ESP Project Leader Profile: David Kertzner

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

In this TESOL Blog post, you will read the ESP project leader profile of David Kertzner. David’s company, ProActive English, offers on-site business English and communication training. Outside of his company, David has been active in the TESOL ESP Interest Section, where he has held leadership positions as the ESPIS chair, English in occupational settings representative, and editor of ESP News. (On a personal note, when David was chair, I was chair-elect, so David has also had the leadership role of mentoring me.) As I have written in a previous TESOL Blog post about David, I expect to learn something when he speaks. Accordingly, I was pleased to be able to read his profile below in which he defines leadership and shares a story about providing workplace language training to participants from multiple language groups.


David Kertzner

Managing Director, ProActive English


1. How would you define leadership?

I think of leadership as the ability of a person or a group of people to consciously move others to action that they might not take otherwise, towards a purpose of greater good.

That sounds quite academic.  While it is an interesting task to think about what leadership is, in doing so, I can’t help but feel that “leadership,” like “synergy” and “the narrative” are overused and often misapplied terms. Calling oneself a leader does not make one a leader, nor does assuming a position of leadership and merely carrying out responsibilities make one a leader.

For me, the more important struggle around leadership for our professional and personal lives is to foster and maintain attitudes and values that produce actions of leadership, such as sense of responsibility for oneself and responsibility towards community, positive engagement, desire for social justice, compassion for the downtrodden, and empathy.

Although these are not words or phrases primarily associated with leadership and professional behavior, many successful professionals whom I know of consciously bring these attitudes and values into their professional lives—and it makes all the difference.

2. Tell me an ESP project success story. Focus on your communication as a leader in the project. How did you communicate with stakeholders to make that project successful?

Background:  Several years ago, a food processing company in the Portland (Oregon) area asked my company, ProActive English, to develop and deliver language and communication training for 55 line employees who prepare frozen food products from industrial recipes. Participants were mostly immigrants who had arrived here between 1 and 20 years ago having had a range of education experience in their countries—from almost none to college level. Native languages among the group included Spanish, Russian, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Chinese (Mandarin).

We were asked to deliver classes focusing on basic reading skills, explaining and responding to problems on the line, writing shift reports, and improving participation in company-wide training.

Delivery:  Since our clients invite us in and pay for our services, they are almost always eager to give us the information we need to do the job well. In this case, the client was particularly helpful. We presented the HR manager who had secured our services with a simple sequence of steps that we would go through in the assessment process and another sequence that we would go through in delivering the training.

Our assessment of organizational needs and individual needs included interviews with program participants and managers, and a series of walkthroughs that allowed us to observe job functions, production process, moments of communication, basic documentation and forms, and signage around the plant. The information we garnered from the assessment process made it relatively easy to modify or tailor our core curriculum to the context of the plant and its processes.

We regularly updated the HR manager on how things were going and provided formal reports at benchmarks we had designated before the training began. We invited other senior managers into the training room to observe what we were doing in classes and we were able to sit in on nonlanguage training offered for all employees. This proved quite valuable for developing new learning activities that were relevant to other training taking place on-site and the production process in general.

Outcome: After the first round of training, an HR manager reported that during the period of the training, no production errors due to language misunderstanding had occurred. The company estimated the cost of production errors in the previous quarter due to language misunderstanding at $45,000—significantly greater than the cost of training in the period that followed. ProActive English was asked back for a second round of training.

Comment: Getting hard data about the cost of errors due to language misunderstanding and being able to contrast that with the following period of time when one is delivering training—with zero errors occurring during the latter period—is not at all common. We have no illusions that our language training was the only reason that there were no production errors—but the training no doubt helped in many ways including raising overall awareness among native speakers of the importance of supporting the language learners’ experience. Translating individual improvement in communication skills into time saved on the job is another measure of program impact, and while such a measure can only be estimated, even more conservative estimates generally calculate out at a good ROI.

The program succeeded as it did due to our ability to implement at every step of the way our knowledge gained from previous experience (including previous mistakes) with similar projects. So, for those new to the field, I encourage you to … make mistakes … and:

  • set up simple systems for identifying organizational and individual needs at companies;
  • get as much content as you can from the client company including photos, audio interviews, and video;
  • do not reinvent curriculum each time, but think carefully about how you can modify your core content to incorporate the context that participants engage in every day; and
  • communicate, communicate, communicate. Companies are eager to hear good news about what they are spending money on. Such good news is often the highlight of a manager’s day and he or she is eager to share it with a colleague.

For the rest of you scoundrels hustling your tails off to deliver similar training, I imagine this is a familiar tale and one for which you have many of your own solutions. I look forward to any and all comments in response.

What all this has to do with leadership, I am not sure. But the experience did empower program participants, perhaps resulting in some of them being more likely to find their own path and improve their lives—and that would seem to be good for everyone.


David’s conceptualization of leadership, as something that moves us toward the greater good, is interesting to me in view of Cameron’s discourse dynamics framework, especially on a systematic metaphor level. In this connection, the conceptualization of leadership at the University of Sydney—”Leadership for good starts here”—appears in a new light.

In addition, notice in the “Delivery” section above how David communicated to create a vision and to achieve that vision. (As I have written in previous TESOL Blog posts, my conceptualization of leadership includes communicating to create and to achieve visions.)

Finally, David welcomes hearing from you, so please post your questions and/or comments below!

All the best,

Note: For access to all ESP project leader profiles (and more), go here.

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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One Response to ESP Project Leader Profile: David Kertzner

  1. Margaret van Naerssen says:

    One point that jumped out at me was the information on the cost of errors. David reported, “The company estimated the cost of production errors in the previous quarter due to language misunderstanding at $45,000—significantly greater than the cost of training in the period that followed.”

    Well done, well stated, David.

    ESP professionals in workplace contexts need to take the client’s perspective on what would be a meaningful measure of success. Workplace clients are not concerned about scores on language tests. They want to know how training will affect their financial bottom line. This reminds me of an article in the TESOL Quarterly by William Martin and Anne Lomperis: “Determining the Cost Benefit, the Return on Investment, and the Intangible Impacts of Language Programs for Development” (TESOL Quarterly, Volume 36, Issue 3, pages 399–429, Autumn 2002). (This article was first published online: 4 JAN 2012, DOI: 10.2307/3588419.)

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