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Inside the Boardroom with Leading Bilinguals: Paul Stewart

Paul Stewart credits his German and French language skills for critical turning points in his career in international business.

It could have been one of those embarrassing moments for an American in Europe. Paul Stewart was invited by his boss, Karl Leibinger, to a boar hunting party in the historic Alsace region. For centuries it has been part of either France or Germany, depending on a shifting border. Karl was founder and chairman of Leibinger Companies, a global medical device firm, and Paul was the president of its U.S. operations. As the hunting party gathered in the early morning, their host announced safety instructions—first in German and following that, in French. Then, hesitating, the host asked Paul in English if Paul needed him to repeat the instructions in English. Paul responded in German, “That’s okay, I understood it in both languages.”

“Everyone laughed. It wasn’t the typical American response,” Paul said. But despite being born into an English-speaking home and not venturing outside the U.S. until after college, Paul is not your average American when it comes to languages.

Paul Stewart

Paul grew up in Dallas and went to a private high school, where he was introduced to languages. “I thought I might want to be an engineer, so I decided to study German.” He took three years of German and some classes in Latin and Greek. After graduating in 1974, he went to Stanford and managed in four years to earn a bachelor’s in American Studies and a master’s in the humanities. “I continued with German at Stanford, and also studied a semester of French and Italian to learn some travel language for a trip to Europe with friends the summer after I graduated,” he said. It was his first trip overseas.

Paul returned to Texas and enrolled at the University of Texas Law School in Austin.

“I wanted the experience of living overseas, so I talked my law firm in Dallas into helping me arrange internships with some of their foreign correspondent firms.  It was an era when there weren’t many multinational law firms like today.”

Paul did a six-week program in international law at the University of Salzburg, then spent eighteen months with local firms in Munich, Paris, and Singapore. He struggled at first with German, but kept a pocket dictionary with him and reviewed his old grammar book from high school.  By the end of his six months in Munich, he was fluent in German.

“I met a couple of Americans on the train on the way to my next internship in Paris, and noticed that my mouth was tired after talking to them in English for an hour,” he said. “I hadn’t realized the mouth positioning is so different for German pronunciation.”

During his six months in Paris, Paul took a six-week French course at the Alliance Française, thinking that would be enough. (“I was naïve!”)  But after six months of working almost entirely in French, his French had become as good as his German.

When he went to Singapore, he didn’t try to learn Chinese. “I knew that would be too much of a stretch,” he said.

After Paul returned to Dallas, he joined the German and French Chambers of Commerce to make contacts with potential clients.  Through a reference from the German Chamber, Paul met Karl Leibinger. “He became my best client and one of my closest friends.”

Paul’s language skills and international experience helped him become first an associate, then a partner at Baker & McKenzie, the world’s largest law firm.  But after 10 years of practicing law, Paul felt the urge to move into business. “Karl offered me the opportunity to run his U.S. operations, and I jumped at the chance.”

Paul helped grow the U.S. division and started getting involved with the global operations. After five years, he helped his boss sell the entire firm to Pfizer. Karl wanted to retire and asked Paul to run Leibinger’s global operations.

“I’m not sure I would have been offered the job had I not spoken German,” said Paul. “Although the company communicated with its distributors in English, I could read internal memos and the financials in German, and communicate with staff members in their most comfortable language.”

Paul said he’s not one who comes naturally to languages. “I have to really try hard.”

“Today you can certainly get along as a business person without another language,” Paul continued, “but having another language may open some career opportunities. Plus, it helps you understand a culture better, and form personal connections with people when they know you care enough to learn their language.”

Language Profiles by Steve Leveen

Steve Leveen, co-founder of the Levenger Company, is writing a book on bilingualism in America and is host of the podcast America the Bilingual. Part of his research over the past two years was conducted while a fellow at Stanford and Harvard.