There are big advantages to being fluent in the language, systems, and culture of the countries with which you're doing business.
In a globalized world, business happens across borders, languages, and cultures. C-level executives have the most to gain from being able to deftly traverse those differences. That's why it's a good idea to start looking at not only how you might improve your own international savvy, but also start looking for those qualities while hiring for international roles.
Here are a few points to consider.
There's great advantage in reaching out to others in their native languages, like enhancing relationship-building, or, to take a step back, opening up new opportunities. And on a personal level, there are cognitive advantages to learning languages, as well.
Some noteworthy executives are multilingual. Mark Zuckerman, CEO and founder of Facebook, speaks English and Chinese; Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, speaks English and Spanish; Paul Bulke, CEO at Nestle, speaks Dutch, French, English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Admittedly, language learning isn't a strong suit for Americans. Pew Research shows that only 25% of American adults say they can speak another language aside from English. Of that group, 43% say they can speak it "very well." All the while, most students in Europe study their first foreign language by 9, and move on to a second language after that.
Part of the reason has to do with the way the American education system is set up. It's hard to start on that first foreign language by 9 when so many primary schools don't offer them.
More businesses are investing in foreign language studies for their executives. Though, that's not where efforts should stop in sensitizing Americans to the nuances of the different countries in which they want to do business.
Several years ago as an executive with internal responsibilities, I learned an important lesson: Every country has its own set of systems and regulations.
As a US IT executive, I soon discovered that other offshore factors also went into the development of successful IT systems abroad. First, accounting systems in different countries varied (in Germany at the time, numbers were expressed out to four decimal places to the right of the decimal). Second, regulatory requirements between countries differed (France far exceeded any other country's requirements for government report filings). Third, when you looked at commercial software that you wanted all of your offices to use, you had to spend a great deal of time looking at the caliber of vendor support. For instance, one vendor might have a stellar support force in France, but no support in Holland.
If they aren't already aware of it, most C-level executives charged with doing business internationally quickly learn that you must develop sensitivities to local business environments and customs to be successful. Executive consultant David Clive Price, talks about the importance of learning how to work through lengthy meetings, the dynamics of group (instead of individual) decision making, and the importance of recognizing different cultural and religious beliefs and how they factor into doing business in Asia.
Similarly, if you are doing business in the Middle East, recognizing the central role of Islamic customs in daily business life, such as the five times per day set aside for prayer, is important. So, too, is waiting to see if a female employee, when you are introduced, extends her hand for a handshake. If she doesn't, you shouldn't extend yours, as the gesture might be taken offensively. Finally, if you are negotiating or meeting, do not expect to operate with meeting agendas organized as punch lists of topics. Instead, meeting formats in Middle Eastern countries tend to be circular and intuitive. They do not usually advance chronologically.
In another example, it is considered disrespectful in Japan to just place a business card into your pocket when you receive it. Instead, you are expected to carefully review the front and the back of the card, thoroughly digesting the information before you put the card away.
I learned a valuable lesson as a traveling executive in France that you don't place your bread on a plate when you are out for lunch. I committed this unacceptable act while at lunch with employees from my French office and it caused a virtual uproar. The proper dining etiquette was to place the bread on the bare tabletop, and not on a bread plate.
Lessons for companies wanting to conduct business abroad
You can gain a distinct competitive advantage by mastering the nuances and cultural sensitivities of the different countries that you work in, not to mention the greater mental dexterity that you acquire. If you are a human resource executive, you should be considering revising job descriptions for key international positions to ensure that malleability and the ability to work within different cultures is a prerequisite. Above all, if you are doing business abroad, you should at the top of your game not only in the fine details of business interactions, but in every other aspect of communication that surrounds them.