Article | Harvard Business Review

What's Your Language Strategy?: It Should Bind Your Company's Global Talent Management and Vision

by Tsedal Neeley and Robert Steven Kaplan

Abstract

Language pervades every aspect of organizational life. Yet leaders of global organizations—where unrestricted multilingualism can create friction—often pay too little attention to it in their approach to talent management. By managing language carefully, firms can hire and develop the best employees, improve collaboration on global teams, and strengthen the company's footing in local markets. Language proficiency—either in a lingua franca, or shared language, or in a local language—does not guarantee high performance. Recruiters may favor fluency over other capabilities. They may rely on external hires with language skills rather than grooming internal candidates with the capacity and motivation to learn new languages. And leaders may give expatriate assignments not to the best candidates but to people who speak certain languages. To hire and promote the best people, firms may need to provide training to meet global and local language needs. Fluency in a language also does not equal cultural fluency. For leaders, understanding the cultural background of each team member and customers is as essential as learning to conjugate new verbs. The same can be said for employees at all levels: even when they are fluent in the lingua franca, a lack of cultural understanding can cause significant misunderstandings. To prevent such rifts, language training must include cross-cultural education.

Citation:

Neeley, Tsedal, and Robert Steven Kaplan. "What's Your Language Strategy? It Should Bind Your Company's Global Talent Management and Vision." R1409D. Harvard Business Review 92, no. 9 (September 2014): 70–76.