Thursday, January 17, 2013

Help Your Global Talent Succeed and Lead - Cultivate Communication Skills

Guest post by Nancy Vason:

As leaders of global businesses, you draw from a deep well of talent. You employ engineers, plant managers, economists, IT managers and marketing directors from all over the world.  Most are highly educated, technically competent professionals. But are they effective communicators?

Today, communication effectiveness is judged in part on how well these professionals express themselves in English. According to the Harvard Business Review, English is now the global language of business, and more and more multinational companies are mandating English as the common corporate language.

The challenge for your non-native managers is not simply to speak English with correct grammar, but to speak convincingly and confidently.

A 2011 white paper jointly published by the GlobalEnglish Corporation and Human Capital Institute reported that 70% of global employees are non-native speakers – and only 7% think they speak English well enough to do their jobs.

The non-native speakers in your company may perform their daily responsibilities well. But what else do their jobs require? Are they leading global teams? Are they making presentations to executives? Are they sharing their ideas on conference calls? Are they debating strategies in meetings? 

If so, they need persuasive communication skills. In fact, their ability to communicate will determine their future as leaders. Why? Because leadership requires sharing your vision, forging relationships built on trust, and convincing others that your ideas have merit.

So let’s look further at this topic and explore two questions:
  1. What communication skills are most critical for non-native speakers?
  2. How can you cultivate the communication skills of your global team?

What Communication Skills Are Most Critical?

From my experience, non-native speakers must be able to express their ideas clearly, whether in formal presentations or informal meetings. They need to demonstrate credibility, connect with their listeners and be confident of their English.

Credibility starts with having a clear, concise message. Most non-native speakers try to share their depth of knowledge instead of focusing on the needs of their listeners. When preparing their remarks, they need to ask: what issue or challenge is important to my listeners and how will my recommendation address that? Also, what is the most critical information my listeners need to know? Then they should limit the discussion to 2-3 key ideas and support them with examples, anecdotes and data. This keeps the discussion focused and prevents the non-native speaker from struggling with long explanations.

Connecting with the listener involves having great eye contact and displaying great passion for the topic. In business, people trust people who look them right in the eye.
Because of cultural differences, this can be hard for some non-native speakers. A native Korean with 10+ years in international business recently shared an example with me. Several years ago, she and her Australian boss interviewed a gentleman from Korea for a job. She thought the Korean man answered their questions well, but her Australian manager disagreed. His impression was that he was not interested in selling his ideas because he stared at the wall during the conversation. Ultimately, his lack of direct eye contact cost him the job.

Being confident in speaking English is a hurdle for most non-native speakers. If they lack confidence, they may decline opportunities to speak or hold back during team discussions. The non-native speaker should not aspire to be perfect, but rather to be understood. Accents are only a problem when they prevent comprehension of words and ideas.  To build confidence, non-native speakers should rehearse their presentations out loud multiple times before they present. Preparing for questions is even more important. By anticipating the questions, writing them down in advance, and practicing answers out loud, the non-native speaker will feel more in control.

How Can You Cultivate Your Team’s Communication Skills?

As a leader, you set the tone in the way you communicate. Be sensitive to the challenges non-native speakers face. Provide a supportive work environment that encourages dialogue, collaboration and professional development. Reward the expression of thoughts, even if they are not perfectly stated. Here are a few other ideas:

Start a mentoring program. This will allow non-native speakers to learn from seasoned colleagues. For example, the mentor might listen to the speaker’s presentations and give feedback on confusing phrases or mispronounced words. Mentors can also suggest resources and tools to help the non-native speaker improve English competency. For example in Atlanta, the Georgia Tech Language Institute offers tutors who can help business people improve their English language skills.

Offer leadership development programs. Many global companies have successful programs, and they reinforce the value international managers bring to the organization. In some programs, non-native speakers participate in cross-functional teams to solve problems and present recommendations to senior management. Team presentations allow managers to showcase their expertise without having to be the only speaker on stage.  In another example, a large beverage manufacturer sponsors a global leadership program for women. It gives participants the opportunity to make persuasive business presentations to a small group of colleagues, with two executives on hand to give constructive feedback. 

Encourage your managers to attend communication skills training programs. These courses help participants enhance their verbal skills. Whether the focus is on presentation skills, negotiation skills, interviewing skills or media training, the programs typically include relevant practice on camera with feedback from a coach.  Our company, Speechworks, offers a presentation skills class specifically for non-native speakers.

Global businesses benefit from having a culturally diverse, highly talented work force. Non-native English speakers typically have strong technical and operational skills. But to succeed and to lead, they need to be persuasive communicators.

You can cultivate these skills within your global company. Be an advocate for persuasive communication, accurately assess the needs of your team, and provide opportunities for them to grow and develop. Then watch as their confidence soars!

About the Author: Nancy Vason is an executive coach at Speechworks, an Atlanta-based communication skills coaching firm that helps business leaders connect with audiences and get results. Through global clients like The Coca-Cola Company, Novelis and Jabil, Nancy helps executives from many different cultures become confident communicators. She also teaches Business Communication in the Georgia Tech MBA program, where most of her international students are non-native speakers. For more information, please visit 

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