Translating Leadership

Translating Leadership | Human Resource Executive Online Competency models -- long used to deliver leadership goals to employees worldwide -- can also help determine succession plans and solve other talent-management challenges, but only if they're created and integrated correctly.

Sunday, November 1, 2009
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While it's often said that "the devil's in the details," that same devil can just as likely appear in the translations for companies sending out important career information to employees around the world.

So says Kelly Polanco, HR director for Chile, Argentina and Peru for New York-based pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb. The company employs approximately 40,000 people in more than 100 global markets, and transmitting key competency information is critical for the success of the organization's talent pipeline.

"In order to be on our global key-talent list, you must be mobile; that's a requirement," Polanco says. "So [employees] need to understand globally what the core competencies are."

Approximately five years ago, Polanco says, the drug maker created a new competency model for its employees, with the stated mission of "acknowledging that we are a multinational company while maintaining a single corporate culture."

To start the project, she says, Bristol Myers' top leaders engaged in an exercise to determine the company's overall goals and to answer the questions, "What is the culture we need to get there?" and "What are the behaviors that we need to see from our people in order to achieve that?"

As a result, six core behaviors of an effective leader were defined: developing and energizing people, embracing teamwork, innovation, leading strategically, communicating directly and driving performance.

The company then decided to translate the new model into 22 different languages -- the goal being to maintain consistency across markets.

"When it got translated into the local languages," she says, "it made it feel more local to them, even though it was a global model."

And while that approach was largely appreciated by employees, there was more than one occasion when the message took on a whole new (and unintended) meaning in translation.

"Any time you go through mass translations, there are always things to watch out for," she says. "One of our original [prescribed] behaviors was 'Energizes others.' You can translate that just fine in Europe, but what happened was [the interpreters] used the translations from Spain and Portugal in Latin America, where it literally translated over as 'Stimulates others.' It was flashing on [Latin American employees'] computers as a screensaver," she says.

"It was a little too engaging," she adds with a laugh.

Despite the challenges involved, having important pieces of career and performance information correctly translated and transmitted to workers in different parts of the globe are vital to helping organizations deal with many talent-management issues, says David Millner, the London-based consulting director for Europe, the Middle East and Asia for HR business-solutions provider Kenexa.

Leadership-competency models, which have been around since the early 1970s, can give organizations more flexibility to seamlessly move workers around the globe, Millner says. But he adds that their effectiveness is mitigated if they cannot correctly convey the information from one country or region to the next.

"I do think [leadership competency models] enable companies to actually think globally and act locally," he says. "It gives organizations the ability to say, 'Yes, we can move people from this country to that country because we've already got those core competencies aligned.' "

Language Barriers

To add to the potential confusion, there are some English words for which there can be no translation at all in other languages, says Polanco.

"Sometimes, words just don't exist in other languages," she says, adding that, during another previous translation effort, her team found out that the word "accountability" does not exist in Spanish.

"There's literally no word for it," she says, so the company settled on the term "responsible" as its replacement and then elaborated on it in discussion groups with employees so they could get comfortable with the company's interpretations.

In order to combat such language-related snafus, some organizations end up choosing a more standardized method for interpreting competencies after realizing the limitations of translating such material into native languages around the world.

Rand Dunn, vice president of HR global operations at Palo Alto, Calif.-based computer maker Hewlett Packard, says his company struggled with similar issues surrounding the transmission of a competency model across the globe.

"At one time, there were lots of changes [to the organization's global competency model] at the country level, and many of those changes didn't support the global business that HP wanted," Dunn says.

"We operate in 170 different countries, and if you had every country making dramatic changes [to the organization's leadership-competency model], the complexity would be too much. So we really do stress the importance of global systems, including global HRMS."

HP maintains a Global Talent division at its headquarters that's responsible for global leadership-competency models. And within every region and country, "there's an extension of that Global Talent organization, so they have an opportunity to influence the design," Dunn says.

"We don't just design it from a U.S.-centric view; it's a global design," Dunn says. "There are people within the region and country who can make adaptations" as necessary.

"If there are nuances that we have to embed or language-translation difficulties, we have people within HR GT and they take those programs and do the implementation on a local basis."

Nowadays, Dunn says, "the changes we make [to the model] are changes that are required by local law or work councils. Otherwise, we like to go with a standard approach for all countries. If they had a different way of doing things in each country, the complexity would make it tremendously ineffective."

Integration is Key

Stephen Dwight, associate vice president of talent management for Danish pharmaceutical maker Novo Nordisk, recently led a panel discussion on the challenges involved with creating global-competency models at a meeting of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in New Orleans. It was there that he discussed the importance of consistency.

"We're talking about talent and transferring talent, so let's use that language across the board," he says, reiterating some of the points he made then. "The definition of those competencies, let's keep that consistent as well. Below that, at the behavioral-example level, that will change by market and you're allowed to go and venture into that space, but don't call collaboration across boundaries 'teamwork' or 'radical collaboration.' Let's speak with one language and we can build off that."

For developing the language of the competency model, Dwight says it is important to use the same language for leadership competencies as that used in a company's mission statement "so that when you look at [the competencies], you can see that it's just an extension of that same language."

But Dwight cautions that stand-alone leadership-competency models are ultimately doomed to fail.

"When you're creating the business case [for establishing global leadership-competency models], it's not just about what defining leadership is, it's defining it so that it can be incorporated into the core of your talent-management systems," he says. "If you just sell a leadership-competency model and you haven't linked it to core talent systems such as hiring, career ladders and performance management, then it's just not going to be effective."

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To reap the full measure of reward for its competency model, HP embedded it into different aspects of HR, including talent management, performance management and succession planning, Dunn says. 

"Having that all integrated has a much bigger impact at the end of the day, and it drives the behavior much more so than if it was just built into our training. We've built this into our staffing processes as well," he says, adding that, for all open jobs within the company, both internal and external candidates are evaluated using the company's same four competencies.

Additionally, HP incorporated its competency model into career-development tracks that allow employees to see which competencies they need to master particular jobs.

"For every function in the organization, from supply chain to finance to IT, they have a set of career-development frameworks we've put together, and the leadership standards are also built into the frameworks. They communicate to employees that you can look at the career-development frameworks to see how people move up in the organization," he says.

Polanco says Bristol Myers Squibb has also integrated the six core behaviors of its leadership-competency model into all its talent-management systems, but acknowledges the difficulties that lie in working across borders.

"Implementing it into all the talent-management systems in Europe is the most difficult piece," she says. "You have to contend with work councils as well as data-privacy issues because, if you want to share information in Europe, you can't do it through your systems" because of the high bar that is set for personal privacy and protections for workers there.

"Any time you want to try and change a word in the competency model, one word change means going back and negotiating with works councils" in each country where employees work, she says.

Keep it Simple

Polanco says simplicity should be at the core of any competency model if it is to be embraced by employees.

"The biggest thing is sustainability," she says. "Keep it simple; make it as defined as you need to, but as simple as you can in order to make the evolutions easier as you go forward. ... You must be prepared for [your company's] strategy to shift over time, and you need to be able to adapt with the change in strategy. The more simplistic [the model] is, the easier it will be for people to comprehend."

She also thinks the most effective approach is "to start thinking globally during the design phase and not include concepts or phrases that are U.S.-centric and, therefore, difficult to translate. Involve experts from various countries on the design team and, that way, limit discrepancies from the beginning."

When asked if she thinks a day will come when an organization can successfully transmit its message without fear of a bad translation, Polanco says that is neither likely nor necessary.

"It is not possible to eliminate all differences in translations, nor do I believe it's necessary," she says. "Local culture will always impact corporate culture, and that's a good thing. People need to feel a part of a company that understands and values their personal culture as well as incorporating them into the company culture."

Ultimately, though, Dwight suggests that HR leaders ask themselves the following question before embarking on the creation of a global competency model.

"Why are you creating the competency model itself? Is it to have standardization across your performance-management tools? That's certainly one benefit, but first and foremost, we want to communicate something around desired behaviors that we think are going to translate to a competitive advantage."

Kenexa's Millner agrees.

"It's more than just an HR fad," he says. "The key to [leadership] competencies is that they have to relate to things that drive performance. They're not just an HR thing; they should be a business thing too, and maybe that's part of the challenge that HR has still got to overcome."

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