If you’ve been tasked with choosing and implementing a language training program for your company, you know that there just aren’t a lot of resources out there to help guide you. We’re trying to change that by sharing tips, insights and strategies from our years of experience in language training.
From time to time, we’ll also point you toward other resources we’ve found exceptionally valuable. One article that we’ve shared again and again is “What’s Your Language Strategy?” Published by Harvard Business Review, the article was written by Tsedal Neeley of Harvard Business School and Robert Steven Kaplan, president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Neeley and Kaplan give an excellent overview of the questions that multilingual organizations should consider as they establish a language strategy. A company’s strategy will then set the direction of the language training it offers. As the authors point out, however, many leaders of global companies fail to recognize language strategy as a vital part of talent management. That’s a big mistake. Based on our own work with Fortune 500 clients, we can affirm these points from the HBR article:
1. A language strategy is essential. Different companies have different language strategies. For example, some global organizations use a lingua franca, while others do not. The important thing, though, is that your organization has a cohesive, codified approach so that everyone is on the same page. In multilingual companies, language issues crop up in every aspect of talent management, Neeley and Kaplan point out. Language affects how your company hires employees, how you train them, how employees work together and how you evaluate and promote them. It’s too important of a factor to leave to chance.
2. A good language strategy keeps your company competitive. How your organization navigates language differences can be a vulnerability or a strength. With an effective language strategy, you head off misunderstandings or communication breakdowns that can impede progress on key goals. This is a good place to note that a language strategy isn’t just about language training. It’s also about exercising cultural sensitivity and providing cultural training to ensure smooth collaboration. In the HBR article, Neeley and Kaplan share an anecdote about a global technology company that was experiencing friction between international offices. The CEO “realized that much of the problem stemmed from insensitivity to cultural differences and intolerance on the part of managers.” So he decided that senior leaders would receive cultural training alongside their language development training. He also emphasized cultural sensitivity in year-end reviews. As a result of his efforts, employees in different locations now work together more smoothly. And that, of course, helps make the company more competitive.
3. Language strategy helps companies make better hires. Without a thoughtful language strategy, a candidate’s fluency in either the local language or the company lingua franca can carry too much weight in the hiring process. We agree with Neeley and Kaplan here: “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.” One company doing this is IBM, where new hires come onboard with the expectation that they will improve their language skills through the company’s programs.
4. Language strategy supports sustainable growth. Another compelling anecdote from the HBR article involves the head of a global bank’s Japanese subsidiary. The executive, Jim, was excited to promote an employee named Hiroshi Kato as part of his mandate to build an indigenous team in the region. But as he talked to colleagues, he realized that Kato actually lacked the skills needed for his new role. What happened? Jim realized he promoted Kato because he felt comfortable with him due to his English fluency. He conflated his language ability with overall competence. With an effective language strategy and language training programs, companies are more likely to hire and promote the best overall local employees — not just the ones who speak a certain language. Neeley and Kaplan add that companies should “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.” This is another powerful argument for having effective language training programs in place.
Be sure to check out the full article by Neeley and Kaplan in HBR. It’s one you’ll want to save for reference. And don’t forget to return to our blog regularly as we explore topics like these in greater depth. Ready to talk more about your company’s language strategy and training? Contact us to learn more.