Multilingual Skills, Cultural Understanding Rise in Importance

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A recent study finds a slight increase in the demand for leaders with skills in multiple languages, combined with a spike in employers providing language training. Yet experts say that language skills alone are not enough to ensure global business success.

“Language training is a good start for preparing executives to succeed on global assignments. But it is only that: a good first step,” according to Mohamed Ly, GPHR, SPHR, executive director of and, which offer recruiting of multilingual professionals and language services. “Many reputable organizations, large and small, misguidedly select employees who may very well be bilingual, but actually lack the ability and cultural [competence] to conduct business in a foreign language, let alone in foreign markets,” he wrote in an email interview with SHRM Online.

Nevertheless, the demand for those with multilingual skills is on the increase, according to “Developing Successful Global Leaders,” a report released Aug. 20, 2012, by AMA Enterprise, in conjunction with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and Training magazine.

The study asked more than 1,000 companies on six continents to provide information about their global leadership development programs as well as their revenue growth, market share, profitability and customer focus in order to differentiate the practices of high-performing and low-performing companies.

Of the respondents, 31 percent reported their companies operated globally, 20 percent were multinational and 49 percent were national.

Among the 325 respondents who said their companies had global leadership development programs in place:

  • Nearly 14 percent of those deemed to be “high-performing” companies hire only multilingual candidates for management positions, up from 10 percent in 2010.
  • The percentage of high-performing companies that provide language training or reimbursement for such training for all employees has more than doubled in one year, up from 10 percent in 2011 to 23 percent in 2012.
  • 21 percent of high-performing companies select managers for assignments based on language skills but don’t require multilingual proficiency.
  • 15 percent of high-performing companies provide language training only for those considered to be “high potential” employees.

By comparison, lower-performing companies were more than twice as likely as higher-performing companies to say they do not require multilingual skills or provide language training of any kind (48 percent v. 23 percent).

Similarly, lower performing companies were more than twice as likely as higher performing companies to advise “high-potential” employees to obtain multilingual proficiency without providing resources for them to do so (9 percent vs. 4 percent).

The Language of Business

In order to make a case for leaders with language competency companies must first evaluate the need for language skills based on the nature of their business interactions, experts say. Though many believe English is the language of business around the world, for example, that is not necessarily the case.

“English is currently perceived as the predominant language of business throughout the world, but that may be changing,” said Sandi Edwards, senior vice president for AMA Enterprise, in a press statement. “Forward-thinking organizations clearly see the value of the multilingual leader and look for greater language proficiency in their global leadership candidates.”

“While English continues to be mandated as the official language at a fast-growing number of foreign corporations, it remains essential for brands seeking to strengthen their position in emerging markets to reach out in local languages,” according to Ly.

Merely attempting to communicate in foreign markets’ local predominant languages can help business leaders connect with customers and build loyalty, Ly explained. “English is a transactional instrument while local languages are the ultimate tool for outreach,” he explained.

Moreover, knowledge of a local language is useful because language reflects—and helps people comprehend—local culture, according to Leslie Aguilar, author of Ouch! That Stereotype Hurts (Walk the Talk Co., 2006), a book and video-based training program, and founder of International Training and Development LLC, in Orlando, Fla.

“I strongly encourage organizations to provide language training or reimbursement for any employees—not just executives—who will be better able to meet company goals if they attain additional language skills,” Aguilar wrote SHRM Online in an e-mail. “This includes global leaders and staff, domestic leaders who manage other-language employees, and front-line staff who are customer-facing.”

“And, of course, targeted language classes or support should be available to any employees who need the language skills to complete their jobs,” she added.

Language Skills Are Insufficient for Global Success

Experts note that global leaders need a wide range of competencies in order to be successful.

“Beyond job-specific skills, executives and managers alike need to be worldly, multilingual and cross-culturally competent in order to succeed on global assignments,” Ly explained.

Thus, Aguilar recommends that organizations selecting leaders for key global positions evaluate candidates’ cultural knowledge and language skills, along with job skills and competencies, previous international experience, adaptability/flexibility and respect for diverse ways of thinking.

“Effective preparedness for global assignments calls for a wide range of complex and interlaced processes and principles that must play out in concert for individual and organizational success,” Ly wrote. “These include expectations-setting, pre-deployment assessment and selection, thorough and holistic pre-departure planning, cultural orientation, on-assignment training, support, coaching and mentoring, regular reviews and, most importantly, repatriation preparedness. “

Ly noted that without proper language training, adequate cultural awareness and knowledge of country-specific business protocols, leaders lack the level of sophistication and tact required to succeed in a global setting.

“Even when employees have absolutely no plans or desire to go abroad, they must take note: The world has settled right in in their corporate backyard,” Ly noted. “Therefore they must be adequately equipped, trained and educated in order to tackle the inherent complexities and challenges of local, yet increasingly diverse markets within markets.”

The AMA Enterprise study suggests there is considerable room to develop leaders who will operate globally. According to its report, there exists in 2012 a significant gap between the importance of, and the mastery global leaders demonstrate in, competencies such as cross-cultural employee engagement and collaborating with peers from multiple cultures.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.