Linguistic woes in boardrooms

M Muneer/Ralph Ward | Updated on November 25, 2021

With multilingual directors on the rise, translation is now vital

While the pandemic crisis has put many hurdles in front of boards, it has also accelerated some much-needed board changes that were on slow burner. The move to online and virtual governance has been highlighting across media.

But less explored is a related shift in board makeup — if boards now meet by logging onto Zoom or another video app, it is far easier to tap governance talent from around the world. This combines with current drives for greater board diversity and skill in international markets to make foreign nationals a hot new boardroom demographic. Companies seem to be getting the message — a 2021 Conference Board governance survey found that 12.1 per cent of S&P 500 companies now disclose international directors on their boards, which is double the percentage found in 2019.

Many Indian enterprises have foreign CEOs on their boards — Tata Motors, Wipro and Maruti to name just three. But there are many Indians in MNC boards across the world.

What can go wrong when you mix culture and languages in your board meetings? Lots of things actually. So how do meeting materials and corporate data need rethinking for multilingual directors?

The most obvious first step is to realise you have a language issue, and address it early. The board chair, CEO and company secretary should discuss how board packs and online info should be adapted to meet the specific needs of a new global member. What is the default language your board has been using? How conversant is the new member in that language? How much info will you need to translate (and how much more should you translate to help the member feel fully comfortable)?

Board information packets are normally prepared in a language that is most spoken in the country of the company board. Highlights are translated for those who do not know the native language.

Build your sensitivity on this by asking the new director to share sample board info he/ she uses in a native country, and in the native language. Step back and ask yourself how much of this would you need adapted to make it usable as a board member?

Once you have come up with an internal policy, make sure you have the new director’s sign-off on what and how much to translate. The board member could be over-confident in his language abilities, or your translations may not be as good as you believe. Also, in some cultures, it is unseemly to come out and say that your board pack is still hard to understand, and the director suffers in silence.

This can be the board chair’s first test of parsing not just what the director says, but what subtext is going unsaid. (Also, staffers who share the new director’s national or ethnic background can give helpful insights on how well you are doing).

Assure that the corporate secretary, company counsel, and the audit, HR and other functional heads agree to a policy on what needs translating, how to do it right, and (crucially) timelines for material. Corporate secretaries already face frantic battles to collect material from everyone on time before the board meeting, and translation of items will add to the schedule. Investigate the various apps and services that offer on-the-spot translation of material, usually for low cost (there are many options out there). Be sure no one finds adding a language to the board as a burden.

With multiple languages in your boardroom, matters get stickier. Arrive at a shared lingua franca, which may or may not be the native tongue of company headquarters. Encourage all board members to stretch their linguistic skills to cover diverse insights, and that includes the company’s native language speakers.

No board has done more than four language translations to our best knowledge. ( Check to see if your online board portal offers a translation tool. If not, hint-hint to your support rep how handy this would be.)

While working with staff to make the multilingual board a reality, ask legal counsel about the functionality you will need, and how to avoid dangers. Your listing exchanges or national regulators may take a dim view of board members who are shut out on adequate info in their own language.

Plus, you don’t want to face a deposition someday that finds the director admitting he approved a bad decision because he wasn’t able to understand its documentation.

Muneer is co-founder of the non-profit Medici Institute, and Ralph is global board advisor, coach and publisher.

Published on November 25, 2021

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