Should You Have Bilingual Speakers Sitting At Your Board Room Table?

Business Leaders act with alacrity on the latest received wisdom for improving productivity and increasing profits, from open plan offices to WFH, despite little supporting data. So when there is actually compelling data that supports a relatively simple solution, why are leaders so slow to act?

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I am a fan of Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg’s book, How Google Works. One comment particularly resonates, they say that at Google, decision making is based on the principle that goes something like, “In God We Trust, everyone else needs to bring data”.

It would be hard to find investors or boards that would seriously argue with that rule. Yet, though the data around what makes up successful executive and non-executive boards is extensive and compelling; bizarrely, it is seemingly rarely acted upon.

What if I were to tell you that Mass Challenge, a US accelerator, found that boards made up exclusively of English-only speakers were a worse investment than boards with bilingual speakers? What if, for every dollar of funding, start-ups with bilingual directors generated 78 cents while those with English-only speakers generated 31 cents?

More data points to consider:

  • investment in companies founded by someone who is bilingual generates 10 per cent more in cumulative value over a five-year period than English-only speaking founders
  • bilingual entrepreneurs create more long-term value
  • 55% of companies that fell off the Fortune 1000 index had only one or no bilingual directors on their board
  • a ranking of Fortune 500 companies by number of bilingual speakers on their boards found those in the highest quartile had a 42% greater return on sales
  • companies with at least one bilingual director on the board outperform those with none.

The list goes on. Every data point under-scores that it is smart business to have bilingual speakers in leadership roles.

What is stopping you, assuming you are in the majority, from doing the smart thing? Given the evidence, will you tell your head hunters to be sure to find some bilingual speakers for your short list? Will you check that internally you are not unconsciously preventing your bilingual managers from being promoted because they don’t immediately gel with some of the senior team or have a different way of looking at things? Or do you think that despite the data you should go ahead with English-only speaking boards? Maybe bilingual speakers might actually not be very good at numbers. Maybe the pool of really good bilingual speakers is quite small and so it isn’t worth looking. Maybe bilingual employees are content with not getting the top jobs because they aren’t really ambitious or motivated.

Of course not. It is patently absurd. So why when we substitute women for bilingual speakers, and men for English-only speakers, do so many people fight against the data? I have been told in all seriousness that “the good ones are all taken”, that “women are not comfortable with numbers” and that “women just aren’t very ambitious”. Every time a journalist shares new data showing the lack of progress regarding women in senior roles and the consequent negative business impact the comments section is filled with sarcasm and vitriol.

So next time you are tempted to dismiss the need for women on boards as some sort of Political Correctness gone mad think how you would react to the very same data if it proved that bilingual speakers dramatically improved your business results. Do a simple edit / replace in your head.

That is what I just did with the text.

Susanna Kempe (she/her)

CEO, Laidlaw Foundation

A graduate of Cambridge University, Susanna’s professional experience includes over 15 years in senior leadership roles in international B2B and learning businesses. Susanna began her career at the Institute for International Research (IIR) where she first worked with Lord Laidlaw, rising to Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). When IIR, which was the world’s largest organiser of commercial conferences, was acquired by Informa plc in 2005 Susanna was appointed CMO of the enlarged group and also led the public company’s investor relations programmes. She subsequently joined Emap Ltd as Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer and CEO of Emap Networks, that group’s conferences business. Later she became CEO of the fashion industry forecaster WGSN and was latterly Group Content and Marketing Partner of the leading strategy consultancy Brunswick Group. A German-American raised and educated in the UK and a committed internationalist, Susanna has been involved in globally trading businesses throughout her career, directing activity in the Americas, across continental Europe, and the Asia Pacific. Susanna has been extensively involved with education and professional development over many years. She was Head of Group Training and led the commercial acquisition and integration of a portfolio of corporate training businesses whilst at IIR; and created learning academies at both Informa and Emap. She believes experiencing and appreciating different cultures promotes better global understanding, creativity and leadership. She is passionate about the power of education to transform lives; and believes that we need to develop a new generation of diverse leaders who are curious, bold and devoted to decency, truthfulness, and innovation. Susanna is committed to diversity not only as a societal imperative but as a critical component of commercial success. As an advisor to the trustees of the Foundation, Susanna first learnt about its purpose and programmes before becoming its Chief Executive responsible for the Laidlaw Schools Trust, the Laidlaw Scholars and its other education programmes. Susanna read English and Philosophy at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. She has five half blues in swimming and water polo; and played netball and rowed for Newnham.