I recently came across a rather interesting article on bloomberg.com about the importance of language skills for heads of global corporations. The article cites a few examples of CEOs who resigned from their positions due to their inability to establish trust with key stakeholders, which may have been, in part, attributable to their failure to communicate with those in their native tongue. In this era of globalisation and world-wide acceptance of English as the new lingua franca, do foreign CEOs really need to be fluent in the language of the country they work in in order to succeed in their jobs?
I know that quite a few people would answer this question with a resounding "No". Needless to say, some of these people are most likely native English speakers who do not know any foreign languages and, from their point of view, speaking English is more than enough in a business environment, seeing as English has now become the language of finance, commerce, IT etc. Indeed, many global corporations have adopted English as their corporate language and have put internal rules in place in order to ensure that, for example, all internal email communication is conducted in English only and only English is spoken in the office. Rakuten, a Japanese online marketplace giant, is a case in point. Its CEO Hiroshi Mikitani famously adopted an English-only policy within his organisation and reportedly even threatened to sack any employees who failed to become sufficiently proficient in English within a certain period of time. Needless to say, that decision caused quite a stir in Japan. Demanding that Japanese staff of a Japanese company communicate with each other in English at work may be a step too far for some, but I can definitely see where Mr. Mikitani was coming from.
I do not think that it is unreasonable to expect that employees of global companies have a good command of English. That is just common sense. But if we take Europe as an example, can we say with any degree of certainty that every single person living in Europe is perfectly fluent in English? I certainly do not think so. Therefore, language barriers do exist and in my personal experience people do tend to react a lot more positively when a foreigner living in their country addresses them in their native language.
What about global CEOs then? They are no exception. Sure, if you are the CEO of a German or Italian company and you only speak English, you can still excel at your job and achieve great results and be a good leader. But if you really want to gain the trust of your employees and customers alike, what better way of doing so than by showing them that you respect them and their culture enough to master the basics of German or Italian? Language skills are not everything. But they are important and their importance should not be underestimated.