For this blog post, we talk to Dirk Weckerlei, the Global VP at commercetools, who is based in the Jena office, about German culture, work ethic and what it’s like to conduct business with different people of all nationalities.
1. What is your background, where did you grow up and where is your home now?
I was born and raised in what is now considered the former “German Democratic Republic” – the socialistic experiment which started 1949 in the Soviet-controlled part of Germany after World War II. I remember having had a very protected environment which totally collapsed in 1989 with hundreds of thousands of families “losing” their country and all that came with it. Not everybody managed to get used to the unknown freedom and responsibility for your own life that came with it. My parent’s generation was, and even 30 years later, is still struggling with it. I personally have fully benefited from it.
After having completed my “Abitur” and my military service, I decided to study psychology, educational sciences and business administration. During my undergraduate time, I had the chance to join an exchange program and studied abroad in Pennsylvania. After graduation and having earned my master’s degree, I lived and worked in several places in Germany – it seems like I finally found my “home base” a bit more than 10 years ago in a small little town called Jena – the place where I studied, fell in love and became father of two kids.
2. Is there anything unique about where you grew up in Germany?
Until I was 18 years old I lived in a small region called “Mansfelder Land” – the place Martin Luther was born, raised and went to school, and quite close to where he started the protestant movement. We are known for questioning authorities and not being forced into dogmas. Most of the people in that region have been miners, such as all my great grandparents. How is it different? Well, after the peaceful revolution 1989, nearly all industry went down and thousands of people lost their jobs. Where there used to live 35,000 people in my hometown, it’s 14,7000 nowadays.
3. Can you give a brief explanation on what German culture is and what it means to you?
Well, first of all, German culture varies a lot – depending on where you are living. There are Northerners (I would consider myself closer to that group:), Southerners, Westerners, Easterners – all have their own little specialities – after all, we are talking about over 80 million people. But what really can be considered as mutual is a focus on technology, excellence, directness, order and the tendency to always compare and complain :)
4. What languages do you speak?
I am fluent in English, and of course, German. I used to be quite fluent in Russian as well, since that used to be my first language and I kept practicing it. I have made it a habit to learn the most common phrases in every country I am doing active business in.
5. Which nationalities do you interact with the most due to your job role?
Oh, there are quite a lot. I am dealing on a daily or at least weekly basis with French, Spanish, Dutch, British, Swedish, Finnish, Czech, Romanian, Polish, Italian, Danish, Singaporeans, Thai, Australians, Chinese and Americans. Luckily, I am now having the chance to also enter into regular exchanges with Japanese business partners. Sounds like a lot? Yes it is, but it is also my daily work routine and not over exaggerated!
6. How would you describe “German work ethic” and how would you compare this to the working culture of other nationalities you interact with? Has there ever been any misunderstandings due to this?
I have made it my own politics not to judge! If I would start by describing what I consider German work ethic, I would automatically draw a line or a differentiation which by definition is in itself a judgement. And yes, there have been many many misunderstandings – but you start to learn to live with it and, even more important, accept it. When different cultures come together, there is some magic that comes with it. Both sides try to prepare and anticipate what the other party might expect and plan accordingly (be on time, have everything prepared, have an introduction based on hierarchies, Et al.).
Daily business on the other hand is full of improvisation and situational reactions that cannot be planned and prepared. This is when you truly can experience the differences, and something called “interculture” comes to life. For further elaboration, I would suggest everyone to make themselves familiar with this man (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%BCrgen_Bolten). He was my professor at University and I learned a lot about what back then was called “Interkulturelle Wirtschaftskommunikation.” I am in such a lucky position to live and experience what I learned back then daily.
7. What aspects of your culture do you bring when working outside of Germany?
We Germans are perceived as being reliable, a bit sturdy and hard to convince of “moving targets” – and actually that is true. But you know what, I am enjoying surprising my counterparts every now and then by making a joke, not taking myself to seriously and accepting unclarity during discussions. On the other hand, I want to be considered reliable and even more than that – focused. And you know what? My counterparts are quite happy when, at the end of a meetings, I am asking for clear action items, clear responsibilities and timelines – they expect that as much as I do. After all, we all decided to work together.