Are languages really a business asset for international roles?

By Stirling Austin
Communication – a key success factor for international business development

Many UK companies are complacent about the need to include languages as a key skillset in the job specification for international positions, however, this is a critical factor for success when developing cross-border business.

It is a dangerous assumption to believe that English is the only language needed for communication in the global economy. It can have a crucial effect – surveys of exporting businesses show that nearly half have experienced linguistic or cultural barriers and one in five has lost business as a result. In today’s competitive environment, we cannot afford to be complacent about the way we communicate with our international customers and business partners. We need good communication to understand and build our overseas markets, forge relationships, capitalise on opportunities, and use resources efficiently.

When recruiting, remember you can buy in your own language but you must sell in the language of your customer

Whereas a candidate would not be considered without relevant market sector and managerial experience, it is frequently forgotten that, due to lack of a manager’s linguistic skills, foreign managers, colleagues, clients, suppliers or business contacts may not be able to build a strong relationship with the manager, and be at a disadvantage and even resentful if meetings are being held in English. If an executive in the UK was unable to communicate efficiently to his team about products and strategy he would not be employed, so if this was the case in a foreign context why would the same principles not be applied?

The products and services we make and supply are also provided by other, non-native English-speaking economies. If their executives possess the language skills to communicate in the local market, whilst yours don’t, then there is a strong possibility that your competitor will win the contract and develop the relationship further.

Sounds like double dutch to me

Think of it this way. You are approached by two executives from foreign companies wishing to do business with you. The first executive speaks pidgin English, or none at all, and expects you to speak his language, the other speaks English fluently, has experience of working in your market, and understands the business culture. How would you feel towards the first? Even if the first company’s product was better, what happens if there is a post-sale problem? Indeed, language skills stimulate creativity and provide access to contacts and information not available in English, thus giving a competitive edge.

True global companies regard language skills as a ‚given‘ within the cadre of senior or aspirant management, in the same way, that multilingual websites cover international markets. Employees and managers must be able and willing to think and act in international terms. These companies tend not to think of themselves as UK businesses and do not distinguish between UK nationals and others when recruiting. Despite the need to develop better working relationships with foreign subsidiaries, which in many cases may represent a significant proportion of overall profits and potential growth, many advertised positions for international managers who run teams state only that “another relevant language would be an advantage”.

It makes good business sense for any company’s HR policies to stipulate languages and intercultural skills for international roles, whilst explicitly acknowledging that building the business outside the UK depends upon experts possessing not only knowledge of local business practices and protocols, but also linguistic and cultural affinity with their clients.

Good business planning, seriousness about researching and understanding markets, and concern for effective communication with both clients and workforce, all go hand in hand with positive attitudes towards languages and building successful and sustainable international business relationships.

About the author

Stirling Austin has developed manufacturing and distribution businesses in the UK, France, and across Europe, with turnovers ranging from £2M- to £50M. Bilingual French/English, he is now based in Manchester and runs Pixel Executive, a Digital Agency specialising in building multi-language websites that help businesses grow both locally and internationally.

Stirling founded NIM Europe, an Interim Management firm based in Paris, sourcing Interim Managers and Executives for US/UK companies with subsidiaries in France, and for French companies with UK subsidiaries. After 5 years of successful organic growth; he sold the business on. The company continued going from strength to strength and is now one of the leading Interim Management firms in France.


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