As I write this paragraph, I have just closed down the meeting app for my final ITI board meeting. Over the past six years, I have served alongside two chairs, one Chief Executive and some of the finest board members that you could wish for. From the unbeatable finder of typing and punctuation errors to the keeper of stores of association history and knowledge, they have all left a positive mark on the association.
But I don’t intend this post of be an emotional farewell. Instead, I want to think through what I have learned from being on the board and how it has changed the way I see my profession and the entire sector in which I work.
Making Sure We Don’t Mess Up.
First off, (and now it’s a couple of days after the meeting) let’s begin with a rather embarassing admission. After all this time, I am still quite impatient with organisational minutiae and the standard administration and legal niceties of being on a board still bore me.
Yes, I know I probably shouldn’t say that but I have never really enjoyed governance, approving accounts, signing off policies and procedures, and receiving reports. I would much rather be out in the world, talking to the people most affected by our work.
But being on the ITI board for six years has taught me something important. As much as I would rather be at a tradeshow than reading through procedures and policies, that stuff really matters. No-one wants to be part of an association with dodgy books, rampant bullying, and scattergun procedures. Without good governance, the risk of that happening is very high indeed.
ITI is blessed to have the services of an excellent company secretarial provider and a team of committed office staff. Their work isn’t always glamourous but it is why memberships are processed quickly, advice is legally sound, and every member of ITI is treated fairly. It’s also why the atmosphere around ITI nowadays is one of collegiality and trust. Sure, we don’t always agree with each other but we can have debates with mutual respect.
After six years, I am now one of those boring people who actually asks about risk management policies, succession plans and fallback processes. I still prefer to do the outward-facing work, though.
Helping People Understand Translation and Interpreting
That outward-facing work has noticeably picked up over the past two years. ITI has always been good at working with other associations through its membership of FIT (the International Federation of Translators – an association of translation associations) and connections with organisations like ASLING, who run the Translation and the Computer conference. But now our wings are spreading much wider.
In the past year alone, ITI has responded to the poor translation of the UK Government White Paper on Brexit, run a campaign to help people realise that translation is about much more than words, talked back to the Lord Chief Justice when he argued that courts would replace interpreters with machines within a few years, and released a position paper on Video Remote Interpreting. And that’s just the headlines.
If it matters to the sector, it matters to ITI and the past six years have seen us become sharper at writing responses that are factually correct, tightly targeted and convincingly written. Catherine Park, our Communications and Marketing Executive, has been instrumental in that change. Those responses have started to make an impact.
Three Cheers for the Chair
Of course, to make any of this work, you need an energetic Chair, who is firmly in “Get Things Done” mode. For the past few years, Sarah Bawa Mason has been just that for ITI. She’s a human whirlwind and has shaken more hands (physically and metaphorically) in the past few years than I have had ITI board dinners.
What I Have Learned
But this wouldn’t be a blog post without a shortlist of things I have learned in six years. So here is the very short version.
1 Engagement beats complaining
Everyone can find something wrong with our sector and something that their association can change. Yet very few are ready to put their time where their mouth is and work on a committee, stand for election to the board or volunteer. If you see something that needs changing, work to change it somehow. If you feel that your commitments mean that you can’t at least share or praise the work of others who can. A supporting voice can make a big difference.
2 Being polite wins more friends than being angry
Sure, we can rail and rant as stuff but a factual, polite letter will do much more than a long screed, full of insults. In one case, a polite letter to the Lord Chief Justice led to the opportunity to contribute to a magazine for barristers, increasing the number of people who could learn what interpreting is actually about and why machines aren’t about to take our jobs.
3 One is too small a number to achieve greatness
I borrowed that quote from John C Maxwell but it is true. On the ITI board, you have an array of experts: from proofreading masters to medical translation mavens to network-builders and research nerds. You need that wide a range of people in the same room to really start making a difference. That brings me to point 4.
4 Always work across the barriers
In certain parts of the translation world, it is common to come across the view that agencies and freelancers should never be in the same organisation because freelancers are good and agencies (and tech researchers and software companies and…) are evil. It’s kind of like a nerdy version of the gangs in West Side Story.
But that is silly and self-defeating. Yes, there are bad agencies but there are also bad freelancers. There are tech researchers who would like to put translators out of a job and there are tech researchers who want to make our work more efficient and more fun.
A good association and a good sector provides space for all the interest groups to talk to each other and find common ground. People listen more when an entire sector speaks than when one group wander around with placards.
5 Change Takes Time
Again, let me confess my impatience. Everyone joins a board thinking that a new course can be rolled out within a week, attitudes can change next month and the world can see interpreters as the new superheroes before the Brexit thing ends (actually, that last one might be achievable).
The truth is that if we want things to be done right and if we want to actually see sustainable change, everything takes time. Sure, having a form to fill in for approvals of new projects might seem like a chore but the process (there’s that word again!) and writing down an idea, thinking through its risks and potential and running it past a room full of sane, intelligent adults is a game-changer. I am yet to meet any ITI board member who wants to obstruct process or slow down change but we all want to get things right.
Sometimes “getting things right” will mean waiting until the finance and volunteer time are available to do something. Sometimes it will mean combining three ideas into one. Sometimes it will mean going back to the drawing board and trying a small internal change before plotting worldwide revolution.
Few people outside a boardroom appreciate how hard decision-making can be and how tricky it can be to balance what everyone agrees needs to be done with what resources and time say can be done. This isn’t a plea to let board members off the hook or to stop sending in suggestions. It’s simply an attempt to give a bit of insight into why sometimes change takes longer than we might think it should.
To this day, it’s still a point of frustration for me. I think it is for every single good board member. But the great thing is that sometimes a small change opens the door for a bigger one, which clears the way for an even bigger one and so on. There are things I wish I had seen change on my time on the board but I can see why some are still in the planning stage. Equally, there are changes I could not have imagined, which have already taken place.
If you have a good idea, please do send it to the board of whichever professional association you are in. If you have a criticism or problem, send that too but be prepared to be the person who is tasked with resolving the issue. And if you would like to find out why a decision was taken, ask. No decision is ever taken just for the sake of it. There’s always a reason.
My time on the ITI board not only introduced me to some amazing people and offered me some unique opportunities, it also made me more confident about the future. With competent, skilled people on association board and the sense of continued progress that pervades ITI right now, I know that my sector and my profession are in great hands.