Growing up, my family had a cottage on the border of Vermont and Quebec. During summers, we were immersed in French-Canadian culture—listening to Quebecois radio and picking up French language newspapers at the store. I didn’t know it then, but my childhood spent buying penny candies en francais turned out to be great training to become the CEO of a tech company. Really.
These days, much of our talk about the future of work revolves around technical abilities—and it’s true that skills like coding do open doors in our tech-enabled society. But I’m living proof that not everything you need to succeed in business revolves around 1s and 0s. In fact, many of the skills that helped me become a CEO were the result of following my childhood interest all the way through college, culminating in a French degree.
Now, I know a Bachelor of Arts in a romance language might sound more like a foundation for a career in academia or foreign service than a springboard to a career in tech and business. But between conjugating verbs, refining pronunciation, and diving into Camus, something special was going on. The skills I picked up were not only relevant to the business world; they’ve been absolutely critical in building my career.
One thing I’ve learned after becoming a CEO is that the balance between calling upon your technical skills and the more “soft skills” completely changes as your career advances. No matter what industry you’re in, leading people is about managing teams, communicating, and vision setting—and you can’t do that successfully if you don’t know how to talk to those around you.
So much miscommunication in business comes down to how we interpret language differently. Words matter—the ones you choose, the order you put them in, even your intonation. Learning another language taught me just how much weight a single word can carry.
Take pain, the French word for bread. Translated literally, it’s the same presliced stuff we fill with cold cuts and take to work for lunch. But for the French, bread is so much more than a sandwich ingredient—it’s the culinary cornerstone of their entire culture. I experienced this firsthand when I spent a semester in France during my sophomore year at college and saw people bringing freshly baked baguettes home to their families each and every morning. I had to put my idea of “bread” aside and internalize a nuanced and different meaning, one that evoked a culture built around coming together over food. Without that act of translation and interpretation, I wouldn’t have been able to understand or participate in one critical piece of the French experience.
This nuance is just as significant in business. Whether you’re talking to customers, employees, or investors, the words you use are loaded with emotional weight, history, and layers of meaning. Word choice can mean the difference between making people feel heard and understood or coming off like a know-it-all imposter.
When I first started working in the tech world, I made sure I learned the language of the engineers I worked with and understood how to use it. Despite my limited technical background, being able to talk about UI, CDNs, and data sharding earned me some serious—and essential—credibility with my teams. Most importantly, it communicated to them that I had taken the time to understand their worlds.
Similarly, language makes a world of difference when connecting with customers. My company is an online platform for property management, and we’ve been encouraging our customers—property managers—to shift the language they use with their customers in order to help them attract and retain residents. For instance, it’s common for property managers to refer to rental units as, well, “units” or “doors.” But a growing number of renters out there don’t want to live in a “unit.” They’re searching for something like a more permanent home. Swapping out that one little word can make a world of difference when appealing to renters—and it can be a powerful differentiator for our clients.
Language is empathy
My French degree took me to a lot of unexpected places—foremost among them was sub-Saharan Africa. I wound up traveling there a lot during my first job working for an international industrial supplier.
My ability to speak a second language got me the job, but doing it well came down to a more subtle skill I developed while studying French: empathy. Learning a foreign language has to be one of the most meaningful ways to truly internalize that the world is a big place—not everyone speaks, thinks, or relates to things like you do.
That enabled me to start to appreciate the preconceptions that others carried toward me, a young American selling multimillion-dollar contracts to pulp and paper mills in places like Durban, South Africa. And I was also able to wrestle with my own biases and assumptions. Without that sense of empathy and awareness, building trust with these customers wouldn’t have been possible.
This is a lesson I took to heart and something I use every day leading a tech company committed to diversity, inclusion, and instilling a sense of belonging. As a leader, it’s my job to constantly put myself in others’ shoes. There’s no other way to create true buy-in or build a lasting company culture. Ignoring concerns from your team rarely works in the long run—as shown by Google’s employee walkouts and strikes by Uber drivers pressing for better pay.
Showing empathy for your team can start with something as simple as counteracting biases and assumptions at the linguistic level by being deliberate with word choice. For instance, constantly using the word “guys” reinforces a subtle assumption that our default is male, so I’ve learned to change my language, as has the entire leadership team at Buildium. Likewise, using words like “resident” instead of “tenant” is bringing a more equitable and human-focused tone to our industry, which has a history of stigmatizing renters.
To be clear, I’m not saying everyone should follow my exact path. There are lots of ways people can develop a broader understanding of the world, whether they’re into art, music, poetry, dance, or discrete mathematics. Indeed, there are strong leaders across the company who explored all sorts of fields before finding their way into tech. For me, studying French ended up being instrumental to developing a better understanding of the way people express themselves and the importance of language in building strong relationships, at work and beyond.
Chris Litster (@cmlitster) is CEO of Buildium, a platform to help property managers streamline their businesses.