But hardest of all for an international manager trying to get to grips with a new job is finding time to learn the language.
That, at least, was my excuse for waiting three years before finally taking a course in Business Swedish. And it seems that I am not alone.
According to Maria Narbom Kullman at Företagsuniversitetet, where I was to take an intensive tailored Swedish course, some 70% of course delegates wait until they are at an intermediate level before applying their Swedish to their professional lives.
While that may be missing out on an opportunity to impress early on, it is also understandable. Swedes’ ability to speak English is both a blessing and a curse for foreign business people. When they arrive in the country, international staff in multinational companies find that they can operate effectively in English, while their Swedish colleagues are happy to oblige.
That means that they can hit the ground running, seemingly unhindered by communication issues.
“One of the attractive features of Sweden as a business environment is the perception that you can get by in English,” says Englishman Harvey Washbrook at Andor Technology, a scientific instrument company.
“And maybe you can get by. But the reality is that when you get to grips with the language you will certainly have a better relationship with your customers.”
It soon becomes clear that to do more than just ‘get by’ in Sweden, then Swedish is an essential part of the foreign manager’s skill set.
One option is the state-sponsored Svenska för invandrare, Swedish for foreigners. It is often the first port of call for some basic Swedish tuition and, most attractive to budget-conscious managers, it is free to foreigners with a Swedish personal number.
“If you’re lucky, SFI can give you a good foundation in Swedish,” says Washbrook, who attended the courses when he first arrived in Sweden three years ago.
But he points out that with classes of up to twenty people, from a wide range of backgrounds and with a variety of needs, it can also be a false economy.
Instead, just as Swedes are flocking to classes to brush up on their business English, the favoured solution for foreign managers is a tailored business Swedish class.
Företagsuniversitetet is one of the biggest providers of such classes, with thousands of language students having passed through their doors. The company, which was founded in 1982, is owned by a Stockholm University trust and is located in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö.
From the start it was clear that there is simply no comparison between the likes of SFI and the one-to-one business Swedish courses at the other end of the learning – and price – spectrum.
The greatest difference is also the most immediately obvious: the focus on the individual, from the initial needs analysis right through to the end of course progress assessment.
“One-to-one tuition doesn’t just mean that the individual gets exactly what he or she needs know,” says Maria Narbom Kullman, project manager in the language department of Företagsuniversitetet.
“It also means that the value gained from every hour of learning is far, far higher than you would get from a large class. Many of our clients say that time is one of their greatest pressures – courses tailored for the individual, or for small groups, are far more time-efficient.”
The lynchpin of that efficiency is the needs analysis, where the teacher, a course manager and the student establish a starting point and a finish line for the course.
“A thorough assessment at the beginning of the student’s level of Swedish, what they will be using Swedish for, both professionally and socially, and what level they want to attain saves an awful lot of time in the long run,” says Swedish teacher Lise Murphy.
For my eight two-hour sessions – somewhat shorter than the usual minimum of ten three-hour sessions – I agreed with Lise that the focus should be sales. That is the area of my job where correct Swedish is most important and where my company would get the most value for money.
But the course was far more focused than simply focusing on sales vocabulary. Lise wanted to know who my company’s target clients were, how we approach them and what kind of a reaction we tend to get.
At the next session, we worked on a full sales approach in Swedish. That was when the second difference, compared to a more general course, became clear: this was about a lot more than learning Swedish.
In fact, I probably learned as much about selling in Sweden as I did Swedish. Expressions and comments which, in English, would be oil to the grinding wheels of a sales call turned out to be more like a handful of grit in Swedish – not just according to Lise but also the various Företagsuniversitetet sales experts she had me practising on.
The reality is that, for all but the linguistically gifted, it takes years before a foreign executive is able to operate in Swedish as effectively as in his or her native language.
But Företagsuniversitetet’s emphasis on results is nothing if not pragmatic.
“I want my students to go away from the course with something they can begin to use immediately,” says Lise Murphy.
And that means understanding not just your strengths but also your limitations – and finding a route around them.
“Of course, we aim to add colours to the student’s language palette, so to speak. But there’s no point in trying to paint something complex when a simple image will do the job just as well,” she explains.
The acid test, of course, comes when the course notes are filed away and the real work of communicating in Swedish begins. Knowing what not to say has boosted my confidence as much as the new vocabulary and style that the course gave me. And in sales, confidence speaks volumes – in any language.
Louis Roper attended an intensive Swedish course courtesy of Företagsuniversitetet. For information about the company’s courses, see: http://www.foretagsuniversitetet.se