leadership?  Am I stereotyping American military (and general workplace) culture? What do you think?  ~AS

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