17 January 2019
Internationally-focused Chinese companies can work to ensure that their key points of communication are “English-accessible”. Image:
Internationally-focused Chinese companies can work to ensure that their key points of communication are “English-accessible”. Image:

Culture globalization: The language aspect

As an American born in the 1980s, I have often thought of China as being synonymous with globalization. As a young child, I remember hearing of aunts and uncles and friends’ parents going off to Hong Kong on business trips. As a high school and university student, I would see news reports of vast city skylines that were seemingly built overnight, and learned in school of the aggressive expansion strategies that multinational corporations had for the Chinese market.

My first time in China was for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, which was billed by many as China’s “coming-out party” to the world.

Now, nearly a decade later, China remains synonymous with globalization, but in a different way. While western MNCs are not expanding into China at the pace they once were, an ever-increasing number of Chinese firms now express global ambitions.

This new wave of globalization for China looks fundamentally different than those that came before. In the past, foreign companies looked to attract Chinese talent and build brands that would appeal to Chinese consumers. Now, it’s Chinese companies looking to attract foreign talent and build brands that are appealing to consumers overseas.

Before, it was companies with foreign corporate cultures struggling to implement and adapt their way of doing business to Chinese local staff and markets. Now, Chinese corporate cultures struggle to implement and adapt their way of doing business to overseas staff and markets.

This poses a unique challenge to many of the leaders within those Chinese companies. In the case of many of the MNCs that entered China in the past few decades, it was common for them to place leaders in charge who had already spent significant amounts of time working in overseas markets and leading multicultural teams.

Many of those companies also had robust, well-established human resources policies and training systems for managing a globally diverse workforce.

In contrast, many Chinese companies that are now globalizing are far less mature in managing a global workforce, and while it may be relatively easy to find people in China with overseas experience, knowledgeable Chinese professionals with experience managing cross-cultural teams are still quite rare.

The concept of “diversity initiatives”, which are commonplace in the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural West, are almost unheard of in the Chinese HR and management lexicon, and puts Chinese firms in a uniquely disadvantaged position when it comes to attracting and retaining foreign talent and building positive employer branding overseas.

However, while it could seem daunting, there are simple, manageable steps that companies can take to foster a culture in which their global workforce can thrive and contribute to the organization’s success.

These steps evaluate culture through four dimensions: language, resonance of company values, management and leadership, and localization. In this piece will focus on the language aspect.

Language: Is your company ‘English accessible?’

When Lenovo acquired IBM’s PC business in 2005, they famously adopted English as the company’s official language. While it was a challenging adjustment, especially for the company’s Chinese leadership, many of the same leaders who struggled with the language transition now also credit it with being a key factor to the company’s global success.

However, when this took place, Lenovo was acquiring a company three times its size. The Chinese-speakers at the company immediately became outnumbered, which made the need for English immediate and glaring.

That need is less obvious for most international Chinese companies, which often have thousands of employees at home and only a few hundred overseas. For these companies, asking everyone to change their language would be inconvenient, unnecessary, and just plain silly.

With this in mind, it is important to be clear-eyed about the nature of the Chinese and English languages. I have had many Chinese friends and colleagues say, “Well, foreign companies insist that Chinese employees speak English, why can’t Chinese companies insist that their foreign employees speak Chinese?” To this, I usually make two points:

1. Foreign companies are far from perfect, and if you are looking for negative examples of foreign companies, you will always be able to find them. However, a lot of foreign companies have very progressive and inclusive language policies, and often the ones that do have more success. It is always wiser to benchmark yourself against the best practices, not the worst.

2. Most global professionals around the world accept the fact that if they want to do business internationally, they should speak English, and they prepare themselves for that. Chinese, while gaining in popularity, is studied by far fewer people, and in order to actively participate in a Chinese-speaking organization, it requires fluency that even few foreign Chinese-speakers have.

What’s more, with the exception of people in anglophone countries, most people use English as a second language, not their first. By using English, they ensure that they are communicating on “neutral territory”, where neither side has a clear disadvantage.

Let me be clear that I think Chinese companies should encourage their foreign employees to learn Chinese, and provide them with the opportunities to do so. However, the current realities of language cannot be ignored.

Chinese companies can choose to be stubborn and insist on Chinese if they would like, but they do so at a cost, causing them to have trouble recruiting high-quality overseas talent, and often resulting in products and services that are poorly localized to overseas markets.

However, rather than a complete language overhaul, companies can look at English the way that a city government might look at building codes for wheelchair-accessibility. While less than 1 percent of a population of a city will be confined to a wheelchair, most cities, at least in the developed world, mandate that all buildings and businesses be wheelchair-accessible. This way, disabled citizens can contribute their knowledge and skills to a society while the negative impact of their handicap is kept to a minimum.

In a similar vein, internationally-focused Chinese companies can work to ensure that their key points of communication are “English-accessible”. The focus of this is to ensure that while most people at the company will work in Chinese, all key points of communication and information will be accessible to non-Chinese speakers.

For key meetings, it means not only designating an English translator, but also designating time for them to speak as well. It also means at least providing an English-language summary for all company-wide emails and announcements.

To enforce handicap accessibility in buildings, cities will employ inspectors to ensure that buildings are up to standard. Your company can do something similar, by encouraging employees to take photos of non-English-accessible communication points in your company and share them in team WeChat groups.

However, there will always be blind spots. There is a famous joke in which one fish approaches another fish, and asks him, “How is the water?” The other fish answers, “What the hell is water?” The point of the joke is it’s easy to forget that your environment is only normal because it’s what you know. To those from different backgrounds, it might seem pretty strange. Because of this, it can be helpful to hire a few foreigners at your office and encourage them to flag language issues and bring them to the attention of leaders.

English development and your talent pool: The top-level and the overseas-facing

While some companies ambitiously aspire for every employee to be fluent in English, this is simply unrealistic for many China-based firms. It is, however, essential for globalizing Chinese companies to focus on two core groups, each in a different way: The global-level executives, and overseas-facing staff.

For global-level executives, it is not always realistic to expect them to have excellent English, and they often don’t have the time or patience to make huge developments in their ability. Therefore, rather than providing the executive with an English training program, it can be much more productive to provide them with someone to serve in the position of English communications support.

This person would not spend much time helping to develop the executive’s English skills, but rather help the executive have a presence in the English-speaking world, writing English-language versions of internal communications, managing the executive’s English-language social media, and coaching the executive when they do have to speak English in public, so as to avoid any embarrassing “Are you OK?” moments.

For overseas-facing staff, this includes anyone in the company who may be required to use English in their work, but is clearly most crucial for those who are required to spend a significant amount of time overseas. 

While making sure that key overseas staff are fluent in English may seem like an obvious step to take, I have been astonished by how frequently I have seen it as a problem since I started working for and writing about Chinese tech companies.

There was the case of a fast-expanding Chinese tech company that, for their go-to-market head in the US, chose an individual who could barely formulate basic English sentences.

“We were absolutely flabbergasted, being like, is this a joke?” said a former US-based employee who I spoke to about it.

He later said of his experience: “People would get frustrated with me, acting like I had the problem because I didn’t understand Chinese. It’s like, they’re doing business in the US, what do they expect?”

For another Chinese internet company that recently had a less-than-stellar foray into Silicon Valley, weak English competency had an impact on them as well.

“The team I was on had 10 to 15 people, but I was the only one who really had fluent English,” said one Chinese employee on their international marketing team.

“It was like working in the Chinese embassy,” said a former US employee of the company. “Outside, I was in California, but inside, it was China.”

In a third case, a Silicon Valley-based executive hired to run a North American expansion for a rapidly-growing Chinese start-up told a story of trying to work with the company’s “international expansion” team, which consisted of three people, only one of whom had passable English.

“I really could not see any reason why these people in particular were placed on a team responsible for international expansion.”

This trend has confused me. After all, English fluency is not an extremely difficult skill to find in China, and yet it would seem to be crucial for those tasked with working abroad. So why are there so many people with inadequate English on these international teams?

I took an unofficial survey of Chinese friends and colleagues of mine who have worked for companies like these and received a few interesting answers. “English skills are common, but loyalty is not, so a lot of leaders will appoint teams and people who are loyal, even if their skills cause them to fail at their jobs,” said a former colleague of mine.

Another friend also had some interesting insights, saying, “For many people in China, getting sent abroad for work, especially in North America, is a really good opportunity, because if they work there for a while, they could get a green card, and then live there permanently, so there is a lot of competition for those positions. In many cases, they could be given those roles as a reward for doing good work in the past, without really considering whether they had the skills to succeed abroad.”

To avoid this, it can be helpful for HR departments to implement both English-language training systems as well as assessment tools to provide clear benchmarks. For deciding who to send abroad, it can be helpful to have a calibrated assessment program, in which each member is tested, with requirements that the average level of the team be above a certain score.

This ensures that English competencies are emphasized, but allows for some flexibility on the team as well, since it is certainly possible that there are some people with poor English who can still manage to excel on overseas assignments.

Final thoughts

A few months ago, I had lunch with a former colleague of mine, whom I greatly respect. A more senior professional than me, she had previous experience working with Lenovo during their overseas expansion, and shared with me some of her thoughts.

“One of the problems with using English in meetings was that often the foreigners (usually the Americans) would dominate the conversation, seemingly arrogant, and not giving the Chinese people time to gather thoughts, or showing respect,” she said.

This is a common complaint I’ve heard, and I believe it is a genuine problem. Many companies have addressed this by implementing clear rules for meeting facilitation, giving fair allotment of time to those involved and ensuring that no one is allowed to dominate inappropriately.

The companies that are best at handling language issues all have something in common: To them, language is something that must be considered at a strategic level, and then executed from the top-down. While many companies say that English is important, and often pay for English training, real changes only happen when companies clearly ask themselves: “How will we communicate with our workforce and customers on a global scale?” And then act accordingly, at every level.

They are mindful and empathetic, and get out of their own heads, into those of the people they are trying to reach.

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The writer is a trainer, coach, and change management consultant who specializes in aiding Chinese companies as they globalize. To connect with him: On wechat at ezaagman, or on twitter at @elliottzaagman.

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