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Language and Leadership: Bringing Non-native English Speakers to the Table

David Kertzner
July 24, 2018

Several years ago, a ProActive English client– a global software company - decided to shift the cost center for language and communication training from HR to individual departments. 

While this freed up HR to facilitate leadership programs, department heads did not suddenly have extra time to implement language training. Thus, the decision effectively meant less language training for many valued knowledge workers at the company who needed help to go from good to great.  

When I asked the HR manager whom I had been working with if the company would integrate non-native speakers into the new leadership training track, she responded, ‘Well, we assume a sufficient level of English skill for employees to choose or be chosen to participate in leadership training.’ 

Understandable – but there’s the rub.  Many non-native English speakers who might be excellent candidates for leadership training will not choose or will not be chosen to participate. They face a confidence gap, within themselves about their language skills or from managers, who are not sure the non-native speaker can manage the interpersonal communication of leadership. Everyone loses. 

Reap the Rewards of Diversity

Companies that reduce these barriers reap a nice reward. More diverse leadership training (including non-native speakers) leads to more diverse leadership, which positively impacts the bottom line. 

According to a January 2018 McKinsey &Co report, titled Delivering Through Diversity

On executive teams:

  • Greater gender diversity = 21% more likely to outperform counterparts on profitability
  • Greater ethnic/cultural diversity = 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability

So how do we get there?

First, facilitate language fluency at higher levels so non-native English speakers can more easily demonstrate leadership potential. 

ProActive English recently led a workshop (“The Language of Leadership”) for mid-to-senior-level managers, analysts and developers from France, Israel, China, India, Russia and Japan, employed together in the Silicon Valley office of a global company. Participants examined language needed to articulate understanding of the Leadership Principles of their organization. This culminated with discussion of why some colleagues in their global offices were not embracing these valued principles. It was the kind of exciting discussion that leaders at any level of an organization would engage in – with enthusiasm.  

Workshop participants also asked for help jumping into conversations among their native English-speaking colleagues. How could they manage the sports banter among a group of Americans, mostly men? What exactly is the inside joke that colleagues might be laughing about? Most importantly, they wanted to know how to congratulate, console, listen and advise with confidence when a colleague shares momentous information. Isn’t this the supportive, curious, compassionate leadership posture companies want to foster?

Relatively short training programs can bring about the learning needed to handle such communication moments.

Second, recognize and reduce the impact of intrinsic bias when assessing the experience of non-native English speakers and in determining their abilities.

A 2014 Harvard Business Review article titled How Non-native Speakers Can Crack the Glass Ceiling included research suggesting it often isn’t the actual language abilities of non-native speakers standing in their way, but rather, a negative perception of communication styles rooted in cultural difference.

One study cited looked at entrepreneurs seeking venture funding and found that unaccented speakers were, on average, 23% likelier to have gotten funding despite comparable language fluency in both groups. Another found that native English speakers, regardless of race, were significantly more likely to be recommended for a job, compared to non-native speakers. 

In both studies, functional language ability wasn’t what held non-native speakers back. It was the assessment that they lacked interpersonal skills, which is more a function of cultural difference than an intrinsic language problem. Increasing self-awareness of these biases among decision-makers can help change that!

A final consideration for companies seeking to increase participation of non-native English speakers in leadership training is developing a comprehensive Organizational Language Strategy that establishes a predictable training path for improving language skills. Predictable paths get people to where they want to go.

An Organizational Language Strategy can also include developing a framework for how English is used around the company and generating best practices to support non-native speakers – such as checking for comprehension regularly in conference calls and in presentations, becoming more self-aware of idiom usage and colloquial language and promoting self-study resources on a corporate university Web site.

An enterprise-wide approach to implementing such measures can increase engagement among non-native speakers and expand opportunities for expressions of leadership – and save a lot of time!

We can do this!

At company after company, from Silicon Valley to Silicon Fen (Cambridge, England), non-native English speakers have made themselves critical players at most levels of an organization’s daily operations, but they are not nearly so well represented at the top. Companies who seek out greater diversity in all aspects of their organization’s growth will be creating a competitive edge over those companies who do not. The best companies already do.

 

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