English mandate in business revisited
“Global business speaks English.” It makes a lot of sense. It is the title of a recent article published by the Harvard Business Review. To cut to the chase, the point is that English is the common business language. In the world of borderless business, we conduct business in it. It is the language of some 1.75 billion people worldwide, or the language spoken by one in every four people. So, the message is we can’t survive without being able to speak it.
You are a sales manager at a headquarters in Seoul. An urgent call is set up with managers in Germany and Malaysia. It concerns a serious customer complaint about products that are made in Malaysia and sold in Germany by a brand developed in Korea. But you can’t jump in on the call because you only speak Korean. It’s a shame if communication can’t happen because of that. What language would be the most effective for the call anyway?
How about a situation in which multimillion-dollar tax assessments are made in subsidiaries in France and Indonesia? The clock is ticking and a business decision has to be made in the moment. You can’t wait for an email reply to arrive the next day. You should talk to them live. You, as a finance manager, are about to speak to counterparts in France and Indonesia at the same time. The answer seems a no-brainer.
The reality is that it’s easier said than done. All things considered, it doesn’t sound like your job to take part in the communication; that is for someone who can speak English. In the past, every time you talked to overseas colleagues, you had to get yourself an oral translator to enable communication. This, however, is no longer the case.
Our exports and imports exceeded $1 trillion in 2011. Our markets have expanded globally. We have acquired global companies. The value chains spread around the globe. Our customers are in every corner of the world. This is where we are today.
To run a global ship, effective communication in a common language is not just critical but indeed indispensible. Like it or not, English is the No. 1 language and not just for sales and marketing people. The ability to communicate in English has long been a critical skill necessary for finance and accounting managers in order for them to deal with complex global issues about those service functions. Not to mention the importance of English to senior management.
However, pushing the idea of an English mandate in the workplace and making it happen, not only sounds like an uphill battle but looks more like a long shot. Obstacles lie ahead but this is no big surprise. Employees who are not ready will fear that their performance will suffer, poor evaluations will follow, and their jobs will be put at risk. Resistance is a very natural reaction.
What is the best way to win the hearts and minds of all stakeholders? An adopted framework suggested by the article considers key success factors. First and foremost, engaging with everyone _ employees at all levels including top management and people in all locations, non-native speakers and native speakers _ is the most important first step.
In particular, without employees buying-in, the mandate will fall apart. To achieve this, leaders and managers first help people improve their belief in their English abilities _ a mentality of “you-can-do-it” or “I-believe-in-you.” These two key aspects of employees buying-in and belief in their ability to communicate in English should work together, one reinforcing the other.
When it comes to making it really happen, the top levels of management and leaders are role models. If they don’t stick to this mandate, nobody else will. No exceptions should be allowed, come hell or high water.
English is not about language training. It is about communication and performance in the global business community. To stay ahead in global competition, it is important to think and act like you are a global player. Don’t forget to speak and communicate like one as well. But remember this won’t happen overnight either.
Kim Tae-hyung is a partner at Deloitte.