To work together effectively, we need to understand each other. Most board members and the people who work at the institutions they serve speak in a common tongue, but that is not enough to assure good communication across the differences that divide us. George Bernard Shaw is said to have concluded that England and America are "two countries separated by the same language." The various constituencies and factions that make up our institutions and our boards often seem to be not just from different countries but from different worlds.
Consider the many cultural barriers that must be overcome in the conversations of governance. The gulf between the realms of academe and business is often noted. Those who come from commerce are baffled by faculty decision making, and academics are inherently suspicious of a focus on the financial bottom line. Ethnic and gender diversity, so important to sound deliberation, can bring strikingly different frames of reference to the table. Age is another obvious divide, with traditional-aged college students and their elders frequently bewildering each other (even when those elders are fellow students).
But those are by no means the only borders to be crossed. The disciplines of science and those of the humanities instill divergent ways of thinking. People with executive experience and those who tend the grounds bring different outlooks to their work. The religious and the secular think and speak differently. Those steeped in particular professional traditions—be it accounting, medicine, or entrepreneurism— have particular perspectives. And we live in a political environment in which different worldviews regularly clash.
Who will help us understand each other well enough to lead and govern wisely? A careful look around will reveal people with the special gifts of good interpreters. Perhaps it is the trustee with leadership experience in a major foundation who is adept at explaining the for-profit and nonprofit cultures to each other. Or the academic leader who can express faculty concerns in a way that a corporate CEO can grasp with sympathy. At Elmhurst College, one of the most valuable interpreters was an administrator and former professor who involved many trustees in mentorships with individual students, providing an engaging window into the educational enterprise.
Sometimes excellent interpreters come from the outside—a respected professional who contributes valuable insight to an advisory council or a consultant with the skill to help factions decode each other's arguments. Effective interpreters may be found in surprising places—a trustee brought on board because of his substantial wealth may have a little-known passion for contemporary art, opening unexpected lines of communication on the campus.
The best interpreters listen deeply to both sides, moving beyond their biases to convey differing viewpoints with honesty and fairness. They are able to translate specialized jargon accurately, but they go beyond just explaining the words. Interpreters convey nuance and emotion, sometimes recasting what is actually said so that it can be understood by a mind that thinks quite differently.
We can often identify effective interpreters by results. When the tone of a discussion rises to a more productive level or when someone's mind— perhaps ours—has clearly changed, consider the comment or conversation that seemed to trigger the progress. It's quite possible a good interpreter was able to translate an alternate perspective into a fresh insight.
As board members, we can tap into these qualities by:
• Seeking out the really good interpreters wherever they may be found, on the board or elsewhere;
• Valuing them and placing them in positions to use their special talents;
• Adding interpretation skills to the strengths sought when selecting leaders; and
• Working on becoming better interpreters ourselves.
Good interpreters help boards work better. And we become stronger trustees when we strive to understand the perspectives of others and frame what we say so that, rather than merely satisfying ourselves, we are actually understood.