Tsedal Neeley has long understood the power of language.

Growing up in a family that travelled internationally for work, the Harvard Business School Professor regularly found herself in the position of being the “different girl in class with the funny name and the curly hair”.

But unlike a lot of young kids, being different never seemed to bother Professor Neeley – she was confident in her own skin.

Adapting to new environments and learning about other people and their cultures was a challenge she embraced.

Professor Neeley realised in these formative years that language had the power to either exclude or include her, and she wouldn’t let a simple matter like linguistics get in the way.

Although life settled as an adolescent when her family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, those early years travelling the world would help shape Professor Neeley’s deep interest in human behaviour and communication.

Today, she speaks four different languages fluently, although you won’t hear her bragging about it.

This interest in human behaviour and communication has been the driving force behind Professor Neeley’s seminal work on language in organisations and her industry-leading research into the rising influence of technology on business and the changing dynamics of teams in the workplace.

In the early 2000s Professor Neeley was part of a PhD group at Stanford University which sought to understand the challenges and opportunities of team work in globally-facing organisations.

Language, and the ability or inability of teams within organisations to communicate in a lingua franca or ‘common tongue’, became the focal point of her research.

“Language was all over the place – it overwhelmed us,” Professor Neeley told Leader during her recent visit to Perth for AIM WA’s High Performing Teams Seminar.

“People we interviewed called it one of the most isolating or divisive experiences they’ve had. We were stunned; I was stunned.”

Professor Neeley desperately wanted to learn more about the impact of language in global organisations, but found there wasn’t a single research-based article written on the topic.

Fully engrossed, she decided to carve out a field in management and business that espoused the importance of language, beginning a journey that would see her write about this phenomenon for the next 15 years.

Looking over the mountain and anticipating the future

In 2010, Japan’s largest e-commerce company, Rakuten, made a bold decision that would transform the online retailer into the global powerhouse it is today.

In an announcement that shocked his 7000-strong local workforce, company founder and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani revealed Rakuten would be changing its working language from Japanese to English – and employees had only two years to become proficient or risk demotion.

As the business language of the world, Mr Mikitani believed adopting English as his company’s lingua franca was vital to its global expansion agenda.

A few months after making the decision public, Mr Mikitani reached out to Professor Neeley to help implement what he called an ‘Englishnisation’.

Professor Neeley gained unrestricted access to Rakuten and went on to write a book chronicling five years of the transformation.

As Professor Neeley put it, the local Japanese workforce was understandably anxious when the language change came into effect.

“Imagine going to work tomorrow and suddenly the news is that everything you do from now on is in Mandarin,” she said. “If that happened in my institution I would be rendered mute.

“His employees experienced shock – language shock, culture shock. Many didn’t have strong buy-in.”

There were also those within the Japanese business community who questioned the move. Then Honda CEO Takanobu Ito publicly criticised Mr Mikitani.

“He said it was a stupid idea, why would a Japanese company with mainly Japanese employees only use English?,” Professor Neeley said.

“But guess what? That reaction was in 2010, but in 2015 he was gone and Honda has since initiated the same language strategy. Now they’re hustling to catch up.”

Mr Mikitani ended up proving all the critics wrong. Rakuten went from having 200 milllion users to more than 1.3 billion users in seven years and, according to Professor Neeley, the ‘Englishnisation’ was a big part of that tremendous success.

A measure of that corporate triumph is the fact today you will find Rakuten’s logo on two of the world’s biggest sporting brands – Spanish football giants Barcelona and NBA champions Golden State Warriors.

In addition to the e-commerce company's greater global presence, it has garnered more diversity across all levels of the workplace.

“When I first visited Rakuten and I was walking through the office spaces, I was diversity – me; that’s it,” Professor Neeley said.

“It was a very homogenous environment, but now in their Tokyo offices alone they have 91 nationalities represented.

“Today, 80 per cent of the engineers they hire are non-Japanese. They’ve been able to tap this international talent pool in an extraordinary way.”

Professor Neeley said Mr Mikitani, who is often referred to as the Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos of Japan, had showed extraordinary leadership in developing Rakuten into a worldwide force.

“What he has achieved since Rakuten came to be 22 years ago is incredible,” she said. “It’s no different to what you have seen companies do in a hundred years.

“What impressed me about him is how bold and courageous he is. He’s such a visionary. He has the ability to see around the corner, or as he says to me, to look over the mountain and anticipate the future.”

In a world where globalisation is “not something businesses can even afford to take their eye off”, Professor Neeley said Australian companies could learn a lot from Rakuten’s meteoric rise.

“The location of Australia and its self-contained aspect leads to a much more domestic mindset for business, and it works efficiently for many organisations, but imagine the opportunities that could be had if there was much more of a global agenda,” she said.

“Companies are reinventing themselves and going through major transformations.

“What’s happening now is companies from all over the world that are born digital and born global are giving incumbents a run for their money when it comes to using data and how they leverage this AI economy.

“It would be great for Australian companies to think about how they participate in this digital transformation economy.”

"Leadership is serious work for serious people, because leaders have the power to shape economies and organisations" – Professor Tsedal Neeley

Leadership and teams in the 21st century

For Professor Neeley, team dynamics within the workplace are changing as the business world goes through the fastest technological shift since the first industrial revolution.

She said one of the growing trends in business was to have smaller, agile teams that are fast, flexible, cross-functional and autonomous – meaning they manage their own process.

“They are, in a very disciplined way, following methodologies which require them to get constant feedback from their stakeholders and customers,” Professor Neeley said.

“It’s more of an incremental, iterative model where the clients are shaping what these teams are doing.

“These teams are achieving their goals at lighting speeds, but it requires the ability to work well together, collaborate together, work fast, to have frequent interactions and check-ins and to rapidly prototype new ideas.”

Professor Neeley said leadership was evolving in the midst of the information revolution. What it takes to be a great leader in the 21st century is closely related to understanding the digital economy, she said.

This change can be seen in how coding is quickly becoming the next universal language of the corporate world, according to Professor Neeley, who believes leaders need to jump on board or risk getting left behind.

“I am firmly convinced leaders need to develop some key skills around data and digital technology," she said. "Data is now at the centre of how people need to strategise and how people need to think.

“The smart leaders will become digital leaders by developing skills and learning the language of data.

“You don’t need to sit there and program in code in R or Python, but you need to understand statistical models, you need to understand data and you need to understand the limits of computing.”

Professor Neeley cited French information technology company Atos as an industry trailblazer in this space, where CEO Thierry Breton has strongly encouraged his roughly 120,000 employees to upskill themselves in a digital learning program.

It’s a move Professor Neeley believes will help Atos out-compete a lot of rival businesses. Since the program started in 2016, the company has digitally certified 70,000 workers.

But when it came down to the nuts and bolts of strong leadership, Professor Neeley said complacency at the top level of management was the ultimate downfall of many.

“Leadership is serious work for serious people, because leaders have the power to shape economies and organisations,” she said.

“I consider the role of leaders as such an important, privileged position that every leader needs to take very seriously and earn every single day.”

Michael Roberts is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.