Author Archives: Marie Bankuti

Shared Experiences: Ank Stuyfzand

My dear friend and colleague, Ank Stuyfzand, came to the US (Southern California to be exact) 14 years ago from The Netherlands, for work and the adventure of living abroad. Four years ago, she and her family moved from SoCal to Massachusetts, which she says was “like moving to another country all over again!”

What Ank loves most about being in the U.S. is “the diversity of people and cultures from all over the world, which really has enriched my worldview. I think moving abroad, and really building my life in a different country, has helped me grow in a tremendous way and helped me to become more open minded and well rounded”.

She explains how moving to the U.S. made her feel even more Dutch than before she left her home country. “The concept of being Dutch never occurred to me, ‘til I moved to the U.S. where I discovered how different the people and culture are here… Every culture has its own set of values, beliefs and assumptions that inform behavior, day-to-day life, organizations and institutions. And because I have been here for so long, I think I understand American culture much better by now and I have adjusted my own behavior. At the same time though, I still experience and feel how different the culture is, maybe even more so, or on a deeper level than when I just arrived here. I guess… you can take the girl out of the Netherlands, but you cannot take the Netherlands out of the girl!”

“Living in the U.S. is not the same as in the movies. And there’s not one singular U.S.”  She warns of the culture shock that can happen, suggesting that folks learn to recognize when it’s happening and how it affects you. Although she remembers feeling “really lonely, hopeless and homesick”, she knew she’d be fine eventually. With that in mind, she advocates for joining some sort of community, to become part of something. “Try different groups or communities, ‘til you find one you like.”  (I couldn’t agree more!)

Something for those new to the country to keep in mind? “Be curious and fascinated and catch yourself when you’re judgmental about the American culture… ‘they’ are not weird, ‘they’ are just different.”

Ank is a Consultant, Coach and Educator. Learn more about her and her company, Sync.

Don’t go it alone!

A few weeks ago, I invited four colleagues and friends of mine to lunch. These four women, who were originally from Russia, India, Philippines, and UK, have been living and working in the US for many years. The reason for my invitation was two-fold… first, I’m all about community. I’m always looking for reasons and opportunities to bring people together to connect, share and learn from one another. It’s just something I LOVE to do, and I have a strong belief that it’s a basic human need… feeling part of a community.

The other reason I brought us together was to do a little bit of research. I’ve known these women for years, and I realized, I haven’t come to understand very much about what brought them to the US in the first place. I was curious to learn more about their stories.

Among a lot of great insights gained (ideas for future newsletters!), one theme that especially spoke to me as they shared their early challenges, was their initial sense of isolation. When they left their countries of birth (some by choice, others out of necessity), they left behind their families and support systems. The communities they’d grown up in, schooled in, and worked in were no longer part of their daily interactions, and so much about life here was unfamiliar. It was before the huge popularity of social media, so staying in touch with those back home was much more challenging.

Bottom line… they were homesick.

Of course, now it’s much easier to connect with people all over the world. At any moment, I can go online and see what my relatives from Hungary are up to, and we can share pictures and birthday wishes with ease, instantaneously. That’s such a gift to have that type of access these days.

But for those who have moved here from another country to work and live, you can still feel cut off from a local community where you feel totally comfortable, welcome, and free to be yourself. You may not even realize that it’s community that’s missing. As you work through the various challenges and emotions of adjusting, finding a group of like-minded people with similar goals and support needs might not be at the top of your to-do list.

Community can take many forms and serve multiple purposes. Neighborhoods, professional organizations, cultural clubs, networking groups, hobby-focused clubs, sports leagues, arts & entertainment clubs, and so many more. Any one of these can provide resources, career opportunities, friendships, exploration buddies, motivation and accountability, learning, and fun!

If you’ve come to the US from another country and have noticed something’s missing, try finding a community or two to connect with. Here are some ways in which we benefit from being part of a community, and some options to explore!

Communities for Shared Learning/Knowledge

  • Personal and professional networking
  • Others have “been there”; made the mistakes and can help you avoid them
  • Resources for language assistance, doctors, lawyers, best places to shop, etc.
  • An opportunity for you to share and give back too

Communities for Fun

  • Exploration and sight seeing
  • Fitness and exercise
  • Activities for kids
  • Try things as a group that you might not try on your own

Communities for a Sense of Belonging

  • Connect with those that have a similar background and history
  • Share common foods and celebrations
  • Like-minded people that know what you’re going through
  • Being fully understood in your own language

Communities for Motivation, Inspiration and Accountability

  • Develop a new skill or hobby
  • Find a mentor; a model of what to strive for
  • Find an accountability partner to help reach your goals
  • Motivation to evolve and adapt personally or professionally

Here are some different communities to check out!

What community will you join?  It may be just the thing you didn’t realize you need!

Shared Experiences: Srithika Thodur Madapusi

Srithika Thodur Madapusi, a Senior Leadership Development Manager, came to the US to work with Cognizant Technology Solutions when her husband was transferred here for his work. Although she’s now returned to India, she spent two years working here in their Academy Division. That’s where I met and got to know Srithika, while we developed and delivered the first year of the long-running Elevate Coaching program. Though we’ve never actually met in person (yet), I’m looking forward to that changing someday when I visit India!

There were a lot of things Srithika enjoyed about being in the US; the weather, New York City’s Central Park, the museums, public transportation, and the inclusive culture. She also appreciated the sense of privacy that she said isn’t typical back home. What was most surprising to her?  “That there are sooo many Indians!! And that we could get free movie DVDs from the library!”

Interestingly, she found traveling alone in areas that weren’t as crowded to be a bit challenging, as well as using public transportation maps to get around.
Her words of advice? “While communicating, speak clearly and do ask the other person to repeat if you do not understand. Explore the city and people wholeheartedly, and do not create artificial boundaries for yourself.”  With that, she offers one last bit of wisdom… “And never take the driving test lightly.”

Srithika is also an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer and instructor. The picture included here is of her in traditional dress during one of her performances! Learn more about Srithika.

Need more visibility? Shine your light.

One afternoon, as he stepped onto the elevator to return to his office after lunch, Brinker International CIO, Johnny Earl, joined the twenty-something man already inside. Not knowing each other more than by name, they exchanged a quick pleasantry and shared the short ride together. Johnny couldn’t help but notice that the young man seemed very upbeat; as though he was extremely pleased about something.

Johnny didn’t ask about it in the moment, but later that day he inquired about it with the young man’s supervisor. Not knowing the reason, the supervisor went to speak with the young man and reported back. Apparently, he’d just returned from the latest assembly of the “Good Idea Meeting”, a monthly lunchtime gathering specifically for sharing ideas amongst peers at Brinker.

Now this wasn’t a company sponsored meeting. It was something he’d created on his own for individual contributors to come together in a “sandbox” atmosphere, where they could bounce ideas off one another. A safe space to create, innovate and refine their ideas before bringing those with real potential to management.

Johnny was intrigued and wanted to encourage their efforts, but he knew if he attended he’d inevitably change the dynamic of the meetings. So, through the supervisor, he expressed his enthusiastic support and had pizzas delivered to all the subsequent gatherings. They never tried to formalize the meetings, allowing them to remain organic, comfortable, and without management accountability.

In Johnny’s eyes, the young man became the “Idea Guy” and the monthly attendees were known as the “Idea Posse”. From the beginning, there was no fan fair, no budget, and no expectation of recognition. Yet, several initiatives eventually came to fruition because of their ongoing idea generation. The young man was ultimately invited into higher level strategic discussions and then promoted.

How do YOU create opportunities for visibility?

My clients often ask me how they can increase their visibility within their organization, how they can position themselves for that next promotion. That’s often followed by questions about how to do the same for their team, how to advocate for them. Much of the time, the discussion also includes a confession of great discomfort and concern about appearing boastful and arrogant.

When asked, I usually tell the “Idea Guy” story. It’s such a perfect example of how to demonstrate your abilities, how to get the word out about who you are and what you can contribute (leadership, innovation, facilitation, risk-taking, passion, focus, and on and on), all without verbally boasting and bragging.

Gaining visibility within an organization can be a tricky endeavor. Having to advocate for yourself and getting noticed can make the skin crawl for some people, no matter where they were raised. And for foreign-born folks working in the U.S., this can be experienced as anything between utterly-excruciating, to coming off as a bull-in-a-china-shop. Different cultures have different perceptions and values around being humble, direct, competitive, deferential, etc. Striking the right balance here is an art.

You want to get noticed so management will offer you great opportunities, right? There are lots of ways to do that, without the metaphorical chest-beating. Here are just a few ideas to try.

  1. Share your good works. If your company has a Lunch & Learn program or something similar, offer to do a short presentation on the type of work you or your team is doing. Have you implemented a unique project recently, developed a new product, put a new process in place? Share it with other areas of the organization. If there isn’t a program already in place… start one!
  2. Ask for what you want. If you’re interested in getting a high-visibility, promotion-triggering assignment… let your interest be known. Tell your manager you’re ready to try out some new skills or to take on a new responsibility. Demonstrate your willingness to learn and grow. Don’t assume s/he knows you want a new challenge. Shake things up a bit, ask for an opportunity to stretch yourself or your team.
  3. Speak up more in meetings. Take some risks, study up to increase your knowledge, ask more strategic questions, offer solutions to problems, throw your new ideas on the table. Don’t let your inner critic silence your brilliance and keep you from contributing to the bigger conversation!
  4. Acknowledge and appreciate others. Recognizing and praising the accomplishments of others may seem counter-intuitive to increasing YOUR visibility, but it can actually help get your own work noticed more. When people feel validated, they’re more likely to return the recognition. Of course, it’s got to be sincere. It may also feel more natural to talk about your awesome team than to talk about yourself to others. And if the team is awesome, their leader must be too! If doing all that is unusual where you work, start a trend. Point it out when you notice a job well done!

Not everyone needs to be an Idea Guy (or Gal). Find your own unique way to shine your light!

Shared Experiences: Bala Thillainathan

Bala Thillainathan, originally from India, is a Technical Lead at Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies. He’s been in the U.S. for 20 years now, having initially come here for work. “It just kind of happened!”, he says.

Bala most enjoys the speed of access and efficiency of getting things done here, versus things that might take longer in his home country. The bitterness of the cold weather was most surprising to him when he arrived. Getting acclimated to the weather, culture and commute were a bit challenging.

What are his tips for someone new the U.S.? He says, “Comparing the U.S. to your home country is bound to happen; try to keep those comparisons positive. There will always be two groups of people wherever you go here, the ones that accept us and the ones that don’t, so try to be open minded.”

Well, I’m glad you’re here, Bala! Learn more about his work here.

Close Enough Isn’t Good Enough

My Dad was an immigrant. He was a 23-year old Freedom Fighter during the Hungarian Revolution of ’56 when an opportunity to escape the country presented itself. Not long after, he found himself in the U.S. as a refugee, starting over in a new land. He didn’t speak a word of English, had nothing but the clothes on his body, the ability to work hard with his hands, and a triple dose of Magyar pride.

Not formally educated, he spent his life here working longs hours, repairing cars, to provide for his family. My three siblings and I often speak fondly of the work ethic deeply ingrained in our DNA because of Dad.

While you couldn’t find a prouder naturalized U.S. citizen, he simply wasn’t overly concerned with refining his command of the English language. Dad had his own special way of speaking, creating words and phrases that suited his painfully “pun”-ish sense of humor. It was common to see him with an impish grin, as we rolled our eyes and groaned at something he coined for a chuckle.

For example, he called his knees, “nephews”. Why? Because the word “knees” sounded to him like the word “niece”. So nephews they were!

That was on purpose, of course. But then there were words he mangled because the pronunciation was challenging for him. Like, “Royce Roy” was his version of “Rolls-Royce”. Early on we’d try to help out and correct him, but he’d usually just say… “Ah, close enough!” We’d smile, shake our heads and, eventually, incorporate it into our unique family vocabulary.

For him, close enough was good enough. And you know, it WAS good enough for a hard-working, blue collar immigrant, living in a small town. It was part of his playful character.

But what about you? If English is your second language and you’re working in corporate USA, maybe close enough isn’t quite good enough.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m completely in awe and super respectful of folks who learn to speak a second language (or more!). Even with all the trips to visit relatives abroad, I understand only a little Hungarian, and I speak even less. It’s NOT easy, regardless of whether or not it’s by choice.

With that said, ask yourself… Is “close enough” potentially getting in the way of my career here in the U.S.? Could it be preventing you from being selected to lead that high-visibility project, being awarded that overdue promotion, getting that new job you interviewed for, or perhaps some other professional opportunity?

If you suspect that any of those might be even partially true, consider these suggestions:

  1. Pay attention to reactions you get from others when you speak. Are there certain words or sounds that folks have trouble understanding? Do people ask you to repeat yourself a lot? Do they sometimes give up, smile and nod, instead of responding appropriately? Which words or sounds tend to trip them up? Keep a log and notice any patterns that emerge.
  2. Ask for feedback on your communication; your accent, your pronunciation, your vocabulary. Try asking general, open-ended questions at first. Then specific ones as you learn more about what needs work. Which words or sounds could you improve upon?
  3. Take the information you’ve gathered and practice. Record yourself speaking out loud and listen back. Try recording a few phrases from a radio or television program, then record yourself saying the same things.Where could you improve your accent, your pacing?
  4. Add one new English word to your vocabulary each day. There are Word-of-the-Day desk calendars, or try the Word of the Day: Learn English app for your phone. You may want to focus on words specific to your role or industry. Incorporate the new words into your conversations and presentations right away and keep using them to commit them to memory. In just one year, you’ll have mastered 365 new words!
  5. Join a local Toastmasters club. Those who know me well, know I’m a huge advocate of Toastmasters, for everyone. And if English is your second language, there’s no better place to receive specific, relevant, developmental feedback on your speaking and presentation skills, in a fun, supportive environment. Find and visit local chapters near you for free: Toastmasters.org.

Indeed, it takes time and commitment to make a noticeable difference. Start today, and before you know it, you’ll make that shift from “close enough” to “hitting the mark”.

Shared Experiences: Yegor Filonov

Yegor Filonov came to the U.S. from Russia 13 years ago in the aftermath of perestroika, a political reformation movement within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He’s now a Business Systems Analyst in the Greater Boston area.

When asked what he enjoys most about being in the U.S., Yegor says, “Ethnic diversity. I meet people from all corners of the world. I learn how people really live all over the world: what they really think, what they really eat, how they really behave and why.” And with a smile he adds, “Americans don’t peel potatoes!”

Finding his first job and place to live were challenging in the beginning, as he expected. And for those new to the country, he offers this advice, “Observe. Watch and learn. Try to understand how real America lives and why. Do your best to get rid of stereotypes. Listen to everyone, but always make your own judgement.”

He also offers, “Foreign-born always have something to compare with. It can be both, a curse and a blessing. Try to make it work for you, as your extra language does.”

Thanks for sharing a bit of your story, Yegor!  Learn more about Yegor and his work here.

What time is On-time?

One thing we all have in common, no matter where we come from on this planet, is that we have only 24 hours to each day. There’s no getting around it. Yet, when looking at different cultures and the ways in which they hold time, it can seem as though, sometimes, that’s not the case.

Several years ago, a couple colleagues and I co-led an unforgettable Leadership Retreat to Kenya. Among several once in a lifetime experiences we planned, was a short camping trip that included rock climbing in Hell’s Gate National Park, hiking up Mount Longonot (a dormant volcano), and visiting an island wildlife preserve where we literally walked alongside Giraffes, Zebras and Gazelles!

We had hired a local guide, Njenga, and his team to take us on this adventure. And as you can imagine, the seven of us were up bright and early to be ready for our 10:00 am pickup time. Well, 10:00 came and went. 10:15. 10:30. No sign of Njenga. We tried calling him. No answer. 10:45, nothing. The three of us Retreat Leaders were really beginning to panic. We were embarrassed, apologetic, and started scrambling about how to make it up to our guests.

As we were frantically creating plan B on the fly, this rickety white van rolls up, clouds of road dust in its wake. Out jumps Njenga with a HUGE smile on his face, saying “Hi! Ready to go!?” No indication that he realized he was over an hour late! How could he be so late and not be apologetic? After all, we were his customers and he committed to picking us up at 10:00 am. We were frustrated, to say the least.

In the end, it all worked out and we had the most amazing experience together!

What I learned later, was that Kenyans are among the cultures that hold time and scheduling very loosely. They, along with other countries such as Saudi Arabia, India and Nigeria, are much more fluid and adaptable with their schedules. Flexibility is highly valued.

Countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Japan tend to be on the other end of the spectrum. They’re much more linear-time based, with a focus on promptness, organization and scheduling.

Here in the US, folks also tend to be more linear about time; sequential and deadline focused. Though not quite as much as the countries listed directly above. It’s all relative.

There are many factors for variations in countries, including things like traffic volume, cultural values, political unrest, severity of weather events. They all contribute to how well a culture deals with unforeseen forces, and how, sometimes, flexibility isn’t a choice, but a necessity.

If you’re working in corporate USA and originally from another country, it’s especially important to build awareness around your own habits and preferences, and to see how they’re working for you here. Even within the grander US culture, different corporations can have their own time-holding behaviors too.

Here are some inquiries for building awareness and suggestions for aligning yourself with expectations:

  1. Explore your own relationship with time and scheduling. Take note of your habits. Do you tend to be more flexible and fluid when you make an appointment or agree to a deadline? Or are you precise and prompt, and expect that of others too?Do you tend to show up after everyone else has already arrived and need to catch up? Are you the first one in the room, getting annoyed waiting for others to gather? What adjustments can you make to better align with those around you and decrease any stress or awkwardness caused?
  2. Observe and increase your awareness of the specific corporate culture you’re a part of. How do others treat appointments and deadlines? If you’re unclear from what you witness, then ask a few colleagues.What are the expectations and assumptions people make if they aren’t met?
  3. If you’re going to be late to a meeting, do you call/text/email ahead? It’s always best to be right on time, or even a bit early, especially for something more formal or when you don’t know the people involved. Even if you’re only going to be 5 mins late, it’s a good idea to reach out and let someone know.
  4. How are you with deadlines? As a general rule, the expectation is that deadlines should be met as agreed upon.Of course, unforeseen challenges can sometimes prevent satisfying that agreement. What’s most important if you can’t meet a deadline is communication, as far in advance as possible, to renegotiate and allow for alternative planning.

The key for all of us is awareness and a willingness to adjust our style… no matter where we find ourselves in the world.

Shared Experiences: Shalini Mohan

Shalini Mohan, originally from India, has been in the US for 7 years and she’s an Implementation Lead living in Massachusetts. When asked what she enjoys most about being here, she says “the people and the work culture”, and having never experienced four seasons before, she “found the weather most surprising!”

I asked her if she had any suggestions for someone new to the US. “Learn to watch the National  Football League (NFL) to strike conversation with anyone. It will take some time to adapt to the new environment but once you do that, this will be one of the best places to live.”

Would You Want To Know You?

While revisiting some of my favorite TED Talks the other day, I was reminded of how important it is to make an intentional first impression, one that says a little bit about who we are when we meet someone for the first time. Whether we like it or not, within the first 5-10 seconds of meeting someone, they’ve already decided a few things about who we are.

“She didn’t look me in the eye when she said hello. Does she have something to hide?”

“He didn’t shake my hand and he’s awfully quiet. He doesn’t seem very friendly.”

As humans, we are assumption-making machines. That’s just a fact. It’s how we make sense of the world. We take in what’s around us, apply an explanation, and make decisions about a person or a situation based on that explanation. Right or wrong (and very often we’re wrong)… it’s just what we do.

Those impressions come super-quickly. And when they do, we (sometimes unconsciously) decide how to interact with the person we’ve just met… regardless of whether, or not, our assumptions are correct.

The challenge can be particularly difficult if you come from another country and/or English isn’t your first language. What if you have a heavy accent? Or maybe your name is unique and uncommon in the US? Now, you’ve added another layer of complexity to the first-impression dilemma.

If you’re foreign-born and have an accent, a long or uncommon name, or one that’s hard to pronounce, you may have noticed confused looks at times, or hesitation about asking you to repeat your name. Or maybe you’ve noticed they just avoid using your name altogether. Perhaps they just feel awkward trying to pronounce it

If any of those sound familiar, try some of these tips to make it easier the next time you meet someone new:

  1. Pay attention to your pace and tone as you say your name. Slow it way down and enunciate. After saying it once, repeat it again. It often helps folks to hear and see you say it a couple times.
  2. Try breaking your name down into separate syllables. For example, if your name is ‘Srithika,’ you might say, ‘Hi, I’m Srithika, that’s Sri-thi-ka.’ Encourage them to try saying it and help them adjust their pronunciation.
  3. Point out a word or short phrase that sounds like your name. It’ll give them something to associate it with and help them more easily commit it to memory. So, if your name is Shuba, you might say, ‘I’m Shuba – it rhymes with Scuba!”
  4. You may want to offer up a nickname you’re comfortable with that’s shorter or easier for them to pronounce. Whereas Chandralekha could be a challenge for some unfamiliar with the name, the nickname Chandra might be a welcome alternative.
  5. Remember to keep a sense of humor! Being playful and at ease goes a long way toward releasing any awkwardness that might occur. You’ll both feel more comfortable, and it’ll make it easier for them to let you know if they don’t understand you later. That’s always better than getting that blank-face-half-smile-and-nod response.

Watch for those subtle, non-verbal cues that seem to communicate “What did you say?” Intentionally shifting a potentially awkward introduction into a moment of ease and connection, can make all the difference in that first impression. Presenting yourself as approachable, while demonstrating your ability to help remove barriers, will lay the groundwork for a strong and fruitful business relationship.

Please be in touch… I’d love to know how I can support you in your efforts!

P.S. For more tips on how to introduce yourself, check out Laura Sicola’s TED Talk, Want to sound like a leader? Start by saying your name right. About halfway through her talk, she discusses “strategic tonality” and how to use it when making a self-introduction. It’s well worth a listen.