The must-have skill in a global job

Plus: Introducing the women who should have been in your history books.

I wasn’t working as a writer, yet I never wrote so much as during the years I was LinkedIn’s international editor. If like me you find yourself in charge of a team and product’s global expansion, language will be your most powerful tool, communication your most vital skill. To remotely lead people around the world, you’ll need words. To convince people to give a product they’ve never heard of a go, you’ll need words. To obtain resources and attention from headquarters, yes, many more words. 

Last week I suggested tips that professionals at homebase could use to take their product global. Here are few more for those in the trenches in faraway markets. I see you. 

Tread humbly.

Communicating across cultures is a minefield. What is anodyne to you will be offensive to someone else. The French will write an email so long you’ll need a toilet break, and the Dutch will be so blunt you’ll think they hate you. A word they innocently taught you in English class is probably unacceptable in the US today – in fact, that Aussie slang for sandwich is a racial slur in America. Even the most careful and well-intentioned professional will step in it one day, given enough time. I recommend Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map, especially the first two chapters, to start to understand where those lines are. The silver lining is those embarrassing moments remind us everyone sees the world with different glasses on. Cultivate a sense of humour in yourself and in your team. Learn to apologize and mean it. 

Assume good intentions.

Those three words were passed down like gospel from one generation of leadership to the next at LinkedIn. It’s the flip side of the above. If you are on the receiving end of communication that is offensive to you, if a colleague seems to be doing something that drives you mad, pause. If your culture isn’t totally toxic, odds are they don’t mean it. Assume good intentions, then check. If it takes more than three emails, pick up the phone. That’s how a colleague I was convinced hated me became one of my closest friends. 

Simplify your language.

When humans got a little too full of themselves, God gave them different languages to take them down a peg. Now your company is the tower of Babel. If you’re fluent in the dominant language –let’s face it, English– slow down for others. Remind everyone at the start of global meetings. Use simple words. Banish idioms. In emails, be not afraid of bullet points or emojis. Business communication isn’t where you’ll get your Pulitzer. If you’re speaking in a foreign language, don’t hesitate to use a disclaimer: “I don’t mean this to sound aggressive but I may not have the right words…” If anyone complains, let’s see them do the meeting in German. 

Be relentless…

Unless you’re at the top of the food chain, your success will depend on convincing others to give you the headcount, budget and attention you need. But if you’re shouting over an ocean, your voice gets dimmer. You’ll have to ask more often and more loudly. Travel to headquarters regularly. Find allies and keep them close. Defend your seat at the table in planning meetings and leadership offsites. Don’t take no for an answer until you’ve asked at least three times. Be the mosquito in their ear. 

… but pick your battles.

If everything is dialed up to volume 11, nothing registers. You become the annoying loud one overseas. Defend a handful of topics that really matter. Drop the rest. Yes, that page is poorly translated, but it gets 2,000 pageviews a month. Yes, this feature is broken in Arabic, but that’s 0.1% of your user base. Yes, it’d have been nice if that product didn’t launch just in the US, but it’s probably not going to survive the year anyway. File the bug reports and move on. 

Evolve your org chart. 

I was “international editor” for years, but I eventually killed my own job. It makes sense to bundle all far-from-home markets in the beginning: Some may have similar contexts, and all will face the challenge of using a product that wasn’t built for them. But really, China doesn’t have any more in common with France or Brazil than with the US. Not being from home is not a trait other countries share. It’s about you, not them. Eventually, you have to differentiate strategies and break up that org chart. Create leaders by region or country and go as granular as you can afford. Added bonus: this will bring more global voices to interact with headquarters. 

Know what victory looks like.

I always had the finish line in mind – for LinkedIn editorial products to work seamlessly wherever in the world you open the app. It’s not there yet, but making strides every day. I didn’t have to be the one to cross the finish line. This kind of work is draining; it has to be a relay race. One day I found I was running alongside 30+ talented people who had stores of energy and ideas. Mine were spent. So I passed the baton. 

Are you or have you been in a similar role, far away from headquarters and advocating for global users? What success strategies have you used? Please share. 

Women who should have been in your history books 

I was well into adulthood when I realized that I had only been exposed to half of history. My textbooks were full of great men, despicable men, many in between, but few women. Once you took out the queens, there were hardly any left. To rebalance my education, I started taking notice –and taking notes– whenever I encountered an interesting historical woman I had not yet known. I may make something of this collection some day, but for now I’ll share my favorite finds with you as a post-scriptum in each newsletter. Please suggest names. 

Marie de France (fl. 1160-1215)

Marie ai num, si sui de France. “My name is Marie, I am from France.” One line by her hand is the only clue we have to the identity of the first known French female poet. Marie de France was a noble woman, possibly an abbess, known and perhaps living at the court of King Henri II. She was a French woman in England, writing in Francien and Anglo-Norman, in those post-Hastings years when French, Anglosaxon, Norman and Celtic cultures mingled around the Narrow Sea. Another High Middle Age globalist. 

In her Breton lais, 12 narrative poems adapted from the lore of Celtic minstrels, men and women mixed with fairies and werewolves. Her heroines loved fiercely, often outside the confines of marriage, and defied tradition, though they suffered the consequences. Marie was an innovator, writing with a level of detail and imagery heretofore unknown, and was a literary celebrity in her lifetime. “Marie's poetry has caused great praise to be heaped on her and it is much appreciated by counts and barons and knights who love to have her writings read out again and again,” wrote a contemporary. Two centuries before Chaucer, she was a precursor of tales of courtly love and chivalric literature. 

“Whoever has received knowledge

and eloquence in speech from God

should not be silent or secretive

but demonstrate it willingly.”

- Marie de France

Photo: Marie de France in a 13th-century illuminated manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, public domain.