The Roche takeover of South San Francisco-based Genentech two years ago provided a field day for all sorts of commentary.
The report that key execs from Genentech such as Pat Yang [disclosure: Pat’s organization was a client] moving to Basel were required to learn to speak German because it was the language in which business was conducted (note: German is spoken in the Basel area of Switzerland) was – how to put it – was akin to the cherry on top of the sundae; the perfect topping to a trail of miscues.
While German is a proud and rich language, no one considers it the language of international business. Mandarin, English or Spanish for sure, but any real thought of using German – not unlike using French – as the lingua franca of global commerce – is not taken as serious since places where German is spoken – Germany, Austria, parts of Switzerland, Liechenstein, and Namibia comprises less than 100 million people.
It turns out – not surprising if you know Pat – that his desire to learn German had little to do with Roche’s culture, and much more to do with his savvy as global business manager.
Pat recently wrote me (correspondence reproduced with his permission) the following:
“Guten Tag, Mike.
Someone recently mentioned that you had written in your blog about German as a required language in Roche Basel — and, as such, the Genentech expats in Basel are being asked to learn German.
So I looked up this blog you wrote almost two years ago. I, as you noted in your blog, moved to Basel in January 2010 to lead Roche Pharma’s global technical operations.
I finally began my one hour a week German lesson after about a year in Basel. I was just too busy with other priorities in the first year here. Learning German is a privilege in Roche Basel, not a requirement. I conduct all my business meetings in English in Basel with no difficulties.
My desire to learn some German is simply because I believe it’s important for me to visit all our factory floors and labs to interact with our colleagues directly. Many of my Swiss colleagues do not speak English.
And equally importantly, learning the local language while living here shows a respect for the locals. As a part of my job, I am working hard to understand and appreciate the different cultures in my organization.
Learning a little bit of German is a small part of showing my respect for my Swiss and German colleagues.
But I do not want anyone to misunderstand that Roche is running its global organization in German. No, we are smarter than that, and Roche is doing well as a multilingual and multi-culture company.
Thanks for your kind words in your blog about me. Hope all is well with you.
Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.