Caught in a double bind…

I just got off a phone call with Jay – his real name is Joon, but he goes by “Jay.” He is a leader in a Fortune 100 organization who could have easily been featured in our new book Leading in English.  He talked about how he has struggled with intangibles – for the entirety of the 14 years since he came to the US as a young professional. He struggled with being stereotyped for his accent, acquiring a professional language and way of speaking. To connect better, he taught himself U.S. sports and how to fake interest and excitement about games and teams he really did not care much about. Most difficult was learning to “toot his own horn.” Demonstrating supposed assertiveness felt to him like learning to be purposely rude and disrespectful.

Another big challenge was the pressure to “speak up.” He put it as “being seen as talking a lot, taking up air time, even when you are not sure what to say or have very little value to add.” He lost confidence many times, wondering how much he would have to alter who he was and what he valued in order to fit in and build a successful career in corporate America. He realized how much he had distorted who he really was. Joon had reached a low point when he received feedback that he would not be promoted because he was too aggressive and insensitive to team members. He was confused, caught in a terrible bind! How should he make sense of this and restore a sense of confidence and authenticity?

Sadly, in today’s multinational organizations, such experiences are all too common. After all, the number of international professionals is growing. They are women and men who often do not find it easy to succeed amidst a complicated set of challenges: effective language, different accents, stereotypes, and the added pressure to adapt to a dominant style that is frequently at odds with the norms of one’s cultural background and upbringing. This group also includes native speakers of “English” who struggle when building their careers in markets and/or organizations that reflect a very different cultural and linguistic “center.”

Of course, we use “English” as shorthand for this difficult and confusing experience that is often neither well understood or supported, and that deeply challenges what it means to be a truly global organization. They cannot afford for their talent to experience inequities and bump up against seemingly intangible norms of success that stifle their careers. The increasing pressures to innovate and tap local insights are severely undermined when contributions are thwarted not based on capabilities or merit, but biased perceptions and style expectations that reflect social norms that have outlived their original meaning or purpose.

We wrote Leading in English to (a) help individuals navigate these intangible and intractable forces of success and (b) enable organizations to harness the value that hides among the pool of international professionals. We look forward to your reviews, reflections, and feedback.

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