"A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines."
– Frank Lloyd Wright
Volume 74 | Issue 3
May 2006

From the Executive Director: To each his own

Marsha Herman-Betzen

Just before ACUI hired me in 1984 and while I was still a staff member at the Oklahoma State University Student Union, I saw an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal for a communication specialist job at Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, N.M. Sandia National Laboratories’ mission includes research and development in science technology and engineering; energy resources and nonproliferation; military technologies and applications; and nuclear weapons. This subsidiary of the well-known Bell Labs had a reputation for hiring the best and the brightest engineers. What made this posted job fascinating was that they were looking for someone with a master’s degree in communication to develop training programs to help these brilliant engineers successfully work with each other, supervise subordinates, and become skilled at working in teams. To effectively accomplish this task, they felt they had to pay this individual the same salary they were paying engineers who had an advanced degree, which meant this job announcement was offering the successful candidate more than four times my salary at the time and in the end attracted more than 280 starry-eyed liberal arts majors to apply.

Several things made this advertisement appealing besides the money (which I had spent several times over as I daydreamed about the job). To begin with, Albuquerque was home for me, and my husband had several siblings living in the area. I had always thought our careers would preclude us from living near our extended families, and just the thought of letting our only child share holidays and birthdays with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins had tremendous appeal. Second, it would give me a wonderful opportunity to apply what I had learned in nine years of post-secondary education to a great problem, teaching non-communicators how to communicate in a practical setting.

To pare down the applicant pool, the search committee had us answer 10 questions in essay format covering a wide range of topics. I was happy to be selected as one of the final candidates brought to Albuquerque for an interview based on my writing. I remember going into major debt on my interview suit, spending more money on that single purchase than our monthly house payment. As I languished in the large gray, government-appointed human resources waiting room, I couldn’t help but notice I was the only woman among the 20 or so candidates for engineering positions. They were all young men who stereotypically wore cheap suits, bad haircuts, and pocket protectors, never looking up from the linoleum floor to make eye contact with anyone.

Luckily I did not get offered the job, although at the time I did not feel particularly upbeat about not getting asked to dance. However, I did know from the beginning I was in an unfamiliar setting and sensed my personality did not match those around me. This intuitive feeling became clear the moment they took us in groups of six to be fingerprinted before the interview. Trying to lighten the mood, I said: “Don’t get any ink on this white suit, because if I don’t get this job, I am going to have to return it for a refund,” which I thought was hilarious but didn’t even get a smile from anyone in earshot of me. Apparently the future engineers would be more likely to fit in with the individuals already working at Sandia National Laboratories.

Twenty-three years later I have been fortunate to have found a profession where individuals can appreciate light-hearted humor and generally have a much higher degree of communication acumen and interpersonal skill than those engineers. Still not unlike the engineers, the greatest struggle I have faced as a supervisor, manager, advisor, and coworker is how to speak the same language of those I work with, from the simplest exchanges to the most complex.

My communication challenges are the same as those you have on your campus. Think about frequent staffing changes that cause you to start from the ground floor. Think about new union board officers and the education that must take place before you can function as a team. Think not only about the people you supervise, but those new bosses whose job it is to supervise you. What all of this means is that each of you must become astute at responding to and changing the way you go about your daily business in reaction to the other individual’s style. And while many of us have taken course after course in our particular disciplines, how many of us are proficient in the cadre of communication skills essential for interpersonal, organizational, and institutional effectiveness?

Some of you have heard me say that one of the more difficult hurdles in reporting to a volunteer board is that your boss changes every year. Since becoming executive director in 1994, I have been privileged to work with 12 competent, committed, intellectually stimulating, and hard-working presidents who have become dear friends for life. I have so much respect for each of the individuals who have chosen this difficult yet rewarding volunteer path. I marvel at their willingness to take on additional responsibilities on top of their salaried jobs. I admire their motivation to give up weekends of rest and relaxation to examine financial statements, respond to hours of additional e-mail, travel extensively, write columns for The Bulletin, or deliver speeches at conferences. In addition, I have been told by many of the past presidents that the learning curve involved in running a non-profit higher education association as opposed to a college union is steeper than the casual observer might initially anticipate. Most past presidents agree that long-distance communication and leading a volunteer workforce top the list in ways their real job and their volunteer job differ.

That said, the most significant challenge of having a new boss each year is learning how to adjust to each other’s communication style in a short time frame. In other words, how do our conversational styles affect who gets heard, how the work is accomplished, how authority is tested, how mistakes are made, how the responsibility for making a mistake is assigned, and how we reveal and conceal all that we don’t know? Trust me when I say that each president I have had the honor to report to is as different as night and day. I commented to someone at our annual conference last March: “You would think that after 10 years I would start getting some repeats on the style quotient scale,” but to date, no such luck.

While communication in its purest form is hard enough, add racial, gender, cultural, geographic, age, and social differences, and you can now understand the complexity of getting the work done at all. In her book “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,” author Deborah Tannen (1994) says:

Conversational style is invisible. Unaware that these and other aspects of our backgrounds influence our ways of talking, we think we are simply saying what we mean. Because we don’t realize that others’ styles are different, we are often frustrated in conversations. Rather than seeing the culprit as differing styles, we attribute to others’ intentions (she doesn’t like me), abilities (he’s stupid), or character (she’s rude, he’s inconsiderate), our own failure (what’s wrong with me), or the failure of a relationship (we just can’t communicate). (p. 12)

If I have struck a familiar chord and you are shaking your head up and down in agreement, you understand the complexities of communication. As I have often said, everyone thinks of themselves as expert communicators. But if that is the case, why do communication breakdowns occur? We could all use a little introspection and strive to better understand others’ communication styles. While I’m biased because this is one of my primary interest areas, I truly believe effective interpersonal, small group, and organizational communication is the foundation of a successful enterprise.

As evidenced by its inclusion as one of the core competencies for the profession, communication is a skill set that must be built and maintained. ACUI is in the process of operationalizing all 11 of the core competencies for the profession so that we can better serve as a resource and help you develop and enhance your own communication skills.

Each interaction with a new individual presents a different communication style and a new set of challenges. In an increasingly diverse and competitive workplace this will become even more obvious. Therefore, to have successful college union and student activities organizations, not only must we demonstrate communication competency, we must make that proficiency a vital priority.


Tannen, D. (1994). Talking from 9 to 5. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.