A Leading Perspective

Pragmatic insights for the leader in you

Speak Outside of the Lines

It’s not what you tell them…it’s what they hear.

Red Auerbach


I had the pleasure of working with a client recently who had a workforce of about 900. My job was to train them all on various topics over the course of the four day window.

Easy peasy!  Load me up, fill the room – all I need is good coffee and few cookies or donuts.

However, when I arrived on site, I learned there were 19 different languages spoken in their workforce…actually, there were a bit more but some team members were fluent in multiple languages so 19 was the “common” language number.language

I’ve taught numerous courses in which I had to use an interpreter but none to this scale. My client’s original plan was to have me teach multiple courses to specific groups with one interpreter for each group. It was believed this would get the best bang for the buck and, at the very least, allow the majority of people to get trained. The plan was to tape my presentations and have interpreters meet with the remaining staff to “review” what I had said long after I had gone home.

This is how my client has always “worked through” its language barriers. The fact that work teams couldn’t attend training together and the fact that some team members would have to get trained “after the fact” were common “symptoms of circumstance.”

My client didn’t mind…many in its leadership said “it came with the territory.”

Hmmm, I didn’t like this territory!

I often color outside of the lines so I asked my client if I could deviate from our original contract and deliver something better.  Thankfully, I got the green light so I broke down the barrier as best as I could.

break it down

I transformed my compliance driven “lecture” courses into group discussions and story times.

Each class had between 60 and 140 people in them. I asked for volunteers who were fluent in multiple languages and also knew English. They became the “leads” of smaller groups.

I met with each of my “leads” and explained their roles as interpreters, facilitators, story tellers, etc. Each of them were willing to give this a try and, once they started talking to the others, a few more volunteers offered to help “lead” other groups.

I lectured a little, told my own stories, and then asked each of my “leads” to rephrase, tell a story of their own, ask questions, report back, etc. I then asked the leads questions to ask their groups (and report back to me accordingly) so I could ensure the content was being understood.

It was chaotic, incredibly loud, and ended up being more like a crazy communication game than a class. And it took time…lots of time.  I was slotted to train 8-10 hours per day for four days; instead, I ended up training 16-18 hours per day.

The result was fantastic!  

My client, who thought it would resort to simply checking off the boxes that the staff attended these mandatory courses, instead had an entire workforce talking, learning, and engaging with each other about some pretty serious subjects.

Lessons learned?


Quality communication is ALWAYS worth the time and effort. ALWAYS!

Asking for volunteers to help you with a sticky situation is better than trying to figure things out yourself.

Demonstrating that you care about engaging with your employees pays valuable returns.

Language barriers should never, ever be a barrier to development.



CommunicationsEmployee EngagementEmployee RelationsEngagementGood FaithHuman ResourcesLeadershipPerformance ManagementSatisfactionSkill DevelopmentTeamworkWorkforce Satisfaction

Heather Kinzie • January 22, 2014

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