Local to global: How English skills unlock a career in leadership

Samantha Yates
Two coworkers discussing some sticky notes on a class window
Reading time: 4 minutes

Of the 1.5 billion English speakers in the world, over half learned it as a second or additional language.

The “language of business”, English has become a foundational skill for anyone looking to work in an international business or at a leadership level, and many English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers find themselves working in English on a daily basis.

But working in your second or third language comes with a unique set of challenges and opportunities.

We spoke to five global leaders about the role English has played in their careers, the challenges of being an ESL speaker, and how businesses can create a culture where everyone has a voice.

How English skills unlock a career in leadership
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A passport to leadership

Strong English skills open doors. More than three-quarters of people with advanced English skills are in senior or leadership roles, compared to just 32% of those with limited English proficiency.

Pearson Languages CTO, Gian Paolo Perrucci, describes English as a “passport for this new world of opportunities, opening many, many doors I wouldn’t have had access to.”

There’s a cumulative effect, with one door opening and leading to the next.

Brushing up on his English skills was the spark that won Perrucci a scholarship to Denmark. That semester blossomed into a six-year stay, multiple degrees, his first international job opportunity, and a career with well-known global brands.

Whether it was getting onto a top MBA program or that first role at a big international company, for all the leaders we spoke to, English has proved to be a career catalyst.

More diversity, more innovation, more revenue

For companies looking to innovate and stand out in a competitive global market, an international team is essential.

“We’re aiming to build models of childcare that don’t exist at the moment”, explains Koru Kids Founder and CEO, Rachel Carrell.

“To do that, we need diversity of thought. With an international team, it’s more likely that someone will say “hey, I was living in Cape Verde for a while, and I saw this interesting thing”.

It’s an approach that pays off. Research by the Boston Consulting Group found that businesses with more diverse management teams are more innovative, leading to 19% higher revenues.

Global customers, global team

A more diverse team can also help businesses stay close to their customers.

As technology has made it easier to operate across multiple countries, businesses quickly find themselves responding to the different needs, preferences, and expectations of customers all over the world.

“Reflecting the global nature of our business in our workforce means we can build a better, more effective service and a more successful business as a result”, explains Malte Zeeck, CEO of InterNations.

To help them stay close to their 5.2 million members across 420 cities, Zeeck’s team at InterNations is made up of more than 50 different nationalities.

English is the main language both for the InterNations team and platform, helping them create “a sense of oneness and community by using a shared language”.

The ultimate brain training

The leaders we interviewed spoke, on average, four languages, with many working across multiple languages on a day-to-day basis.

That experience of jumping between different languages also develops important leadership skills. 

“When you speak multiple languages,” explains Perrucci, “different parts of the brain have to work together and make connections… It teaches your brain to be flexible about what you see and the way you interpret it”.

Zeeck likened it to working out: “Just as going to the gym improves your physical wellbeing, the mental challenge of learning a new language is good exercise for the brain”. It’s one of the reasons he provides all of his team language training.

The mental load of language

But hopping between languages and navigating different cultural nuances can take its toll.

“People whose first language is English often overlook the computing power it takes to work in your second or third language,” explains Bart Groen, Managing Director of International Wellbeing, Westfield Health, who only spends around a third of his time speaking his mother tongue.

“Even when colleagues are fluent in the language you're communicating in, it might still take them a bit more energy than you expect”, he continues. “By Friday afternoon, for example, I’m struggling to think fluently in whichever language!”.

The challenge of speaking up

For those who are less confident in their English skills, it can significantly impact the way they contribute at work.

Less than half (48%) of ESL speakers feel comfortable speaking up at work, and only 10% of employees with limited English proficiency felt they could express themselves fully at work.

The dynamic can change depending on who’s in the room. “I see the difference when ESL speakers are on calls with confident, fluent English speakers”, adds Valentina Milanova, CEO and Founder of Daye.

“They speak less”, she continues, “they caveat their contributions with “I might be wrong”, and you can see their English actually worsens because they feel more stressed”.

Without the right culture and support, businesses miss out on the benefits of an international team they’ve recruited.

Conscious leadership

The task of building a team and helping overcome the challenges of global working falls to business leaders.

The five leaders we spoke to shared practical tips for supporting global teams, including acknowledging and proactively addressing differences, avoiding interrupting ESL speakers, and using voice notes for sensitive communication to allow tone and emotion to come through.

More fundamentally, ESL speakers need business leaders to build a culture where it’s ok to make mistakes.

Leaders with first-hand experience of being an ESL speaker are uniquely placed to understand their increasingly global teams, pre-empt their challenges, and nurture a culture that allows difference to shine.

The journey from local roles to global leadership positions hinges on strong communication skills. The stories shared by our leaders demonstrate how English proficiency not only unlocks individual career potential but also drives organizational success through innovation and diverse perspectives. By fostering a culture that values and supports language learning, businesses can harness these benefits, ensuring their teams are prepared to excel on the global stage.

This article is part of Pearson Languages’ series, Global Voices: Leaders on Language and Business, an exclusive exploration into the pivotal role of language in achieving international business excellence. For more in this series, check out the leaders’ full interviews, coming soon to Pearson Languages’ LinkedIn.

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