Hey CEO, You Promised to Learn Finnish

In Finland, there are CEO’s that don’t speak Finnish. There have been promises to learn Finnish, but is there any real need to know it?  And what do war veterans have to do with learning the language? 

Editor'KeithSilverang_2008_2.jpgs note: The story originally appeared in Finnish in Taloussanomat on 4.7.2014.

What do Nokia’s Rajeev Suri, Finnlines' Emanuele Grimaldi, Stora Enso’s Karl-Henrik Sundström and Technopolis’ Keith Silverang have in common? All of them are CEO’s of Finnish listed companies with non-native backgrounds.

Nokia Chairman Risto Siilasmaa, proposed in January that English should be one of the official languages in Finland. He argued that it would attract more top talent to the country. There is, of course, already foreign talent in Finland, but how well can those CEO’s manage in Finnish?

English, Swedish, Finnish or What?

The new CEO of Stora Enso, Karl-Henrik Sundström, promised in his press conference that he would learn Finnish. Though he amended his statement by saying that his academic success has been modest.

Keith Silverang, the CEO of Technopolis with an American background, says that it might prove difficult to keep that promise in practice.

– Is the promise more of a gesture, a way to say let's be friends? he said to the business daily, Taloussanomat.

Silverang himself is an example of a CEO with foreign background who does speak Finnish. There certainly are others, but for example the CEO of Finnlines, Emanuele Grimaldi, works in English. English is also the working language of the Grimaldi Group, which Finnlines is part of.

Grimaldi wrote in an email that he doesn’t speak Finnish and has no intention to learn it. The reason is his wish to maintain his own roots, culture and traditions.

– In business, everyone should speak fluently the language which is the most effective to get the work done. The shipping industry is global and English has been used since 1800’s, he writes.

Language Lessons in Sauna

Silverang in turn says that for him Finnish language has been an essential skill. Speaking the language, has made it easier to understand people, values and backgrounds.

– If you don’t know the language, you are out in the cold, one way or another, he notes.

This sentiment is shared by the CEO of Genelec, Siamäk Naghian, who has Irish roots. He came to Finland in 1980’s to study at the Helsinki University of Technology.

– Language is a bridge to a new culture. I’m interested to learn about and delve into new cultures, people and societies, especially the society in which I live, Naghian says.

Knowing the Finnish language has helped both men in their work, as well as their spare-time. It’s easier to communicate with colleagues and subordinates when they can speak their native tongue, says Silverang.

Language skills also help in building relationships, especially close friendships that can prove decisive in one’s career, might never develop sufficient depth without Finnish fluency.

– Language is a central part of cultural identity. In a foreign language you can never get to the same emotional level, Naghian notes.

Silverang came to Finland in 1986 for his MBA studies at the Helsinki School of Economics (now part of Aalto University). He picked up his language skills along the way without formal language training. One good place to learn language skills and history was the Finnish sauna.

– I have learned more about the Finnish Winter War from war veterans in sauna than from any book I have ever read, he says.

Additional motivation to learn the language comes from family life. For Silverang, it is more natural to speak Finnish with his Finnish relatives, although with his wife the language keeps changing constantly.

Palaveri vai Veripala (meeting or bloodspot: Finnish play on compound words the meaning changes when to parts of the word are switched)

The CEO of Technopolis understands what Siilasmaa was after with his language proposal. In its own way, English is already a kind of unofficial official language in business world. Finns speak such good English that one doesn’t even need learn Finnish anymore, everything can be done in English.

Silverang however recommends language lessons for CEO’s, who don’t speak Finnish. It can bring practical benefits for example in board and management team meetings.

– If people switch tomFinnish you will be cut out of the loop, he says.

And even though the meetings would be held in English, many Finns would feel that they do not express themselves sufficiently well in English.

According to Silverang, a good leader should be able to play different roles, from psychiatrist, to surrogate father and stand-up comedian. Understanding humor any in foreign language, be it Finnish or English, can be difficult with just basics.

Silverang says that he sometimes lightens the mood with involuntary language screw-ups. Even busy people start to laugh when a meeting becomes bloodspot.

And if a CEO feels overwhelmed Silverang is ready to form a round table for foreign CEO’s in Finland to spar their language skills. Also Genelec’s Naghian stresses the importance of knowing the language.

Both Silverang and Naghian say that Finnish isn’t that much more difficult or easier to learn than any other language. Its logical pattern, comparatively limited vocabulary and phonetical pronunciation ease the task, Silverang says.

– Learning the Finnish language has been an enriching adventure for me, Naghian says.