Most Ghanaians think about Israel as the religious “promised” land that the Jews were led to from Africa more than two thousand years ago.
The modern State of Israel however, is more than just an epicenter of faith and culture. It is an advanced economic powerhouse holding incalculable promise as an ideal partner to the private sector in Ghana and Africa.
For African businesses to engage with their Israeli counterparts and succeed together, it is important that both parties understand their business culture.
I would like to invite our readers to join me on this virtual journey (you can call it an Exodus) from Africa to Israel (as it was more than 2000 years ago), to discover the Israeli business culture and key points to keep in mind when engaging with Israeli businesses.
The first thing I would like to point out is that though Israel is a small country with a population of about 9 million, it is an incredibly diverse society made up of religious Jews, non-practicing Jews, Muslims, Christians, and a variety of other minorities. Some Israelis come from communities that have always lived in Israel while a lot more returned to Israel from Jewish communities scattered across the world.
A single Israeli company could consist of employees made up of Israeli employees originally from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, North or South America.
The modern State of Israel is a melting pot of people from all sorts of cultural influences from almost every corner on Earth and so are Israeli businesses!
Despite this fact, Israelis are uniformly blunt. One should expect an Israeli businessperson to be direct and straightforward with his/her assessment of a situation without mincing words or trying to be “nice” at the expense of the truth. One should not be offended by this or mistake an Israeli’s openness for rudeness or disrespect.
There is a thing called the “Chutzpah” which is ingrained in Israeli culture and attitude. It translates as “insolence”, “audacity”, “impudence” or “gall”. You may call it any of these but it is not disrespect. It is the “x factor” that made a small nation in the desert dare to become the innovation capital of the world. It is why a group of Israeli private citizens dared to send a rocket to the moon.
It is why Israel continues to punch above its weight in almost all spheres of endeavor. It is also the reason most Israelis would refer to each other by their first names (or nicknames) regardless of job titles or academic qualifications. Prime Minister Netanyahu is known simply as “Bibi”. Israeli business people know what they want and they go for it in a tenacious manner that often looks beyond the challenges. Expect some good quality “Chutzpah” when you engage with Israeli businesses!
There are several things Israelis do not like to mix with business. One of them is religion. Another is politics. When it comes to business discussions, kindly keep religious banter away or to the barest minimum.
Also introducing political discussions could result in heated debates or disagreements that could derail an otherwise promising business opportunity. Israelis disagree openly and debate passionately on issues of religion and politics with most taking entrenched positions.
You simply want to stay away from these zones. Having said that, it is important to know the religious stance of Israeli business people you deal with. For instance, if your Israeli business partner is an observing Jew, don’t try to make contact to discuss business on the Sabbath (Friday – Saturday). An Orthodox Jew may decline to shake a person of the opposite sex. Don’t be offended. An observing Jew may decline to eat at a lunch meeting as he/she may not be sure if the food being served meets the strict Kosher requirements.
Most Africans will find meetings with Israeli business partners quite startling at first because Israelis like to make eye contact when they engage. Your Israeli business partner is simply trying to pay close attention to what you are saying and what you may not be saying. Eye contact provides assurance to the Israeli. Don’t shy away from it. Also, Israelis are very assertive in their negotiations and will cut into your speech without any warning if they have a question or an objection. Your meetings will also be interrupted severally with phone calls and small breaks to hold discussions among themselves in Hebrew. Israelis can break into intense moments when conversations become loud – almost like a quarrel in the streets and usually among themselves if there is a disagreement. This is just the normal energy levels of Israeli business meetings and should not be misconstrued as conflict.
It is also important to note that in Israel, a person’s gender or age is irrelevant to their level of accomplishment or the level of responsibility they may hold in an organization. Israeli society encourages independence and responsibility at an early age.
This is also as a result of the compulsory military service which exposes young people to high levels of responsibility in life and death situations on the battlefield.
Therefore, do not be surprised to see a young woman leading a very important megaproject. I’ve had the experience of accompanying leading Ghanaian business and public personalities into meetings where participants on the Ghanaian side expressed shock that the Israeli counterpart is a young woman in her early twenties. I’ve heard questions like: Is she the one leading their team or is there someone else?
Israeli business culture does not frown on making mistakes. It rather frowns on not trying. Therefore, in all commercial engagements, openness is key even if there is the need to report failure or bad news. An honest effort and opinion is always appreciated.
Simplicity and pragmatism are important hallmarks of Israelis and it shows in their business culture. It is often not uncommon to have senior business executives and government officials arrive for meetings with public transport – something members of my Ghanaian business delegations sometimes find strange because in Ghana, a private car (usually an SUV) is not only a means of transport but also a status symbol.
Finally, I would like to entreat our readers to ensure that when engaging in business relations with Israeli companies, all aspects of the dealings are documented in well-written contracts and all aspects of the business relationship are put on the table.
As with all business transactions it is dangerous to assume things or expect undocumented commitments to be upheld. This is true when dealing with Israeli businesses as it is dealing with businesses from all over the world.
It is impossible to share in this piece all the valuable lessons and illustrations I have gathered from my 7 years of working as a facilitator of trade and economic engagements between Israeli and Ghanaian businesses and 19 business trips to Israel mainly as the leader of business delegations from Ghana.
However, the Ghana Israel Business Chamber with offices in Labone, Accra is ready to provide further guidance and direction if you intend to look to Israel for business partnership opportunities.
Get in touch!
Contact Lesley on 055 516 5163/ 055 516 5164, or email [email protected]
The writer is the General Secretary – Ghana Israel Business Chamber