Ever wonder if the person you’re trying to converse with is speaking the same language? A THRIVE article about the communications gap among enterprise colleagues referred to one company in which the “internal teams were so disparate in their communication methods that … it was as if they were speaking in different languages.” How could they be effective?

To me, the answer to the question posed in the headline of that article, “Are we speaking the same language?” is clear: We just aren’t.

But is that actually a problem?

One of my former bosses recently framed the issue in a broader and rather illuminating way during a C-level panel discussion in Boston, Massachusetts. He said business leaders should be multilingual, or at the very least, bilingual.

As he was born in Spain and is fluent in Spanish (and since my French is still pretty strong), you could be forgiven for believing I am making both a literal and a self-serving point on our joint behalf. Business Insider published a piece last year listing six chief executive officers (CEOs) who speak more than one language. That group includes Jack Ma, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and, less convincingly, Marissa Mayer, who reportedly speaks some Spanish and a bit of Swiss German.

I am not sure that sample of six is large enough to derive causality, or even correlation. By contrast, 54% of all Europeans speak two languages and a further 25% are trilingual. And clearly, not all 79% are multibillionaires.

But reflecting on my former boss’s comment, multilingualism is the ability for all leaders to adjust to the different groups of stakeholders and coworkers they deal with, regardless of whether this means speaking in their native tongue or understanding the terminology used in their sector of the enterprise. This is especially true of IT and digital leaders, so that:

  • With the CFO and her team, they speak the language of finance, using numbers and ratios.
  • With the CEO and the heads of business units, they use the language of business. This is arguably a variant of the one above, and has in addition a lot more focus on customer experience, sales and outcomes.
  • With users or customers, CIOs and IT leaders should listen first. When they talk about technology, it is as enabling everyday activities and goals, in simple and relatable terms. This is particularly important when doing discovery and user testing.

Within their own tech community there are also some important nuances, one might say different IT “patois,” for a successful IT leader to master. A classic example is the need to be able to talk “DevOps” to certain groups. The reinvented periodic table of DevOps tools is a neat illustration of this patois. Another language, grounded in resilience and scalability and five-nines, will appeal to the “speeds and feeds” brigade of hard-core techies.

Where I agree with the other article is that an “individual’s whole experience is built upon the plan of his language.” For a leader to succeed requires understanding that others will feel or react differently because their language is different.