When Hiring HR Leaders in Asia, What Emphasis Should We Place on English Language Ability?

​1) So What’s the Problem?

“No-one at global headquarters realises that my I.Q. level drops 50 points whenever I speak English.”

I often use this memorable quote when speaking with Global HR Leaders about their HR Talent in Asia. It was said to me back in 2008, by a Japanese HR Leader, who was venting frustration about his lack of ability to articulate the issues that he was facing among the senior Management Team in Japan. There was a very specific goal that the company wanted to achieve, and there was a very specific legal requirement in Japan, which prevented them from doing it. But the Japanese HR Leader was finding it very difficult to explain the nuances behind both sides of the argument, which was leading to miscommunication and mistrust between business and HR counterparts in the U.S. and Japan.

This is not a unique problem to Japan; at The Chapman Consulting Group (ChapmanCG) we find that this kind of problem crops up time and again across all geographies in Asia. The main reason for this is the HR leader’s role itself. More so than with any other business or functional leader, it is up to the Human Resources team to properly form the communication ‘bridge’ between global, regional and local personnel. While companies can arguably still ‘just about survive’ without strong communication skills in the Finance, IT or Supply Chain departments, in the HR department it’s a deal-breaker. Since ChapmanCG work exclusively on executive search for the HR function, we consider ourselves experts in picking up these communication issues when assessing and selecting Human Resources talent across the region.

2) I don’t have this problem with HR leaders in Greece or Finland, so why should I expect it in Korea or Laos?

Growing up in Europe, living in the cosmopolitan city of London, and studying French and German to a senior level, when I was young I thought I had the world figured out when it came to communicating across language barriers. However, it took studying a module of Japanese Law at university to figure out that I was wrong. My lecturer said that he couldn’t explain one particular word in Japanese jurisprudence, because a simple translation didn’t exist. He would need to use the whole hour’s tutorial to explain the various cultural references underpinning its significance. So he moved on. But that’s where the seed of my own personal interest in Asia was first planted.

The truth is that the languages and cultures of Asia are very distinct from those of Europe, and indeed from each other. People who consider themselves experts in dealing with cultural and language barriers in other parts of the world can often land in trouble by being too complacent when working in Asia. The converse is also true; people on both sides of the continental barrier sometimes over-think the differences and treat each other as alien. Human nature, both at home and in the workplace, is a constant. It’s just the means and conventions of expression and interaction that differ from one place to the next. In a workplace setting, it’s the HR Director’s job to decipher which problems are down to cultural misunderstanding or language ineptitude, and which are down to general human error, low performance, or misjudgement.

3) So how do I assess an HR leader in Asia? On their HR subject-matter expertise? Or on their communication and stakeholder management skills?

Yes, it’s a silly question; everyone reading this will know that you need the whole package. But the chances of you finding exactly what you want in terms of HR skills, alongside exactly what you want in communication skills, still remain low in many parts of Asia. At ChapmanCG we pride ourselves on having close relationships with those HR leaders who fulfill this difficult criteria, but in many cases we will still need to suggest that a compromise solution is the answer. We’ve explained the reasons for this in numerous articles, as well as which HR talent markets in Asia are better than others, and which are progressing in the right direction. So I won’t go over old territory here. What might be useful is a simple reminder to keep these issues in the front of your mind when assessing HR talent in Asia.

Firstly, don’t judge an interviewee too harshly on their language skills. The best HR leaders need not be the best English speakers. So be sure to create an environment that allows them to speak authentically, where you get a sense of their true communication style. Picture the various situations in which the HR leader would need to interact, and ask yourself: “Is it good enough?” That’s a different question to “Is this how I would communicate?” So keep yourself in check if you find that you are judging people by your own standards of communication.

Secondly, don’t get too excited when you interview someone with exceptional communication skills! This is especially the case if a global decision-maker has just come out of three back-to-back interviews where communication may have been a struggle. Yes, communication levels, stakeholder management skills, and the power to influence are all key factors in making a successful HR Leader. However there may be many HR Leaders in Asia who can interview exceptionally well, but who may have serious issues with other important soft factors, such as discretion, maturity, or diligence. Ignore these warning signs at your peril. Be sure to truly judge language ability on par with all the other factors that you would naturally seek in an HR Leader in your home country. The best way to ensure that you’re not sliding into a ‘halo effect’ is to make sure that HR talent is assessed separately by local business leaders in their own language, since they can at least offer a counterpoint to what you might have perceived.

4) It’s the global economy, stupid

Finally, it’s our opinion at ChapmanCG that it’s time to also re-think the expectations that we set on HR Leaders in Asia. For many international companies, Asia is a strong and expanding source of revenue and profit. Yet, often there is no effort taken at the global level to learn how to communicate effectively with HR leaders (and indeed other business leaders) in Asia.

Isn’t it time that there was a meeting in the middle?

Yes, it’s up to the HR Leader in Asia to learn how to work effectively in balancing the needs on the ground with the directives from above. But it should be up to Global HR leaders to educate themselves too. This is part of the reason that we’re finding more Global HR Leaders in North America and Europe are being chosen from the ranks of expats and long-term assignees that have already spent time in Asia, and have picked up these skills.

ChapmanCG are increasingly being asked to work on these roles, because of our connections with international HR talent who can help to spread these new ideals of cross-border communication and leadership. So before you unfairly judge an HR talent in Asia because of language skills, just remember….next time, it could be you!


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