Why MBAs should know a second language — Jackie Wilbur

Exec. Director for Undergraduate & Master's Programs Master's Programs

Exec. Director for Undergraduate and Master’s Programs Jackie Wilbur

‘Recruiters seek geographically flexible managers: global citizens who have an ability to adapt to new environments and who are able to build cross-cultural competence’

Recently, I had a meeting with a recruiter from a global firm about her company’s future hiring needs and how we, as a school of management, might sharpen our efforts to train students in particular areas. We covered all the usual topics. We talked about sectors, business units, and specialized skills. Interestingly, though, one of her greatest employment concerns had nothing to do with functions or industries; rather it involved geographic mobility, cultural awareness, and language skills.

She told me how her firm is rapidly opening offices around the globe, and how it’s looking for people who have experience in different regions, or who are willing and eager to relocate. “Most of the business will be conducted in English,” she told me, “but in order for someone to be successful and fulfilled they’ll need proficiency in the local language.”

In an increasingly global world, the ability to speak more than one language has clear practical advantages. More and more, though, fluency in another language is becoming a vital skill for the next generation of business leaders. At a time when American-based companies realize that their greatest potential markets are outside of the U.S., they are seeking geographically and culturally flexible managers. Those with an ability to adapt to new environments quickly and are able to build cross-cultural bridges will become the future leaders.

Language skills are paramount. As Matt Symonds, chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world’s outstanding business schools, wrote recently in Bloomberg Businessweek: “In a global business environment, [language] skills…make the difference between a good performance and a truly great one.”

In order to assimilate in a foreign culture you need to be able to function during your down time, as the recruiter I met recently pointed out. You need to be able to buy groceries, to have your car fixed, and to interact with your neighbor down the street. Put simply: you need to be comfortable in the existing culture, and more often than not that requires proficiency in your new country’s language.

A growing number of MBA students at MIT Sloan have the ability to speak more than one language. Today nearly all our students possess a polycultural mindset that gives them a competitive edge in the job market.

For the monolinguist MBA students here who want to learn a new language, but are unsure of which one to learn, I give them a simple piece of advice: select a language that you are interested in learning. Of course in today’s economy, certain languages are particularly in demand. Mandarin and Spanish spring to mind. Yet many of the recruiters and employers I speak with tell me they value the study of any foreign language as a demonstration of cultural competence.

To help students narrow down their choices, I like to encourage them to get specific. When a student tells me: “I’m willing to work anywhere.” I respond: “Define anywhere. Paris? Panama City? Oslo? Ouagadougou? Beijing? Bangalore? Riyadh? Rio de Janeiro?” My goal is to help them think about whether they prefer a large city or a small city, a developed country or a developing one; I ask them to consider the climate, the culture, and even the food. Once they have an idea of where in the world they want to work, we come up with what they need to do to get there. What would be the most useful language to learn? Is it Russian? Portuguese? Arabic?

The good news is that it’s never been easier to learn a second language. If you’re in business school, see what kinds of elective courses are available to you. Try to find a classmate who is a native speaker of the language you seek to learn and practice your pronunciation. Look into language study groups. For aspiring business school students and business leaders, explore language courses offered at your local community college or online. And use social networking sites to find someone in your community with whom to practice.

Jackie Wilbur is the Executive Director for Undergraduate & Master’s Programs at MIT Sloan School of Management.

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