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

Smart businesses pride themselves on making data driven decisions. So why, when it comes to the make-up of boards, do so many leaders ignore the evidence and find excuses to do the blatantly wrong thing?

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I am a fan of Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg’s book, How Google Works. One comment particularly resonates, he says 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, or 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

CEO, Flying Trumpets

A digital, marketing leader with 20+ years experience in international B2B and media businesses, the last 15 of them at Board level. Susanna's digital experience includes being CEO of the iconic WGSN, growing its customer base and profits to historic highs. An American, German, Brit, she understands global markets completely, has worked all over the world and launched businesses in China, Japan and India. Her extensive M&A experience includes buying a whole portfolio of Performance Improvement businesses, data businesses and successful PE exits. Susanna is steeped in events experience. She began her career at IIR and was part of the management team that sold to Informa. There she was the CMO before moving to Emap Networks as CEO, transforming the events business and achieving record profits. She was also a NED of WTG and the interim CEO of Industry Dynamics. More recently while the Global Partner for Content and Marketing at Brunswick Group, she implemented a new digital first strategy, GTM approach and corporate re-brand. Susanna is now the CEO of the Laidlaw Foundation which invests in the education of the underprivileged and under represented in order to break the cycle of poverty, reduce inequality and produce a new generation of leaders. She also has her own boutique consultancy, Flying Trumpets, helping CEOs and Boards position their personal brands and grow their company profits through content, marketing, innovation and digital.