Communicate. Everybody who reports to you should have weekly in-person meetings with you so you can know what’s going on and what needs to be addressed. This is something that should be happening during normal times too, but it’s even more important here and now. After both 9/11 and 2008, when international business — our bread and butter — was all topsy-turvy, we made sure we knew what was going on in all of our offices to the best of our ability so that we could move to support them.
As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation. She is an entrepreneur, business leader, linguaphile, philanthropist, feminist, and mother. After living, studying, and working in five countries across the globe, Liz started TransPerfect out of an NYU dorm room. During her tenure as Co-CEO, she grew TransPerfect into the world’s largest language solutions company, with over $600 million in revenue, 5,000+ employees, 11,000+ clients, and offices in more than 90 cities worldwide. Liz has been recognized as a NOW “Woman of Power & Influence,” American Express’ and Entrepreneur Magazine’s “Woman of the Year,” one of Forbes’ “Richest Self-Made Women,” and is a recipient of the 2019 Charles Waldo Haskins Award for business and public service from NYU’s Stern School of Business.
The critical work of the future is breaking down the barriers that hold back women and marginalized people and advancing true equality for all. With an eye toward that future, the Elizabeth Elting Foundation is committed to promoting progressive and feminist efforts to eradicate systemic barriers, promote public health and education, achieve workplace equality, rise beyond the glass ceiling, and open the doors to economic independence for those society has far too often shut out.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Well, language has been my passion ever since my undergrad days, but the roots of it go back even further. My family traveled a lot, and I had lived all over the world before I even went to college: the United States, Canada, and Portugal. Once I started my undergraduate studies, I kept traveling, studying abroad in Córdoba, Spain and doing an internship in Caracas, Venezuela, and ended up majoring in Modern Languages. One of my French literature professors, more than anyone else, helped inculcate in me a deep love for language not just as a cultural object, but as a sort of communication technology, a schema devised to foster connection and collaboration. That perspective, coupled with my experiences working internationally, led me to the idea of building a different kind of translation company that wasn’t about document turnaround but actually facilitating communication across cultures, from language and grammar to unspoken assumptions.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It may sound cliche, but I really have to say my parents. They’re both extraordinary people who raised me to be self-reliant, resilient, prudent, and goal-oriented. And importantly, they raised me, their daughter, with the understanding both that I could do and be anything a man could and that my being a woman meant I’d have to push harder and longer to succeed. My dad always liked to tell me that I shouldn’t depend on a man for financial support because independence is too valuable to give up.
He lived that ideal too. When he was president of Grey Canada, a successful advertising agency, he made sure six out of eight senior vice presidents were women. He knew that women were key to success, especially where marketing is concerned — women make the vast majority of household purchasing decisions — and to this day, says that commitment to women in leadership was the reason Grey Canada succeeded. I have to point out that this was in the eighties and early nineties when nobody was doing that sort of conscious elevation of women.
So I grew up surrounded by examples of women in charge.
My mom, too, was such a huge part of my success. She’s brilliant, for one. She was going to be a doctor, but, because the past is another country, my grandfather made it clear to her that you can either be a good mom or a doctor, and that there was really only one acceptable choice. So, instead, she went into education. She had a long and diverse career in education, and after my parents’ divorce, she showed me day in and day out that a woman can make it on her own. To this day — she’s 82 now — she lives alone and is completely self-sufficient. Pre-pandemic, she still regularly made the twelve-hour drive from Toronto to New York City solo, and continues to be active in politics, like she’s always been, working as an organizer for Democrats Abroad. She is always my hero, my best teacher, and the clearest example in my entire life of the kind of woman I have always strived, and in fact still strive, to become.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
In my early twenties, I co-founded a company to help businesses all over the world communicate and collaborate more effectively and productively than ever before. We anticipated where things were going with the internet and increasing globalization. That meant businesses in every industry would need help working with suppliers all over the world, with clients all over the world, in markets all over the world. Once upon a time, translation was more or less a one-and-done affair. You needed a document translated, and someone would translate it. But clients needed so much more than that, and we know the volume would grow exponentially. Being a catalyst for international businesses required a holistic, service-minded approach, and that’s exactly what we set out to create.
Increasingly, businesses needed translators who were also industry experts — able to translate niche, industry-specific in a multitude of languages — as well as services that met the wide-range of needs companies have when doing business globally (e.g., bridging cultural gaps, understanding different markets, expanding and opening offices in different countries, etc.). So we sourced translators all over the world and continued to adapt and create new offerings for our clients as their needs grew and evolved.
And while my current work is philanthropic, rather than a business, the Elizabeth Elting Foundation shares a similar missional spirit: to build bridges. That’s especially true during this pandemic, where we’ve been helping to support direct relief efforts for Americans suffering from food and housing instability, but even before that, we were concerned with helping to bridge opportunity gaps facing marginalized communities, especially women. At the end of the day, both are about making connection.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
As a New Yorker, my mind immediately went to 9/11, which I think was probably the closest we’ve ever come before to the kind of fear that the pandemic brought. We watched the towers fall from our conference room and had no idea what the world was turning into. There were operational hits; planes stopped flying for a bit, and even after they resumed, we tamped down on how much air travel we were doing, for example. But my primary concern was the team’s mental well-being.
So we got to work making sure our people had support. That meant letting people work from home until they were ready to return, being sure not to pressure people. We accepted lower productivity and modest growth (far lower than the double-digit growth we’d been anticipating) and made sure everyone had access to grief counseling. But what I think helped the most was our conscious effort to check in with our team one on one. That’s what let us assess their needs, and how we could be there for them. I think it helped us all bounce back far faster than we would have otherwise. Leading with care, especially in times of crisis, has always been my approach.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’ll be honest, I never give up.
I think, although who can ever really know their own mind, that it stems from an accident I had when I was 14. I got hit by a car, and it was bad. Doctors were talking about my losing the ability to walk — and even the ability to speak — permanently. There was another patient beside me in the hospital who had also been hit by a car who ended up not making it. The thought of my story being over fueled me, I knew then I couldn’t ever give up, so I powered forward and quite literally got back on my feet. I carry that with me to this day.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Keeping the ship afloat in the storm.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Communication, transparency, and empathy. You need to reach out to your people daily and make sure they aren’t stewing in uncertainty by being upfront both about the company’s position and how you’re going to strengthen it. Be open about your own fears, how you are being affected, but reiterate that you’re still working hard, and that the best thing to do is for the whole team to stick together and survive together. And then be the example of that in everything you do.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Frankly and honestly, human to human. Nobody likes corporate speak; leadership should be forthright and clear in a way that shows that you understand how it hurts, and that we’re all in this together right now.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The truth is, the future has always been unwieldy. No one truly knows what tomorrow will bring, but I’ll admit, the comforting illusion surrounding that has been shattered. You get through it with smart decisions, rather than ones based on what you want to happen. So you make shorter-term plans designed to keep revenue up one way or another. It’s hard to plan for the unknown future, but you can plan based on what you do know and what you can reasonably expect. Anyone planning for the economy to be back to normal by the summer was not making reasonable plans because there was literally nothing on the ground to indicate things were going that way. Just stay alert, stay nimble, continue adapting, and keep moving forward.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Integrity. Everything falls into place when you do right by your employees and clients. Listen, make sure compassion is part of the equation, communicate, and be there for your team and your clients. I know I keep landing on “communicate communicate communicate” but it’s key; how can you know what they need if you aren’t talking to them? It seems so obvious to me but I’ve seen companies — and I’m thinking a lot about some of the brokerages and banks that collapsed in 2008 — who just clammed up and let everything fall apart.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
1. Avoiding creditors. You can’t make them go away, and your debt is only going to increase. Be upfront about your financial situation; the whole country is going through this right now, so you aren’t the only person asking for relief. See what you can work out with them — pausing interest, creating a payment plan, something — so you don’t tank your company’s credit and make future operations all but impossible.
2. Inflexibility. Difficult times mean changing times, and changing times mean changing markets. Most businesses in the United States are finding it difficult to maintain regular operations, which means they’ve had to adapt. Don’t just wait for things to get better; go out there looking for new revenue streams and new lines of business. Businesses that are nimble and dynamic are businesses that survive and thrive.
3. Getting stuck. Bob Dylan wrote, “you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.” Paralysis in the face of a crisis is extremely dangerous, especially when you have other people — like your employees — counting on you. Face the situation squarely and make decisions instead of waiting for something to force it. Because when that happens, it won’t be on your terms.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
The same way you do during a good economy: responding to real conditions. What’s needed right now that wasn’t needed before? What will be needed next? You know your market, and you know your capabilities. Instead of trying to shore up failing business operations, refocus them on serving the world we live in.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Communicate. Everybody who reports to you should have weekly in-person meetings with you so you can know what’s going on and what needs to be addressed. This is something that should be happening during normal times too, but it’s even more important here and now. After both 9/11 and 2008, when international business — our bread and butter — was all topsy-turvy, we made sure we knew what was going on in all of our offices to the best of our ability so that we could move to support them.
2. Offer security. Your people are scared, because bad times mean lost jobs. We’re already at something like thirty million unemployed people, and we don’t know if those numbers will get better or worse. We didn’t lay off anyone following 9/11, despite lower growth than expected. We made cuts elsewhere. We cut perks and we cut overhead. The people knew they weren’t going to get laid off anytime soon, which removed a massive source of financial worry that demonstrably hurts job performance and satisfaction.
3. Respecting mental health. On the same note as above, work consumes something like half of our waking hours, so it needs to be a place that prioritizes its people’s well-being and not simply their productivity. I mentioned above how we let people return to the office at their own pace following 9/11, because they were processing a terrifying and unspeakable grief. A similar sort of grief gripped people as the country shuttered, seemingly all of a sudden, in the middle of March. Give them space. Give them time. And make sure they have access to mental healthcare.
4. Prioritize the team. Your people need to understand that they are not dispensable and that the survival of the company can be affected by a concerted collective effort. You get them there by making sure they know that your first priority — period — is keeping them in their jobs. This goes beyond offering security, building out into something larger and more holistic: the team banding together to accomplish a goal in which they are all directly invested, and which you are yourself a part of. A friend of mine, through regular communication with his team, gave them the reassurances that he was working for them even as he suffered through a month-long bout with COVID-19.
5. Positive reinforcement. It’s more important than ever, because right now everyone needs to be doing their best work. That means team building, and it means rewards, but it also sometimes means a genuine thank you or sign of appreciation. Though not applicable here because nobody’s working in a cubicle anymore — the world just changed so fast, didn’t it? — at my company, we used little wooden blocks employees would give each other to indicate happiness with a coworker. It became a point of pride to have a bunch of wooden blocks on your desk, because it meant you stepped up. This wasn’t arbitrary, or focused on high-performers; it was an acknowledgment that you were doing good work. Knowing what you do matters encourages you to keep doing good work.