Photography: altrospazio, Roma Artwork: Tomás Saraceno, Cloudy Dunes. When Friedman meets Bucky on Air-Port-City, 2006
What’s Your Language Strategy?
Language pervades every aspect of organizational life. It touches everything. Yet remarkably, leaders of global organizations, whose employees speak a multitude of languages, often pay too little attention to it in their approach to talent management. As we have observed in countless organizations, unrestricted multilingualism creates inefficiency in even the most dedicated and talented workforces. It can lead to friction in cross-border interactions, lost sales, and a host of other serious problems that may jeopardize competitiveness (see also “Global Business Speaks English,”by Tsedal Neeley, HBR May 2012). Developing a comprehensive strategy for managing language can help transform that vulnerability into a source of competitive advantage.
Choosing a lingua franca, or common language, can dramatically improve how employees collaborate across borders—even though it also introduces new challenges. For one thing, the decision to adopt a lingua franca must be balanced with the need to speak local languages and adapt to local cultures. For another, individuals’ proficiency (or lack thereof) in the common language can cloud leaders’ judgment about how suitable those people are for specific assignments and promotions. Decision makers may undervalue or overvalue language skills and therefore misjudge talent.
We have learned through more than a decade of Tsedal Neeley’s research on language in global organizations and teams, and more than 20 years of Robert Kaplan’s leadership of global organizations, that language strategy is critical for global talent management. As a leader, you can factor language and cultural skills more deliberately into the hiring, training, assessment, and promotion of talent—and into the management of global teams—whether or not your company adopts a shared language. Of course, in a global firm, choices and tactics will vary somewhat according to the needs of each unit and region. But those differences must exist within a cohesive system that allows employees to function effectively across the organization and achieve key strategic priorities.
Indeed, your language strategy must fit with your firm’s value proposition to customers if you hope to penetrate various markets and coordinate among them. You need to consider how to infuse language into your core talent practices in order to deliver that value.Hiring and Training
When seeking superb job candidates, recruiters at global companies must be aware of potential blind spots regarding language. First, they may allow fluency (either in a lingua franca or in a local language) to overshadow their assessments of a candidate’s skills, growth potential, and knowledge of markets and cultures. To ensure that you are hiring the best people, you may need to accept some limitations on language capabilities and be prepared to provide training to meet both global and local language needs.
For example, although IBM long ago adopted English as its lingua franca, the company has identified eight other languages as important to serving local markets. IBM hires global professionals with the expectation of strengthening their language skills through immersive training, private coaching, or online learning. Further, employees know that certain international assignments carry with them a language-training requirement.
Another blind spot is a tendency to overrely on external lateral hires with a certain degree of language skill to fill midlevel roles rather than hiring and grooming outstanding junior candidates with the capacity and motivation to learn new languages. While the latter approach may initially take more time, companies often find that entry-level hires ultimately become their best leaders, because they have been trained from an early stage in company culture and practices. Defaulting to lateral hires can make it more difficult to build a cohesive culture—those recruits have been trained elsewhere and may have trouble assimilating. Excessive churn can be another issue: As months or years go by, companies may discover that lateral hires lack other critical competencies, even if their language skills are strong.
For those reasons, many global companies have improved their entry-level hiring capabilities and beefed up their language training. (See the sidebar “Making It Easier to Acquire Language Skills.”) That approach may require more patience, but it may actually help you build a cohesive global business much more quickly, because you’re not continually rehiring.
Evaluating Talent Accurately
Once you have improved your ability to hire and train global talent, you will need to keep language in perspective when evaluating employees’ performance and making promotion decisions. Language agility does not necessarily spell high performance. As a result, it is important to assess skills and various attributes through 360-degree evaluations, which solicit feedback from subordinates, peers, supervisors, and (when appropriate) clients. The process allows managers to look beyond verbal agility when gauging performance. It’s a reality check, a way to make sure that you and other leaders are not unduly swayed by fluency.
Jim, the head of a global bank’s Japan subsidiary, learned firsthand what can happen when leaders make promotion decisions without proper evaluation tools, such as a 360-degree review process. He had decided to promote Hiroshi Kato to a key leadership role in the unit. Having previously lived in the United States for more than 10 years, Kato was fluent in English as well as Japanese, which made it easy for Jim to communicate with him. Kato appeared to be well versed in Japanese culture and society. And Jim believed that Kato had good relationships with his colleagues and his clients.
Because Jim had been sent to Japan with the mission of building an indigenous team in order to develop a sustainable business, he was thrilled to be able to promote a Japanese professional. Initial reactions to the promotion seemed positive. But during a dinner with a senior Japanese employee, Jim discovered that he had judged people’s responses too quickly. The employee commented, “Kato’s peers don’t respect him. He is weaker than others in terms of job performance and relationships with clients. There were several other choices you could have made among Japanese staff that would have been much better. People can’t believe you made this decision.”
After digging deeper, Jim realized that he had conflated Kato’s fluency in English with high-level management and client skills. After thinking through how to avoid similar mistakes in the future, he introduced a 360-degree evaluation process. This new tool allowed Jim to consider much broader and deeper assessments of employees’ performance instead of relying on his impressions, which were strongly influenced by language proficiency and his own ability to relate to an employee.
Many companies send seasoned professionals to lead business units outside their home countries. Although expatriates may not be familiar with the local language, culture, and business practices, they can bring knowledge of organizational culture along with an understanding of the company’s products, processes, and systems. But hiring, training, and succession planning must be an important part of their assignments. In particular, they need to focus on developing local talent and ensuring that indigenous professionals begin to play leadership roles in the local businesses.
Consider the following example. The CEO of a major financial institution grew frustrated with its struggle to establish a strong presence in Asia. The company couldn’t seem to build a cadre of local leaders in the region, even though it continually sent in expatriates in an effort to do so. Each assignment lasted three to five years. Knowing that the current region head would soon return home to the United States, the CEO debriefed him on his experience. The expatriate proudly described his efforts to call on leading clients in the region and explained that he was looking forward to having another expatriate take his place. When the CEO asked him to discuss the top 10 indigenous professionals in the region, it quickly became clear that the expatriate hadn’t made local talent development a high priority. He never actively mentored or coached local lieutenants, nor did he try to improve entry-level hiring. There was no career development committee for high potentials. Even though the expatriate had been trained in Mandarin by the firm, when critical assignments came up he tended to give them to other expats who spoke fluent English and were therefore easier to relate to.
Alarmed, the CEO immediately changed his approach with expatriates. He met with the next region head to clarify performance expectations before the assignment began. “I expect you to develop and train local leaders,” he said. “I don’t want you covering any client without a local partner. I will evaluate you not on how much business you bring in but on how well you develop this office so that we’ve built something sustainable after you’ve returned to headquarters.” The CEO also encouraged the expatriate to take six months of intensive Mandarin classes, which would at least provide him with a minimal level of fluency. This expatriate, realizing that he was sent to Asia to be a leader and manager, not just a producer, did a much better job than his predecessor.
In addition to clarifying the role of expatriates, think about the people you’re choosing to send abroad. To build a strong team of local leaders, it’s critical to give expatriate assignments to your best people—not just to solid contributors who happen to have the right language skills and are more easily dispensed with at home. Otherwise, you may find that your firm’s global offices fail to attract, develop, and retain the strong indigenous talent they need for high performance.
The CEO of a highly successful global industrial firm learned that lesson after many years of sending expatriates to head up non-U.S. offices, with mixed results. A friend who ran a global consumer goods company suggested, “These overseas assignments are really tough. You have to do more to build an indigenous team, cultivate successors, deal with an unfamiliar market and culture, and probably wrestle with a lower market share than you have in your home market.” While this trusted peer acknowledged that the highest performers were “never available,” his advice was to “make them available” by turning the overseas roles into high-status jobs. “In our company,” he said, “it is widely known that only the very best get these assignments. If you want to be promoted in our company, you probably need to have done at least one.”
Upon hearing this advice, the CEO compiled a list of his 50 most talented leaders and rising stars. When he asked someone near the top of the list to take the next overseas opening, that person’s manager complained vociferously that the employee couldn’t be spared. The CEO realized that this was exactly the caliber of expatriate the firm needed in order to improve its overseas operations. The company then launched a program in which only the very best performers were given expatriate assignments.
The CEO reflected, “Our best people are better able to adapt to local cultures....They are less likely to let language differences shade their assessments of performance. They are willing to adapt their own leadership styles to fit the situation and develop local talent. They are confident enough to play the role we need them to play.” Once employees perceived the overseas offices as plum assignments, they began to volunteer for them. Performance radically improved as measured by market share, talent development, and profitability. The company truly began to cultivate strong indigenous successors—a step that was critical to building a global enterprise.
Managing Communication on Global Teams
When organizations with globally dispersed teams adopt a lingua franca or require proficiency in local languages, tensions inevitably arise. Our recent studies at a wide variety of global companies reveal, for instance, that managers often unwittingly position native speakers of a lingua franca as “winners” within the firm; consequently, nonnative speakers experience a substantial loss of power and status. If companies don’t take such issues into account, they can cause otherwise talented and engaged professionals to underperform and even withdraw.
Take Renée, who works for a $25 billion high-tech multinational headquartered in France that chose English as its main language. Renée, whose English fluency is low, describes her experience this way: “When we have a meeting or conference call to discuss an issue or to make decisions, I often feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, I must confess, my solution is to get away with not attending meetings that include English coworkers. It’s just too frustrating and embarrassing because of my limited English language skills.”
Yvette, one of Renée’s colleagues, is a highly fluent but nonnative English speaker. She participates in conference calls with her San Francisco counterparts twice a week. Despite her strong language skills, she finds those calls stressful and frustrating. As she explains, “We need to be extra cautious, because the Americans’ mastery of the language may lead them to take advantage of us and try to fool us.” Her coworkers voice similar fears.
A German multinational has experienced similar friction between native and nonnative colleagues. Local employees often invite only German-speaking team members to meetings or schedule calls for the middle of the night U.S. time, so that their American counterparts won’t be able to attend. “If we are going to extend the meeting to a larger forum and we have to talk in English, then I say ‘No! No, I don’t want to do this,’” a German employee admits.
When employees struggle to express themselves in meetings or get excluded because they aren’t fluent in the chosen language, communication can become wholly unpleasant. Global managers must deal directly with such issues to promote productive global cooperation. They must be sensitive to how employees of varying language proficiency are interacting. The goal is to make it easier for native and nonnative speakers to establish trust and communicate effectively. Managers’ observations should include the following: Who attends meetings? Who speaks up? Are the best employees contributing, or is language getting in the way? It’s then important to facilitate meetings and calls so that nonnative and native speakers get equal airtime. Often this means coaching primary-language people to speak less and second-language people to speak more. It also involves setting clear agendas up front, considering the mode of communication, and thinking through meeting choreography in advance.
Wajid Jalaldin, an experienced global team leader at Oracle, is a master of that kind of orchestration. His current team members, spread across 14 countries, must work closely together to build and maintain customized software systems for clients around the world. Wajid routinely manages meeting airtime to improve the effectiveness of team members with varying levels of English fluency. He models and evaluates inclusive meeting behaviors, such as asking open-ended questions, using silence as a tool to give colleagues an opportunity to speak, and directly addressing team members who haven’t yet participated. Most important, Wajid praises less-fluent team members for their contributions, which instills confidence.
Building Cultural Awareness
As we’ve discussed, language training is an important investment in employees. But language fluency does not equal cultural fluency—for either global leaders or their subordinates. Too often leaders underperform because they fail to adapt their management styles and practices to fit a multicultural environment. For them, understanding the cultural background of each team member, the role of the company, its products and services, and the customers it serves within various cultural and regional contexts is as essential as learning to conjugate new verbs.
The same can be said for employees at all levels: Even when team members are fluent in the lingua franca, a lack of cultural awareness can cause significant misunderstandings and disagreements; it can lead to divergent group norms, practices, and expectations. To prevent such rifts, cross-cultural training must be embedded in language training. This training should focus on the types of negotiations employees might undertake, the decisions they will face, the social events in which they might participate—and the wide variation in behaviors and preferences across cultures.
The CEO of a global technology company adopted English as its lingua franca for cross-border contact, although employees spoke their local languages within their home countries. Despite their great efforts to communicate in the shared language with international colleagues, the CEO received numerous reports of friction between offices. He realized that much of the problem stemmed from insensitivity to cultural differences and intolerance on the part of managers. For example, one leader said he found it frustrating that he could never get a clear “yes” or “no” when talking by telephone to a peer in Indonesia. He failed to take into account the importance of building a relationship, the value of face-to-face communication, and the impact of cultural differences. Lacking that awareness, he projected his home-country norms onto his peer.
After numerous reports of similar issues, the CEO decided to integrate cultural training into language development programs for senior leaders. In each training session, the company did a mini-tutorial relating to cultural norms associated with specific countries and languages. For example, Portuguese language training included a mini-tutorial on cultural norms in Brazil. This approach was so effective that the CEO began to use his global senior leadership conferences as an opportunity to help team members learn more about the cultural aspects of their various country counterparts. He also began to emphasize cross-border cultural sensitivity in both year-end reviews and interim coaching sessions. These efforts, he found, improved coordination and reduced friction.
That example highlights an important point: Managers must be trained and held accountable for ensuring that language and cultural skills are developed throughout their organizations. Progress should not be solely the responsibility of the HR department and individual managers. Senior executives need to model the behaviors they’re trying to cultivate in their people. In assessing their performance, year-end evaluations should address issues such as respect for others and cultural differences, the ability to foster such respect in subordinates, and the ability to adapt management styles to fit diverse cultural contexts and interact with employees who have varying degrees of fluency.
Ultimately, this diversity of language and cultural background should be reflected in the composition of the organization’s senior leadership team.
Language is a vital link to your talent management strategy. Even if your company decides not to adopt a lingua franca, you can’t neglect language. In fact, it should touch every talent decision you make as a global leader. By managing it carefully, you can acquire and develop the very best employees, close gaps between native and nonnative speakers as they collaborate to meet strategic goals, and strengthen your company’s footing in local markets. In short, you can turn language into a source of competitiveness.