45 Lessons I Learned About Canadian Work Culture

It’s been 5 years since I moved from the Middle East to Canada.

And it’s the best life choice I’ve made, for my life and career.

Adjusting and understanding Canadian work culture is a continuous learning process.

If you have plans to move to Canada, or even if you’re a seasoned Canadian, this post is an enlightening and objective insight into what I’ve personally experienced and observed in Corporate Canada.

On Getting Promoted

  1. Promotions are not a reward for what you’ve done in the past. It’s a prediction of what you’re capable of doing in the future. So always work outside your job description. This is how I moved up the ladder (vertically and horizontally) every 2 years.
  2. Always be replaceable. Otherwise you will never get an internal promotion, because there is no one to do your old job. This is why I was denied a promotion by the best manager I ever had.
  3. Want a higher position on a different team? You need to be working with that other team on a common project now to build trust. I worked on a common project with that team, and when an opening came up, the hiring manager said to me “I like how you work.”
  4. Dress for the next job you want to get, in line with your company’s culture. Mimic your management. Appearances do matter. After I started wearing blazers I noticed a difference.
  5. It’s all about the money. Always! Understand how management view and protect their budget and let that be a guiding principle in your conversations. That’s what management essentially mean when they ask to present a “Business case” for your idea.

On Your Relationship With Your Boss

  1. One of your main responsibilities is to make your boss look good to their boss. Without a$$-kissing or compromising your integrity or dignity. Always attend to their requests first.
  2. You know you’ve reached a milestone in your relationship when your boss tells you “Can you cover for me?”
  3. It’s not your boss’ job to tell you exactly what to do. S/he will appreciate that you are figuring things out on your own. Use them as a compass, not a GPS.
  4. Before you conclude your boss is a micromanager, observe if others feel the same. It could be you. If you do have a micromanaging boss, leave. They will never let you grow and will impact your performance. I worked with a team who described their boss as a “nano manager”. It was a very difficult team to work with, until that manager was fired.
  5. Don’t wait for your performance review. If you have something important to discuss, bring it up now. When I asked my manager during my review for more money, his response was “You should have asked me earlier”.

On Your Relationship With Your Colleagues

  1. They are not your friends. If you must make friends, make them from another department you don’t work with. When conflicts inevitable rise, I was conflicted between talking straight or protecting my friendship.
  2. Empathy goes a long way. When asking something from them, always ask yourself “What’s in it for them?” and negotiate accordingly.
  3. It’s a give-and-take relationship. Help them when you can and count your favours, so they will reciprocate for you in the future. Sound too cold? What do you care? They’re not your friends remember?
  4. If they are not pulling their weight, make sure you’ve done everything you can do directly with the colleague before escalating to management. Escalations always sour relationships. Use it as a last resort.
  5. Above all be likeable. You can get away with mistakes and asking for more favours than they owe. Buy them the occasional coffee for people in other teams. It’s a good investment.
  6. Don’t mess with HR. Don’t mess with finance. They are more powerful than you think.

On Communication

  1. Get to the point. Some folks like to paint an elaborate picture first. Most listeners, especially senior management, don’t have the time or patience.
  2. Keep your emails short. No ones going to read anything beyond 5–7 sentences. Have more to say? Call a meeting.
  3. Emails and Skype messages can be ignored. But not a face-to-face conversation. If you have something important to say, or you’re being ignored, leave the laptop behind and talk to the person.
  4. Everyone has a different communication style. Some prefer email, some prefer personal conversations. Observe and adapt.
  5. The higher you want to go, the more important your speaking skills are. Join toastmasters if you need to.

On Meetings

  1. Always create and agenda in the invite and be on time. Because most people don’t take the trouble to do this. Your approach will stand out and you’ll get a higher acceptance rate.
  2. Oprah Winfrey starts every meeting with three questions “What is our intention for this meeting? What’s important? What matters?” If you’re calling a meeting, make sure you stick to the agenda.
  3. If a meeting is more than 20 minutes, half the people aren’t going to be listening. Keep it short. Attendees will love you for it.
  4. Don’t bring your laptop to meetings unless you are presenting something. You’ll be seen as the only one who’s paying attention. Once I started doing this, I noticed the presenter was only looking at me instead of others. Helps with your likability.
  5. Unless it’s a meeting your manager calls, your default reaction to attending meetings should be “No”. Unless you honestly see the value you will bring to that meeting. Your time is better spent working towards activities that lead to your promotion.

On Leadership

  1. You know you’re a good leader when others say you are so. It’s my personal empathetic description. Just like you know you’re listening when the other person feels they are being heard.
  2. Don’t expect or depend on your boss to be a great leader. Good leaders are rare. Focus on being a great leader yourself.
  3. Leaders speak first and last. They trust their team to do most of the talking in the middle.
  4. Reschedule your one-on-ones if you have to. But never cancel them.
  5. Identify someone who you feel is a great leader in your organization. It’s most likely not going to be your boss. Use them as a mentor and make them feel you value their opinion. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll learn a lot.
  6. Always always credit your team on a job well done to your management. It doesn’t mean you don’t do the work. It means you know how to delegate effectively and work in a team.

On Work Ethics

  1. Everything is possible, until someone says “No” or “We don’t have the money”. Be persistent when trying to accomplish something. Canada has an egalitarian culture as opposed to a hierarchal one. You don’t have to go through your manager and peers. You can communicate diagonally to other teams, as long as you don’t have a micro managing boss.
  2. Do the responsibilities in your job description well so you can score high in your performance review. Do it efficiently so that you have time to spare to do other activities. This helps with getting promotions.
  3. If you don’t get a response, follow up! Using “I’m waiting for their response” will only go so far as an excuse to not get something done.
  4. Have the guts to say “It was my fault”. Even a half-decent manager would appreciate the honesty.
  5. Most people are quick to give a million ways why something cannot be done. Be the one that figures out how things can be done. Then go back to point #1 on work ethics.
  6. Never ever ever speak ill of anyone or any team. Reserve your office vocabulary for compliments and facts. Take your frustration out at the gym or in your pillow.
  7. If you want to work longer hours without risking being perceived as inefficient, come to work early instead of leaving late.
  8. If you want to raise an issue with another team, come to the table with facts. Not opinions. A director once told me “If you don’t have the numbers to back up your claim, this is going to be a very short conversation.”

On Job Searching

  1. Loyalty is for suckers. Economic downturn, corporate restructuring, bad business, new CEOs, your age, all are reasons you can lose your job for reasons beyond your control, regardless of your tenure in the company.
  2. Think twice before changing jobs. Make sure you’re not leaving a good company because of a bad manager.
  3. Most job openings are already earmarked for a specific candidate the hiring manager has in mind. This is why external and internal network is important.
  4. A senior director once told me, “If you apply for a job at our internal job board, there is a 90% chance you’re not going to get the job.” Your job application does not stop after you hit “Submit”. You need to go after the job by contacting the hiring manager directly. That’s how you beat the competition and stand any chance of beating the earmarked candidate
  5. You never know when your last day will be. Always keep your resumé up-to-date.

As I climb the corporate ladder, I’m sure I will learn more lessons along the way.

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6 Responses

    1. Your writeup about about Canadian work culture ‘wows’ me. It is enlightening and expository. Thank you for the time you invested in writing it. It really worth it.

  1. It was so refreshing to see an outside viewpoint on the politics played in corporate Canada! Those are valuable insights for anyone working here. Sadly, your comment about loyalty is valid, as I missed many opportunities for advancement, trying to remain loyal to my boss. In fact, backing up my boss who put me in an untenable position, cost me my job. He, of course, never admitted his error and kept his job, while I was back on the unemployment line. Lesson learned! As for them not being your friends. When you retire, you will be amazed at how quickly you are forgotten by your colleagues. I have learned to be civil but remain arm’s length with those I work with…When I moved up the ladder, those who claimed friendship with me tried to exploit me, and when it is time to discipline them, any friendship you may have had, is long gone.

  2. Yes, as someone who has worked in the UK for the past 8 years – I can vouch based on my experience that each and every single word is true and a gold mine of an article. Being a western world country too I think the culture is the same. Oh if I may add, for promotions it’s not who you know, but it is also who knows you here. May be same for Canada.

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