Language barrier to British success

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IT IS not often that British managers win plaudits. But the director of a leading executive search consultant has labelled their efforts at gaining international business 'pretty heroic' - considering the handicap posed by their lack of languages.

Given these educational problems, it is brave of them to agree to be parachuted into Germany, or wherever, says Michael Brandon, a director of Korn / Ferry International and author of the company's 1992 study of UK boards of directors.

But for all the derring-do, there is a real danger that as markets become more global, UK companies will lose out to international competition. The World Bank estimates that international trade inside the 350 largest multinationals accounts for nearly 40 per cent of the world's nearly pounds 2,000bn of merchandise trade - so this would clearly be a heavy price.

What is needed is a fundamental change of attitude towards Europe, not just the Maastricht treaty as envisaged by the Prime Minister. While many business people from other European countries are fluent in English, 84 per cent of British directors speak no foreign language, according to the survey published last week. The picture was the same for directors of companies which last year generated more than 50 per cent of their business overseas.

Experience of working overseas is also low. Two-thirds had little or no experience, while more than half of directors working in companies with strong overseas business had little or no foreign experience.

'Unless British boards take rapid steps to acquire international skills and experience, UK Ltd is in danger of becoming a foreign subsidiary,' says Mr Brandon.

The report cites SmithKline Beecham as a company that has moved in the right direction, by appointing the German Treuhand president, Birgit Breuel, and Alain Gomez, head of the French electronics group Thomson, as non-executive directors. But it also points out that British nationals are under-represented at senior levels of the European Commission - largely, it suspects, because of the requirement of fluency in at least two of the Community's two official languages.

'This study sound an alarm bell which must be heeded in the boardrooms of Britain,' Mr Brandon concludes.

The 1992 'Board of Directors Study UK' can be obtained from Korn / Ferry International. Price pounds 90. Tel: 071-930 4334.