CEO in a Strange Land

Foreign businesspeople who relocate to Israel encounter a very different culture. Some attempt to cope – while others sell the firm and flee.

It was November 2012, during the eight days of Operation Pillar of Defense, the most recent round of fighting between Israel and Gaza. People living in the center of the country were a little frightened by the rockets striking the greater Tel Aviv area, but you couldn’t say that the local populace had been seized with hysteria.

And then there were the foreign businessmen.

Relocation Jobs, a company that assists foreign residents in Israel, including CEOs, businesspeople and their families, received plenty of panicky calls to its hotline, and all callers had the same request: Bring us gas masks.

“No matter how hard we tried to explain to them that gas masks were irrelevant to the current situation, they were unconvinced,” recalls Eynat Guez, CEO of Relocation Jobs. “There was nothing to do but to buy them gas masks.”

Foreign CEOs who come to work in Israel land in a strange world and have to adapt − or else hide. We may think Israel is a progressive country and that Tel Aviv is a metropolis on par with New York and London, but to foreigners from the United States, Europe or the Far East, we look like a Third World country with a lot of pretensions. The encounter with the aggressive and unaffected local character is not easy for them.

People from certain countries find it especially difficult to adjust to Israeli organizational culture.

“Lately, senior executives from the Far East have been coming to Israel,” says Tsvi Kan-Tor, an attorney who specializes in legal issues arising from experts’ global relocation. In Japan, Kan-Tor says, it is not customary for employees to disagree with their boss, or even worse, to reject what he says out of hand.

“There was a case of a Japanese company that acquired another company with a branch in Israel, and it sent two of its senior people to ‘tour the land,’” he says. “The two Japanese representatives had lunch with the company’s Israeli employees at a sushi restaurant in Herzliya Pituah, and when they heard the Israelis repeatedly reject the CEO’s statements, they decided on the spot to sell the company.”

Obviously not every senior executive can or wants to sell the company and go home, so many of them are compelled to get used to things that may seem self-evident to us. The local driving culture, for example.

“In many cases the CEOs work in Jerusalem, Ashdod or Haifa,” Kan-Tor says. “That requires them to spend a lot of time on the road, and they are alarmed by the Israeli driving culture. What most astonishes them is the constant honking, and another thing they find incredible is the traffic jams that turn a 60-kilometer trip − a very reasonable distance by global standards − into a one-and-a-half to two-hour drive.”

Just call me Mister

Israel’s well-known informality takes many of the senior managers by surprise, too.

“Many of them initially prefer to be addressed as Mr.,” says Debrah Marcus, owner of Finesse, a consulting firm that trains businesspeople in cross-cultural communication. “They very quickly realize that here it’s not title that determines status, but rather conduct. In their countries of origin, it’s not customary to question the boss’ authority or decisions, and in Israel they’re astounded to discover that their leadership is not a given. My job is to explain to them that this is nothing personal, but simply the culture.”

Another surprise comes when a CEO hears employees referring to him by his first name. “When they’re first starting out here professionally, they think that people at meetings are angry at them because they raise their voices and and gesticulate with their hands,” Marcus continues. “They feel threatened by it, but soon enough they understand that this is how people behave here. What baffles them is why there’s so much noise in upscale restaurants. Not to mention that at events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs, the noise makes them want to hide under the buffet table.”

Further proof of the deep cultural chasm is evident when a foreign executive happens to need medical attention. Israelis are certain that their hospitals are among the finest in the world; the foreign execs, it turns out, have different standards.

“In one case, someone was supposed to undergo an urgent appendectomy,” Guez says. “He was admitted to a hospital in the center of the country in a new hospital tower, and we were surprised that he found it ‘substandard.’ In their home countries, they’re accustomed to private healthcare that feels like a fancy hotel, and even the new departments in our public hospitals don’t meet their expectations.”

Another issue that foreign executives and their families find especially troubling is the abundance of armed soldiers in public places. For Israelis this is unexceptional, but foreigners who come here are simply frightened.

“When they see soldiers, they don’t view them as everyone’s kids [doing their military service], but rather as an actual threat,” Guez says.

Who are they and where do they come from? White men with families

Most foreign executives come to Israel when they’re aged 40 to 50, generally accompanied by a wife and school-aged children ‏(there are almost no cases of female CEOs coming to Israel with a husband and family‏). Most are from the U.S., Britain, Ireland, France, Scandinavia and the Far East. “In the past few years there has been an uptick in foreign CEOs and experts coming to work in Israel,” says Eynat Guez, CEO of Relocation Jobs, “mainly due to the growing number and strength of gas, oil and biopharmaceutical companies.”

How do they react to security rumblings? Well, not great

“When our news headlines refer to a chance of us attacking Iran, Israelis are fairly indifferent because they lack faith [in the government and media] and because they know these headlines tend to blow things out of proportion,” Guez says. “For the foreigners, when Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] says he will attack Iran, they stress out and don’t really understand how life can carry on as usual and people can go to the beach, because for them, it could happen tomorrow morning.”

How much do they drink? Enough to forget they’re in Israel

“There are a few pubs in Herzliya Pituah where if you go there in the evening you’ll feel like you’re abroad,” Guez says. “There are a lot of Irish and British senior executives who go there to drink after work, and they allow themselves to pass out in front of their employees, too. As far as they’re concerned it’s perfectly acceptable to come to work hung over after a night of boozing, whereas Israeli culture considers that undignified. Their conduct in this regard leads to a lot of friction on the managerial level.” According to Guez, many of the calls to her company’s hotline relate to problems stemming from executives’ drinking habits.

Where do they live? In affluent, secluded compounds

Previously, many of the foreign executives lived in or near Herzliya Pituah to be close to the English-speaking schools there. Now, newer English and French-speaking schools in Jaffa have been drawing families to downtown Tel Aviv. Amit Acco, of the law firm Kan-Tor & Acco, reports growing demand for apartments around Dizengoff Center, Rothschild Boulevard, Neve Tzedek and the Tel Aviv luxury towers.

Realtors in Herzliya Pituah say the host companies generally allocate home-rental budgets from NIS 6,000 to NIS 12,000 a month. They usually rent private houses but nice penthouses at the marina are also a possibility.

What do they eat? Gourmet and hummus

“The foreigners like to tour and eat in Jaffa and Neve Tzedek,” says Natalie Maimon, a Herzliya resident familiar with the milieu of foreign businesspeople. “You can see them at the restaurants Popina and Suzana in Neve Tzedek, in the nearby upmarket restaurant and shopping complex called Hatahana, and in the flea market in Jaffa. In Jaffa they like the luxury restaurant Cordelia, but also want to eat hummus. They don’t search out only the swanky, but also the local.”

What do their wives do? Work out, volunteer, shop

A famous saying around Herzliya Pituah is that you can judge how long a foreign executive’s family has been here by the wife’s appearance: the thinner and more toned she is, the longer the family has likely been here. The reason is not because Israel lacks carbohydrates, but rather because the wives cannot get work permits in Israel. As a result, they’re forced to fill their time working out with private trainers and taking tennis and golf classes.

Natalie Maimon says the wives also volunteer at their children’s schools, and are active in organizations such as the International Women’s Club or Acceuil Israel, which mainly brings together wives of businessmen from France. If they have any time left, they are always happy to do some shopping. Contrary to expectations, they actually detest the stores at Kikar Hamedina, since the brands being sold for inflated prices there can also be found in their countries of origin. Instead, they prefer the Ramat Aviv Mall. 

Nir Kafri