Macro/Micro: Better business through transparency

I was raised in Sinking Fork, Kentucky, a rural community so small that we didn’t even have our own post office. It wasn’t uncommon for people to leave their homes unlocked during the day, and even more shocking, some people would even leave their car keys in the ignition while they were at work. The philosophy behind this was that someone might need to move your car for some reason or to roll your windows up for you if it started raining. Needless to say, it was a very trusting, transparent environment. Everyone knew everyone else.

As an adult, I’ve learned to be slightly less trusting. I’ve had to. Where I live now is a very safe neighborhood, but if I left my keys in the car for someone else to move it, a thief might come along and move it clean out of sight. I’d say the difference is a changing world, but the truth is, talking to others of my generation, I’ve learned my experience was fairly unique. It made for a glorious childhood, but I often joke that being raised in 1980s rural Kentucky was like being raised in the 1950s anywhere else. I’m a member of Generation X and the rest of us just aren’t quite as trusting as I was taught to be. And there’s a reason why. What I see as changes have long been in place and the world just doesn’t seem so trustworthy anymore.

For those of us raised outside of Sinking Fork, Generation X is the generation that had to X-ray its Halloween candy. We’re the generation that was told not to talk to strangers or we’d wind up on our school milk carton. We’re the generation whose Tylenol was recalled because someone poisoned the drug on the shelves, the generation that saw the advent of childproof protective pill-bottle caps and double-sealed, tamper-proof packaging. And now that we’re adults, a childhood of not being able to believe one another has made our society — well — unbelieving. There’s a reason that people who used to be called wholesome are now called gullible. What used to be a positive trait has become a negative one and as a society, we pride ourselves on cutting through the crap, for lack of a better term. Truth in advertising in the United States has always been more of an ethical plea than a legal obligation, but the Media and Public Health Act (formerly the Self-Esteem Act) currently wants to control how far the truth can be stretched for selling when it comes to how ads portray women’s bodies. More recently, a March 6, 2012, class action lawsuit against Apple claims that the company has oversold Siri, so to speak, because iPhone 4S capabilities aren’t nearly as cool or as helpful as commercials make them out to be. My initial reaction to the Apple suit was that anyone who believes a piece of technology will do 100% of what it claims in a commercial would also still leave the keys in the car. But basically, what current events tell me is that we don’t want to put up with dishonesty anymore.

At this year’s Association of Language Companies (ALC) conference, Bob Donaldson of Carson Strategy Group said that one of the largest sources of internal tension between translation sales and project management (PM) is promises. Basically, it’s sales’ job to make promises. It’s PM’s job to keep them. The goal, Donaldson said, was to be the kind of company that does both. Donaldson is on to something. In The Speed of Trust, 
Stephen M.R. Covey writes that there’s no quick way to build trust. Whereas in Sinking Fork trust was automatic, in today’s business world, trust must be earned over time. It’s no longer enough to be honest; you must be willing to prove how honest you are. In fact, Covey says, “Transparency will establish trust fast. . . . Transparent companies are constantly disclosing relationships, interests, and conflicts ahead of time so that everything is always out in the open and no one can question their agenda” (p. 154). It all boils down to showing you are who you say you are. Not to get all religious here, but to quote from Matthew 5:37, “Simply let your yes be your yes and your no be your no.”

The world has always had charlatans, don’t get me wrong, but it seems as though now we pride ourselves on knowing that they’re there. We’re taught to root them out, to not take candy from strangers, to pat down even little old ladies trying to board a plane.

We automatically trust no one now and people are sick of being driven to this point. Deep down, humanity has a heartfelt need to trust and be trusted. People are tired of being lied to in business and in life, of being made promises that aren’t fulfilled. As surprising as it may have been to me personally, that class action against Apple was filed. It exists. Our society is swinging back to one where a handshake isn’t enough — we want documentation, we want proof, we want transparency. And we will call you out if we don’t get it. Show me you have nothing to hide and then I will believe you.

When it comes to transparency our industry has two extremes. In my two years of serving on the national leadership council for the ALC, never once was I provided with a copy of our own financials. On the completely opposite side of the spectrum, the Globalization and Localization Association makes its annual financials available to any member upon request. I don’t share this to pass judgment on either organization, but just to show how diverging industry perspectives on transparency can be. Both organizations are member-based nonprofits, and both represent the industry as a whole on a larger geographic scale. One refuses to provide its own leadership with information; the other makes the same information available to any member who wants it, leadership or not.

To say which is right and which is wrong isn’t the point of this article. I write about the trends I see that shape and shift our society and then I try to predict how those trends will affect our industry and clients. But the trend I’m noticing is that in this day of disbelief, it’s probably not healthy to hide anything. I’m not saying every language service provider (LSP) or industry organization should make itself an open book. The opposite of hiding everything is hiding nothing. At the time of this writing, In Every Language, my LSP, is the industry’s only certified B Corporation. What this certification means is that through independent investigation, we’ve proven ourselves socially ethical and environmentally sustainable in our business practices. As part of this investigation, B Corporations, which are all for-profits, are encouraged to make 100% of their accounting open and available to employees and clients upon request, just like nonprofits are supposed to. It’s not a requirement, but it is a suggested guideline. Do we do this? No. But the spirit behind this suggestion, which is far more essential than the suggestion itself, is something we do agree with: we don’t do anything we have to hide. We are who we say we are and we’re not afraid for anyone to ask us to prove it.

This is not a “my way or the highway” message. I’m just explaining what we do and who we are. We’re transparent. We’re transparent because I was brought up in a world where it was okay to leave your keys in your car. We’re transparent because we believe that if you are who you say you are and you’re not afraid to show it, you will build trust with your clients, employees and partners. In his book, Covey goes on to say that “from the standpoint of speed and cost, transparency makes enormous sense. You don’t have to worry about hidden agendas. You don’t have to second-guess. You don’t have to waste time and energy trying to maintain an appearance or keep up with which approach you took with this person” (p. 155). He claims that “trust always affects two outcomes — speed and cost. When trust goes down, speed will also go down and costs will go up” (p. 13). Showing, building and having trust — simply put — is better business all around. Last but not least, we’re transparent because we emphatically believe that it’s the right thing to do.

So how transparent are you?