Liz Elting – Co-Founder and CEO of TransPerfect

[quote style=”boxed”]This may sound simple, but it has produced significant results for me: set clear goals for yourself and your employees, and meet them.[/quote]

Liz Elting co-founded TransPerfect in 1992. Today, TransPerfect is the world’s largest privately held provider of language and business solutions. Headquartered in New York City, the company has over 70 offices in cities around the globe.

Elting has earned numerous awards for her outstanding entrepreneurship and focus on developing women business leaders. They include the Working Woman “Entrepreneurial Excellence” Award for Customer Service, the Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year” Award and the American Express/Entrepreneur Magazine “Woman of the Year” Award. Recently, Elting received the “2011 Women Worth Watching” Award from the Diversity Journal.

Elting is profiled in several books, including the New York Times bestseller Succeed by Your Own Terms (McGraw-Hill), Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs (Dearborn Trade Publishing) and Straight Talk About Starting and Growing Your Business (McGraw-Hill). She is featured regularly in the media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, O (The Oprah Magazine), The Financial Times, Reader’s Digest and Crain’s New York Business.

With Elting’s commitment and vision, TransPerfect has been a four-time recipient of the Inc. 5000 Award, a six-time honoree of the Deloitte Technology Fast 500 and has earned multiple Stevie Awards for Sales and Customer Service. Crain’s New York Business has named TransPerfect one of the largest privately held companies and one of the largest women-owned companies for six consecutive years. TransPerfect has also been named one of the fastest-growing women-owned/led businesses in North America by Entrepreneur and the Women President’s Organization.

Elting holds an MBA in Finance and International Business from The Stern School of Business at New York University and a BA in Modern Languages and Literatures from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Where did the idea for TransPerfect come from?

I’d lived and worked in other countries before going to college and loved learning languages and exploring other cultures. The decision to major in modern languages in college was a clear one for me. After I graduated, I followed my passion for languages and got a job with a translation agency. I could see that the global economy was growing quickly and that businesses needed a more professional level of service than the language services industry offered at the time. I decided to go for my MBA so I could be knowledgeable about the business needs that language service companies could and should fulfill.

In business school, I met Phil Shawe, a classmate who had a background in finance. We’d both worked steadily from an early age and had firsthand experience of what it took to succeed. Together, we came up with the idea of offering language services based on a business model that focused on quality and service, with the goal of making it the world’s premier language services provider.

What does your typical day look like?

Well, to give a few examples: today, I met with our COO to review issues related to office space in our New York headquarters and expansion into new locations in Africa and Europe. Tomorrow, I have a meeting with the leaders of a recent acquisition, as well as our lawyers and financial team, that will probably take up much of the day. The next day, I plan to go to Philadelphia to meet with our division head there; I also have meetings scheduled with 16 of our managers in that office. I’m very focused on learning—first hand—about their progress toward meeting the goals we’ve mutually established. We have more than 2,000 employees in offices in over 80 cities on five continents.

When we started out, most of my day focused on clients; now, we have very strong client service teams in place and most of my time is spent on our employees, reviewing work/life balance options and planning the company’s future. But one thing has not changed much at all: my day, every day, is very scheduled.

How do you bring ideas to life?

A key driver for us is to anticipate what service or technology our clients are going to need in the near future. I surround myself with smart, innovative, skilled people. Our company is very horizontal, and our employees offer their opinions to me freely. I keep the door to my office open, and I share my ideas with other company leaders, get great input and benefit from the back and forth that’s encouraged here. I would say our ideas are brought to life as a result of a creative, intelligent and informed group effort.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I am truly excited by the use of technology to bring global content to life. The sheer volume and complexity of the multilingual information that is conveyed enables us to streamline processes that generate efficiencies. Those efficiencies enable our clients to reach out to more markets in more languages than ever before.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

During my junior and senior years in high school, I worked at a dry cleaning chain in Toronto. I moved around from store to store, as needed, and sometimes I was sent to a store in an area that wasn’t so safe. I remember they had a knife taped to the wall next to the cash register there. I asked what that was for, and they told me it was to protect myself in case someone broke in.

I was usually either lonely or overwhelmed at that job. No one would come in for hours—then, suddenly, people would be lined up and in a rush. They dropped off large bundles of clothing and ran out. As the individual piles grew, I worried about mixing up people’s clothing. I wanted to be correct 100% of the time. In the end, I think I achieved that goal, but the overall experience instilled in me an awareness of overcoming challenges and taking responsibility seriously.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

As I look back to founding TransPerfect 20 years ago, I realize that our core values at the time—provide the highest quality service, listen to what your clients tell you and exceed your clients’ expectations—have served as a great foundation. These values still guide us and continue to help grow our business. I wouldn’t have done any of these things differently.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Listen to your clients. Focus on their needs. That means making the improvement of what you do a continuous priority. We elicit feedback from our clients and our employees on a regular basis, and it has enabled us to address important issues that we might otherwise not even know about.

What is one failure you’ve had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

The same quality that makes entrepreneurs successful is also what creates some “near-death” experiences—and that quality is ambition. In our early years, a major retailer promised us $15 million in business. We saw this as the boost we needed to make the jump to the big time, and we geared up to produce all that work. We put site managers in that company’s offices and opened up a new office in Florida, fully staffed with Spanish linguists to cover all the work that would be coming in.

Due to economic factors, the client pulled the plug on the entire project. Unfortunately, our contract didn’t include any volume guarantee or kill fee, and we were left holding the bag. That one really hurt; not only because of the costs and revenue we lost, but also the painful and expensive realization that our ambition and naiveté were to blame. On the flip side, every entrepreneur should remember the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We learned a valuable lesson about preparation, caution and responsibility, and we’re a better company because of it.

What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?

This may sound simple, but it has produced significant results for me: set clear goals for yourself and your employees, and meet them. If you hold people responsible, you are empowering them; they have ownership of a specific task, and they become personally motivated to achieve those goals.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

A lot comes to mind when you ask that question. To personalize my reply, I’d say we should eliminate the word “foreign” when it comes to people, countries, languages and cultures. If everyone could have one chance to be immersed in another culture, they would see how people’s differences are instructive (you can learn a lot) and the fact that we are much more alike, as people, than we are different.

By abolishing that word, that idea, we could end so much of the bigotry and warfare that goes on in the world and all have safer, happier, more peaceful lives. Getting rid of one word, one idea, doesn’t seem so difficult to me, but the benefits seem immense.

Tell us a secret.

When I started this company, my primary goal was to find a way to support myself. At some point along the way, I realized that I was not just working to keep a roof over my head;I truly love what I do, and that motivates me more than anything else. I still approach each day with the same sense of urgency and energy that I felt on our first day of business.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources, and what do you love about them?

1.  How did I ever exist without my iPad? I can’t imagine my life without it now. Aside from checking email and staying in touch with a business that operates 24/7, I am a devoted online shopper.

2.  Project Director, one of our GlobalLink suite of services developed for our clients, turns out to be extremely effective in our internal production process. It’s great to use it to free up time for the aspects of project management that require the human eye.

3.  I think I’d add the online search engine. Any search engine. It seems I’m going online more often, looking for more diverse information each day.

What is the one book you recommend our community should read and why?

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin. It’s about a kind of employee who thrives on coming up with creative solutions for challenges in the workplace. These people love what they do and invest personally in their work. Godin calls this “emotional work.”

Aside from being a great read, it made me think of how many “linchpins” we have at TransPerfect—people who have put their heart and soul into the work they do. I never think of them as employees; they are a great deal more in my mind.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

1.  Tina Brown is amazing. She has been one step ahead of what’s next in our culture for years—more recently, co-founding The Daily Beast, which merged with Newsweek.

2.  Peter Cashmore, founder of Mashable, should have something to say about the digital culture to stimulate everyone’s thinking.

3.  When I had both my children, I was working from home the week they were born. I found a way to run my company and be the kind of mother I want to be. Now Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, seems to be taking the same path. In addition to being fascinated by her professional insights, I’m hoping she’ll tweet about balancing her life as well. Talented, high-achieving women don’t have enough influential role models, and they give up on careers they’ve worked hard to build or they forgo having children because they think they won’t be good enough mothers if they work. It’s such a waste, because they can have both, and they need to see examples of that.

When was the last time you laughed out loud, and what caused it?

It was private. I will share that it involved an exchange between my sons, Zack and Jason—and that it was really, really funny!

Who is your hero?

This may sound trite, but I’d have to say that position is shared by my mother and father. My mother was a teacher, and my father was a C-level executive at global advertising agency. They instilled in me a sense of responsibility, the importance of work (I had a newspaper route when I was 10) and a realization that, if I wanted to have a job that I enjoyed, I would have to earn it.

Do you make smart choices about delegating?

When you start a company, you basically do everything yourself. Given my commitment to delivering the highest level of client service, the urge to “do it myself” will always be strong. Fighting that urge, I took the route of investing time and resources in selecting the best employees whom I could trust to do a job well and empower them to “own it.”

I think that sense of ownership is key to getting the best from each person. If they own it, they are the ones worrying whether every single step is the very best, and they are the ones who are recognized and credited for their achievements.

There’s a great deal of exciting technology out there. As a CEO, do you use it to communicate with your employees all the time?

Actually, that was a trick question. As a CEO (and a provider of technology solutions), I believe the personal touch is essential in your interactions with employees—and clients, as well. When our company was in the hundreds in number of employees, I was still writing long, personal thank you notes to every single employee at the end of the year.

At some point, I think it was around 300, I realized that it was going to be too time-consuming for me to do that for every employee. Now, I go out of my way to travel to our offices around the world to meet in person with our employees. In fact, I’ve just returned from trips to our offices in Barcelona, London and Paris, where I met with many department heads and managers.


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