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The Tower of Babel upside down

April 15, 2015 – by Erik van der Maat &samhoud consultancy

The story about the Tower of Babel and Creating Lasting Value have two features in common. First, they are about very ambitious human endeavors: building a tower which rises up to heaven and creating and realizing a vision, both are no bed of roses. Second, to achieve these ambitious endeavors, a common language is needed. When God confused the language of humans, the result was total chaos – if organizations do not find a common language, they will never be able to develop a shared vision let alone making it happen. However, there is an insightful difference between the two ‘projects’, as we discovered while supporting Cembra Money Bank in Switzerland to define its new vision.


Cembra Money Bank Switzerland – international company and Swiss bank at the same time

Before Cembra Money Bank went public on 30 October 2013, it was part of GE and acted under the name GE Money Bank. When going public, the time for Cembra had come to define and decide on its own future – building on but also distinguishing itself from the strong cultural heritage of General Electrics. Cembra Money Bank in Switzerland faces a delicate balancing act: on the one hand, Cembra is a Swiss bank with many of the according attributes: very professional, discrete, reliable and equipped with an extensive expertise. At the same time, Cembra is also different to the typical Swiss bank such as UBS or Credit Suisse: less formal and complicated, more personal and straightforward. These two faces are underpinned by a very pronounced cultural and therewith language diversity: most people in the front offices are Swiss and speak either German, French or Italian while the back-office and the management team is – for a large part – international and use English as their business language.


Tower of babel upside downThe power of language diversity

When we started to develop the cultural change program and decided to embark on a vision creation process holding a large number of participative workshops on all levels of the bank with our Cembra colleagues, there was a big discussion about the language policy for the upcoming workshops that would be used to define / co-create the (new) Cembra vision: does everyone have to speak English (as it usually was the case for sessions with a multilingual group of participants) or do we choose German, French and Italian since we are a Swiss company now? The debate was a perfect example of how closely language is intertwined with culture and that language stands for much more than spoken words and written texts. If Cembra would have agreed that everyone has to speak English in the workshops, it would have signified – or at least be interpreted like – a landmark decision for the future culture of Cembra Money Bank: it is and remains an international company. Contrarily, if they would have opted for the Swiss languages, the future Cembra culture would have aimed towards an uprooting of its cultural heritage. So, how did they solve this decisive dispute?

We jointly agreed on a not so uncommon policy in Switzerland: everyone is allowed to speak in its own language. The outcome could not have been any better:

First, everyone felt very comfortable and appeared fully authentic as a result of speaking in her/his native language. The few misunderstandings and required translation loops were highly bonding and humorous moments.

Second, the language diversity enabled an unusually sharp and deep discussion about the vision of Cembra. Since every language uses different words, the Cembra colleagues really had to discuss in length what the core and the shared meaning of their goal, ambition, values and qualities are. If everyone speaks the same language, there is a risk that there is a much quicker agreement on certain terms / elements of a vision without really having a consensus about the different meaning the word may have.

Third and most important, the language compromise they agreed on was the highly connecting fundament for the new Cembra culture. It signified that everyone has to make a step towards the other, everyone has to be tolerant and show some effort in understanding each other. Keeping up the language diversity was a real eye-opener for many what the future culture of Cembra is about: they are an international company with strong roots from General Electrics, but at the same time they are a local, Swiss bank. No “either or” needed, just the opposite. This is how “diversity” became one of the core values of Cembra’s new vision and a well-respected and very bonding principle during the developing process of the vision in the first place.


Turning the Tower of Babel upside down

The narrative about the Tower of Babel biblically explains the origin of the language diversity on earth and relates it to disconnection between people and the resulting inability to achieve their shared ambition(s). As globalization progresses, it seems that with the internationally evolving English, we are getting the common language back which we lost due to our wish to become god-like – with reference to the Babel story. However, we should not confuse what language is all about. Language is the ability to communicate with each other. And this extends much beyond certain alphabets, words and grammars but embraces mutual tolerance, respect and utmost, understanding. Imagine a Cembra Money Bank which would have ignored the power of language diversity and “forced” everyone to speak English. It might have had a common “language” (=English) but we doubt that they would be able to communicate successfully and truly understand each other, and achieve the high goal and ambition they have set themselves.

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