If you happen to travel in the US-India corridor, as I do, next time watch CNBC in the US and then go watch CNBC in India, or vice versa. You’ll immediately notice some differences.
One difference is in how the two channels see the stock market. CNBC in India treats the market as an ‘actor’. It doesn’t just go up or down, it often has a mind of its own and moves in ‘mysterious ways its wonders to perform’. A lot more air-time is spent on the ‘technical’ analysis of the market. CNBC in the US takes a more ‘fundamental’ view of the market – changes in the market are an ‘outcome’ of what’s happening to the economy, sub-prime loans, oil prices or whatever. More time is spent on analysis of companies and the economy. I wonder what lies at the bottom of this difference in how they see the markets.
Another difference that is immediately evident is how articulate business leaders are on CNBC in the US compared to their counterparts in India. They are not only better tutored on how to handle the press and TV but they are just plain better speakers.
The reasons for this are not too difficult to get to. For Indian business leaders, English is a second language. Throughout school they read and wrote English, and probably well, but didn’t speak it much, unless they had a very privileged schooling. College would have been only slightly better. The first time they had to speak English in earnest was probably after entering the work force. Even then, if they started out as entrepreneurs with small, private companies, they likely still didn’t have to.
How important is it to be articulate? To lead, it is difficult to be good at your job if you are not. There are too many occasions in companies where the conversation with employees is one-to-many. In company meetings, executives must not only be clearly and unambiguously understood by employees, they often need to be motivated to act. Outside the company, in client presentations or media interviews good articulation of ideas becomes even more important.
There are other subtler ways in which being articulate matters. In the US, being articulate in your communication (both spoken and written) is assumed to be strongly correlated with intelligence, good education and a general sign of capability. The education system here emphasizes good writing and public-speaking skills. There are ample opportunities to develop public speaking skills from ‘Show-and-tell’ to debating clubs in the public school system. High achievers typically do speak well. The commonly used word ‘smart’ includes ‘articulate’ as well as ‘intelligent’. This correlation in employers’ minds is not as strong in India as it is in the US. Indians in American companies often face the ‘not articulate’ glass ceiling without even knowing it.
I believe that employers in the US over stress the ‘articulate’ attribute. Firstly, while being articulate is an attribute that is important in a leader, it is not necessarily so for the knowledge worker. In the US, unlike in India, there are practically no ‘written tests’ in the hiring process. I believe it can’t be proven to be non-discriminatory. As a result, the interview becomes the only tool at an employer’s disposal. In an interview as everyone who has ever interviewed will tell you, what you know is important, but how you say it is equally important. Consequently, I think US companies often fail to recognize talent in knowledge workers because they place too much emphasis on spoken English skills.
The workplace has changed a lot in the last two decades. Organizations are flatter. Knowledge workers like software engineers, analysts and researchers, unlike factory workers of the previous decades, are the most important employees in companies as they drive the product or service as well as the innovation in the company. A selection process that selects only ‘future leaders’ will miss out many talented candidates who may never have been great orators, but could have been solid contributors.
Technology also makes a big difference. Spoken English is needed in conversations. But today’s conversations even in companies are happening through email or on internal blogs. Good writing skills can take you quite far in a world where so much of the communication is going electronic.
And lastly globalization will also break down the bias towards the ‘articulate’ attribute. Executives from English speaking countries will realize that being articulate is just one of the many attributes that make a leader successful because they will see so many leaders in their companies from non-English speaking countries become successful. Two, Indian business leaders will get exposed more and more to western business and the media and will develop the skills to bridge the gap.