The Amazing Race: Vienna

December 2, 2020 — Leave a comment

As those who have been reading this blog for a while know, my passion is global business. I love to travel and interact with different people from different places.  Everywhere I go (and I have lived, worked or traveled to over 90 countries), I truly enjoy observing distinct cultures and taking away lessons learned from each place and every culture I engage with.  In


fact, a good deal of my life’s work is based on this very concept.

Recently, while attending Board Meetings in Vienna, I had the privilege of engaging with several colleagues – global executives and academic experts – to discuss some rather interesting views relating to the differences in business perspectives between Eastern Europe and the rest of the world.  It became interesting as the various views on doing business in different regions shifted… but today, Vienna:

Vienna is a beautiful city filled with exquisite buildings, powerful opera halls, sophisticated clothing and incredible art. The Viennese people themselves, without a doubt, embody “Culture” with a Capital C. From high art to street art, from music to theater, ballroom dance to interpretive movement, architecture to fashion – it’s all there…and it’s simply a way of life.

It is fascinating to find the city’s great landmarks are (literally) lived in, not just admired. While aesthetic and cultural traditions are highly respected, they have also grown and changed with the times. Just as Viennese youth still learn to waltz in preparation for Viennese Ball Season, moving in the same coordinated steps as the generations that came before, so too do they move through the city with a purpose that is determined to ensure Vienna becomes an economic powerhouse with unlimited business opportunities as they move into their future.

Aside from attending board meetings, talks, and dinners, I wander through the enchanting city of Vienna in my spare time. As I do, some interesting perspectives occur to me that are well worth considering given Vienna’s overall level of success on the global business front. Here’s a breakdown of some leadership lessons from Vienna:

1.          Waste Not, Want Not

Efficiency is at the heart of Austrian invention. The Viennese value order, punctuality and financial success. They are generally conservative people who are prudent and moderate in their behavior. They respect perfectionism in all areas of business and private life, and in their approach to work they tend to focus on achieving the task at hand. Most will go to relative lengths to prevent the loss of time, order or money so they can free up their schedules (and bank accounts) to more fully enjoy their lives. If a change can shave off mere seconds in the completion of a task, it is worth implementing.

What it teaches us:

Viennese business culture values efficiency, time and money for the enhancements they provide in both professional and personal settings. More often than not, we spend time, energy and money on things that are not of the most importance – perhaps we could take a lesson from the Viennese songbook by putting the “big rocks” in first before spending our own time, effort and money on those things that are not going to make the most difference.  There is nothing that builds wisdom like experience… In the end, Vienna historically has not wasted time or money, nor sacrificed any sense of order in remaining a neutral zone in Europe, while at the same time becoming a small, but mighty, powerhouse to be respected – mostly because they waste not, and therefore… want not.

2.          Remember The Past… But Focus On The Future

Vienna’s story is lengthy and complex, and yet, they know and appreciate it immensely. While they recognize their part in the terrible things done on their behalf – from feudalism to their participation in the Nazi regime – the Viennese are honest about their complicated history and the painful consequences of the (at times) inhumane rule of powerful people. BUT, they refuse to be defined by the dark parts of their history. They especially honor their ancestors’ contributions to the arts and sciences. From Mozart to Porsche, Austrians know they have made an impact beyond their ever-changing borders. As a visitor, I receive a healthy and realistic dose of both the dark and the light. What I find most interesting despite the fascinating history of Vienna, is the positive and futuristic perspectives of the youth, academic professors and the businesspersons. Every single individual and group is very focused on the future of Vienna – which industries will continue to grow? What are the emerging industries? What are students studying and why? Where is education going and how do they stay at the top of their game? Aside from historical tours, every interaction I have is about the future and the opportunities that would come about as a result…

What it teaches us:

We all have a sullied history – no matter where you are from. We all also have a choice: We can forget our history, try to erase (or re-write it) and be doomed to repeat it… OR we can recognize it for what it is… HISTORY, the past. A figurative place where no one owes anyone anything and we are all equal, judged only by our character and our honor – and move forward in solidarity as a united powerhouse, much as Vienna has. We can recognize the sad, terrible parts of our past, while at the same time celebrating our history and culture for the bright spots that have shown. Simultaneously, we can focus on the enormous potential we have to exceed everyone’s expectations – especially our own. You choose, I know where I am…

3.          You Can Never Make A Second First Impression

First impressions are very important to the Viennese, and impact the outcome of business relationships. There are a number of basic verbal and non-verbal communication issues you should consider when doing business in Vienna:

  • Third-party introductions are strongly recommended in Austria, as they illustrate an image of trust in business.
  • Titles are very important to the Viennese. Do your best to address people by their full, correct title, no matter how extraordinarily long that title may seem.
  • Ensure you maintain a generous personal distance – at least an arm’s length between yourself and colleagues’ is expected when conversing.
  • Eye contact is expected and respected. Uninterrupted eye contact demonstrates attention and interest in a conversation. Avoiding eye contact may be interpreted as the opposite while in Vienna.
  • Initially, do not joke or make small talk as the Viennese are quite serious and focused on accomplishing their business objectives/goals and do not appreciate a lack of seriousness.

While Vienna is an extremely culturally aware city, they have expectations when it comes to understanding their business culture – so prepare in advance if you are attempting to build a positive image from the beginning of your interactions with Viennese businesspersons.

What it teaches us:

When a culture is less formal, it is easy to fall away from formal business behaviors – despite this, always remember it is better to “dress up” rather than “dress down” in any situation. When we initially meet a colleague for the first time, not meeting their initial expectations and breaching their perspective on etiquette will not help you – in any way. Not having a solid understanding of where your colleagues are coming from culturally can have a long-term detrimental effect… especially if you lack the formality they may be accustomed to. First impressions are critical to setting the tone for your interactions and relationships down the road. In order to make a positive first impression, you, as a leader, need to understand the business culture in Vienna… or wherever you may be. Your cultural awareness will provide a framework for acceptable behavior and help you to understand the difference in ideals that need to be recognized, valued and appreciated before any real communication will take place.

4.          Constant Contact

Common courtesy such as handshakes and politeness go a long way as you create a positive image for your Viennese counterparts. In business situations, shake hands at both the beginning and the end of a meeting. In Vienna, people who have worked together for years still shake hands each morning as if it were the first time they met. Additionally, a handshake may be accompanied with a slight bow. Reciprocating the nod is a good way to make a good impression, as failure to respond with this nod/bow (especially to a superior) may get you off to a bad start. Be sure to look directly into the person’s eyes while shaking hands. Keep the hierarchy in mind and always address your message to the appropriate person in the organization, as the Viennese are sensitive to not only the age and wisdom in the room, but also the level, rank and expertise of those you are addressing.

As you get to know your Viennese counterparts, it is important to engage them in lively and philosophical debate, but to remember to delay discussing any personal topics until you have a very well established relationship. This will contribute significantly to establishing ongoing relationships with your Viennese connections. Building an ongoing relationship requires demonstrating a sincere interest in the country and the people, so it is imperative to know the history, culture and identity of Vienna before you meet with colleagues.

What it teaches us:

As business people in Vienna tend to be formal and conservative, business relationships are proper, orderly and professional. Becoming more familiar with Viennese methods of conducting business and observing how certain actions and behaviors are weighted differently than in other cultures can make a real contribution not only to achieving your goals while doing business in Vienna, but also in doing business everyday… wherever in the world you might be. The Viennese offer us some excellent qualities to develop in working relationships that are likely to produce highly successful business interactions on a daily basis.

5.          Never Stop Exploring

As I wander through the Albertina, visiting some amazing works of art by Picasso and Monet when I have a bit of spare time, I happen on a sign that simply says, “The Staterooms”. As I approach, this just appears to be an exhibit of recreated staterooms from the Hapsburg Dynasty. This seems vaguely interesting so I begin to wander through, not noticing anything too exceptional (I had already visited several renowned palaces). I was about to turn around to leave, when I noticed there was one final room I had not gone through and thought, “why not?”. As I enter the room and begin to look at the artwork, I suddenly realize that this is not just your average period artwork on the walls. Windows open, sunlight streaming in, completely unprotected are pictures from the 1400’s from Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rafael and Donatello. No announcement they are here… nothing leading me to these amazing pieces… no protections around them… no indication they exist at all – anywhere. I am in awe and amazed at what I have stumbled upon!

I left the museum and decided on a walk in the nearby park. As I came around the corner, I again happened on a most exceptional sight – the famous Lipizzan horses and their colts are wandering through the park – unchecked. As I admire their beauty and grace, the trainers appear out of nowhere, each making a unique sound… and each mother and colt come directly to their trainer and exit the park with them, of their own accord.

Two amazing experiences in one day – neither of which I expected at all!

What it teaches us:

You never know what you will find, what you can create or what you are truly capable of… if you do not take the time to explore your surroundings and who you really are!

Observing different cultures can always teach us a thing or two about success and inspiration in our own environment. Like adding exotic spices can change the way you view food, integrating cultural variations into your work environment can significantly impact your ability to see the world differently and facilitate your own success.

Where has your Amazing Race taken you and how has it changed your views on how you do business… and life? 

Please engage the discussion and let us know how you observe and integrate leadership lessons from abroad. Feel free to contact me at Check back soon for more insight into global leadership.


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Sheri is The Global Coach, founder of Luminosity Global Consulting Group, Global Executive Coach, Speaker, Writer and Global Business and Cultural Expert.

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