A CEO and Self-Made Woman's Guide To Being The Boss
Liz Elting | Forbes
I’ve been running a company for a long time; we started TransPerfect out of a dorm room when I was still in my twenties, and that was half my life ago. I didn’t have years of slow promotions behind me where I could learn the ropes or career mentors to shepherd me along. No, like so many entrepreneurs, I dove brazenly into deep waters and forced myself to swim.
That sort of courage is exactly what drives people to go into business for themselves: the willingness to risk everything for the chance to forge their own destinies. But drive, grit and determination are not actually the same thing as business or leadership acumen, and the best ideas in the world are no substitute for actual, real-life experience; that’s something I ran into again and again, as we expanded the company from just being me and my business partner managing a crew of freelancers to a thriving business with growing team of actual employees. You learn quickly –- but never quickly enough.
So, for every entrepreneur, for every mid-level manager with dreams of advancement, and for every up-and-coming startup founder, I want to offer some kind words of advice: the five best things I ever learned about how to lead effectively.
Persuasion Is Better Than Making Demands
While there is much to be said for a firm hand on the wheel, I’ve found that it’s better for everyone involved if arbitrary will is never considered to be a motivating force behind decisions, especially since other people will be carrying them out. This isn’t a knock against being decisive or authoritative, but there is much to be said with finding ways to get your way without making demands. You get more buy-in from your team, which means they’re more heavily invested in the outcome because it was, on some level, their decision as well.
The beauty with this approach is that it lets you exercise authority through use of your positional influence without being seen as dictatorial; you can drive the conversation and lead your team to the right conclusions. All in all, it makes it much easier to get things done effectively and promotes a collaborative workplace culture.
Change Is Good, Except When It Isn’t
It’s strange, considering how many leaders think themselves disruptive forces, just how conservative leadership positions can make you, and I don’t mean politically. It’s common to want to retrench and protect yourself and your company; everyone’s livelihood depends on it. But key to effective leadership is knowing when to embrace change. That means developing a healthy fearlessness and a willingness to expose yourself to risk rather than simply shoring up your position, either personally or collectively. TransPerfect is founded on precisely this kind of calculated risk-taking; we realized there was a gap in the market that hadn’t been exploited and pounced. And we focused on not just the present, but the future of business as well, investing heavily in technology. There was no guarantee of success, and it could have easily been the wrong move, but we made the right preparations and took a chance. Exploiting opportunities is always risky, but is precisely how we grow and lead.
It’s Not The How. It’s The Why
In Viktor Frankl’s seminal Man’s Search for Meaning, he paraphrases a line from Nietzsche that has always held a place in my heart: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” For our purposes, that means that the mission means more than the executables, and the goals matter more than what they require of us. Without denigrating quality control processes to ensure excellent products, ultimately the end goal has to be prioritized over how it was achieved, and companies that confuse the two will end up focusing on precisely the wrong areas. And in a bigger sense, this applies to companies as a whole; a business needs an overriding purpose beyond “make money” that can drive the how and the why of its day-to-day work; at TransPerfect, our mission first and foremost is to break down barriers, bridge gaps and connect people in order to make it easier for our clients to do business internationally; that mission animates literally everything else we do, and it’s communicated to our team members at every level. Instead of giving them tasks, we give them pieces of a larger puzzle, the shape of which they can both see and understand. The end result is better for it.
You Aren’t Alone
Trust your team. It’s easy to be afraid that taking advice means you aren’t in control, and it’s something I’ve seen countless times over my 25 and counting years as a Co-Founder and Co-CEO. But the opposite is true; relying on your team and delegating decisions where useful means you’re operating with a bigger picture. In a society that lionizes the auteur and the visionary, where we tell stories with baited breath of Steve Jobs telling off everyone who said he was wrong, falling prey to the trap that the only true leader is the one who stands alone at the bow of the ship, fearlessly directing her course, is only natural; real leadership, however, rests in understanding that you neither do, nor can, know everything.
The Captain Goes Down With Her Ship
Lastly, it’s key to remember, even in the best of times, that responsibility ultimately falls to you; you own your company’s successes and its failures. Your job isn’t to protect yourself; it’s to protect your team. They’re working for you to help you succeed, and that’s a debt you owe them. Put them and their safety first; the more they trust that you’re working for them as much as they’re working for you, the more they’ll invest in their work –- and in your success, too.
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