The vendors need to be intimately familiar with the company context so that they can guide employees’ learning, from how best to allocate their time in improving skills to strategies for composing e-mails in English. Rakuten considers language development to be part of every job and grants people time during the workday to devote to it. Every morning, employees can be seen flipping through their study books in the company’s cafeteria or navigating their e-learning portals.
Shifts in buy-in call for different measures. But they don’t operate in isolation: Buy-in and belief go together. Strategies that can help people feel more confident include:
Messaging, messaging, and more messaging.
Continual communication from the CEO, executives, and managers is critical. Leaders should stress the importance of globalization in achieving the company’s mission and strategy and demonstrate how language supports that. At Rakuten, Mikitani signaled the importance of the English-language policy to his entire organization relentlessly. For instance, each week some 120 managers would submit their business reports, and he would reply to each of them pushing them to develop their language skills. I surveyed employees before and after Rakuten implemented the adoption framework. Results indicated a dramatic increase in buy-in after Mikitani showed his employees that he was “obsessed and committed to Englishnization,” as he put it. The vast majority of the employees surveyed said that the policy was a “necessary” move.
Because a language transformation is a multiyear process whose complexity far exceeds most other change efforts, it is crucial to maintain employee buy-in over time. At Rakuten, the now-English intranet regularly features employee success stories with emphasis on best practices for increasing language competencepanywide meetings are also held monthly to discuss the English-language policy.
Managers should encourage people to self-identify as global rather than local employees. It’s difficult to develop a global identity with limited exposure to an international environment, of course. Rakuten tackled this challenge by instituting an enterprisewide social network to promote cross-national interactions. Employees now interact and engage with colleagues worldwide through the company’s social networking site. Adopting a universal English policy is not the end of leadership challenges posed by global communication. Using English as a business language can damage employee morale, create unhealthy divides between native and nonnative speakers, and members. Leaders must avoid and soften these potential pitfalls by building an environment in which employees can embrace a global English policy with relative ease. In this way, companies can improve communication and collaboration.
When I asked Mikitani what advice he’d give other CEOs when it comes to enforcing a one-language mandate, he was emphatic about discipline. CEOs need to be role models: If they don’t stick to the program, nobody else will. Mikitani even holds one-on-one performance reviews with his top Japanese executives in English. “If you forgive a little wat is green singles,” he says, “you’ll give up everything.”
What About Cultural Identity?
Many global employees fear that an English-only policy will strip them of their cultural heritage. I propose an alternative point of view. The more people you can communicate with, the better positioned you are to spread your culture and your message. If people can’t understand what you’re saying, they can’t engage with your company or your brand.
Mikitani doesn’t fear resistance. He believes, as I do, that you can counteract it-and ultimately bring about significant transformation in employees’ beliefs and buy-in. A global language change takes perseverance and time, but if you want to surpass your rivals, it’s no longer a matter of choice.
Adopting a global language policy is not easy, and companies invariably stumble along the way. It’s radical, and it’s almost certain to meet with staunch resistance from employees. Many may feel at a disadvantage if their English isn’t as good as others’, team dynamics and performance can suffer, and national pride can get in the way. But to survive and thrive in a global economy, companies must overcome language barriers-and English will almost always be the common ground, at least for now.