Climbing the Corporate Ladder – The Challenge for Professionals from "Away"

January 9, 2006


Sue Paulson working with Ken Wong.
Photo credits: Norma Turtle, ABSA.

They come to Canada enticed by government offers of great jobs and a vision for a brighter future.  They are bright, intelligent, and eager to learn. Too many are not working in their chosen field - turned away at the HR door because their facility in speaking and writing English did not meet the standards of hiring companies.

The lucky ones, hired for their skills and experience, may still struggle to communicate, especially in highly technical areas like engineering and medicine. They often find themselves stuck on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. Frustration levels are high on both sides of the issue. Canadian colleagues and clients struggle to understand them, yet few complain because they don't want to offend or be seen as discriminating. Immigrant professionals sense they're not measuring up, but don't know what else to do to improve. In their home countries, many took years of English in school.  All of them took English classes when they came to Canada. The biggest challenge – closing the communication gap.

One innovative Edmonton company, ABSA, the pressure equipment safety authority, decided to tackle this challenge by offering weekly communications classes to their staff. Those classes produced improvements in ability and self-confidence, but participants still struggled to transfer classroom learning to the workplace.

"In order to help these professionals Canadianize their communication, it was crucial that we address the unique scenarios that each person brought to the classroom. So we switched to individual coaching," said Sue Paulson, who taught in ABSA's classroom for the first two years of the project. Paulson of FingerTip Solutions and Peggy Kayne of Clear Communications, now operate as a tag team with their students.  Over a twelve-week timeframe, each person works on business writing with Sue one week and on speech with Peggy the next week.

"The process of improving English speaking involves a large amount of new tongue and mouth work. Muscles not used to shaping the letters need a little aerobic workout to make the shift," says Kayne who specializes in eliminating the negative aspects of foreign accents in an English-speaking workplace.  

"The writing instruction fit so well with speaking instruction," added Paulson, "because the same mistakes kept showing up in both areas. Using this dual approach, they were easier and faster to correct.

Peggy Kayne working with Frank Zheng

The result – dramatic and stable improvement in a much shorter time. Not only did the content of work-related correspondence improve, but many clients and colleagues commented favorably on the results of clearer pronunciation. In both areas, productivity increased from 10 to 30%.

Good news, indeed, for those diligent professionals who seek advancement in their careers. "Communicating effectively is an essential skill in most professional jobs," said Gordon Campbell, General Manager of ABSA. "We want all our staff to have all the tools they need to reach their full potential."