A Work Ethic Shaped at an Early Age

A Work Ethic Shaped at an Early Age

By Adam Bryant

The New York Times – May 28, 2011

This interview with Liz Elting, president and C.E.O. of TransPerfect, a translation service, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. What were some important lessons for you early on?

A. I worked from an extremely young age — everything from babysitting to newspaper deliveries to walking a child to school to working in a dry cleaner to telemarketing.  And now when we hire, that’s one of the key qualities I look for.  I look for people who have a very strong work ethic, and I think a big indicator of that is whether somebody has worked from a very young age, and ideally has never stopped. 

Q. Were your parents pushing you to take these jobs?

A. Absolutely.  My parents encouraged me to work from the day anyone would hire me.  They said, “You need to be a hard worker.  We want you to have experience, and you should be able to be self-sufficient financially when you’re older.” And I was in a situation where I had a lot of advantages.  I was able to travel.  I lived and studied abroad a number of times.  But they made clear I needed to work.

When people have that kind of upbringing, either out of necessity or because their parents chose to bring them up that way, they’re likely to be the best employees.  And it’s not only a strong work ethic. Adversity is important, too. And people who play competitive sports also have that desire to win that’s so crucial in employees.  It’s also a good sign when people come from entrepreneurial families — where the mother or father ran a business. 

Q. When you started the company with your partner, did you have discussions about the culture you wanted to create?

A. Meritocracy was always a big concept to us — making sure that the best people were promoted and rewarded, and that is very much how we run our company now.  Virtually all of the senior people at our company were promoted from within.  Most of them started at entry-level positions.  And so it’s very much a meritocracy.  We also believe in holding people accountable.  We’re also big believers in being completely open and transparent. 

Q. Make that real for me.  How do you do that?

A. We share with our people what’s going on in the company.  We’re open with our financials because it’s better if they understand what’s going on.  We make sure they’re clear on the vision and that they understand it.  We also let them know our accomplishments and our challenges as well as our shared goals.

Here’s another example of being open: If we have a manager who says one thing, and another employee who says something else, and they come to us independently, we’ll put them together in a room with one of us and have a three-way conversation.  There’s no reason to have side conversations.  We simply bring everyone together, we talk about the issue, and we resolve it.

And when we have other meetings, we really encourage people to talk and let us know what’s on their minds so we can address it. We don’t want meetings to be a couple of people talking and everyone else listening.  I do think people need to contribute. Some people are more executers, some people are more innovators, and some people are a combination but we need ideas. People often have them, and they don’t share them, so we need to encourage them. 

Q. Is it awkward resolving those side conversations you mentioned earlier?

A. You know, it’s not really, because I think people just know it’s not right. We have a very open culture, so when two people are disagreeing, bringing them together in a room to resolve it doesn’t seem like an awkward situation to me.  It just makes the most sense.

Q. How else do you find out what’s going on?

A. We encourage people to speak up.  Whenever we see people, we talk to them.  We ask them questions.  We ask them how they’re doing, and we ask them a number of times so that we really get to the issues.  “How are you feeling about things?  What do you think?” 

We also encourage managers to meet with all of their direct reports at least once a week to talk, to give feedback and to get feedback. These once-a-week meetings with direct reports, for each leader at every level in the organization, are something we do, and they’re very important.

Q. Have you always done that?

A. We implemented that after a few years in business, from seeing that people often had things on their minds, that perhaps they would discuss with one another. They might talk about what they’re not happy with, and then they’d walk out the door.  And it happens often, particularly when you have a lot of employees and everybody’s busy.  But we encourage managers to have these conversations because we need to keep a good, open dialogue with our people and not have them leave the company and make us wonder, “O.K., what went wrong?”

Q. And you schedule them as half-hour meetings?

A. It’s not really a set time, because I think sometimes people can talk about what they want to talk about in five minutes, and sometimes they need an hour. It’s as much or as little as people think is appropriate or necessary at the moment.

Q. Do you coach the managers on how to get feedback, not just give it?

A. We ask them to ask people for it. “What would you do if you were in my position?  What should I be doing differently?”  And we ask that question a lot of our employees.  We ask our people: “What would you do if you were the C.E.O. of the company? If you were a senior manager, what would you do?” 

We look for people, and we like people, who aren’t worried about stepping on toes, who aren’t worried about saying the wrong thing — who just take a risk and say it, because what do they have to lose?  That’s what’s going to make us a better company, that’s what’s going to make our people happier, and that’s what’s going to make us at least as competitive as we need to be in the industry.  So we really encourage that.  And when people do that, it’s incredibly valuable.

Q. Let’s talk about hiring.  How do you interview candidates?

A. One very basic but important question I ask is, “Tell me about yourself.” It gives me a sense of whether they are a logical thinker and effective communicator. I also learn what’s important to them — their accomplishments, values, goals. And I’ll ask: “When did you start working?  What was your first job?”  And I believe that tells a lot about their work ethic and their upbringing.

Adversity is important, too. I look for people who have overcome some sort of challenge. Sometimes it’s because they’ve had to; sometimes it’s because their parents have instilled it.  Often they’ve had to work harder than other people in life, and they’ve developed character. They’ve developed an optimism because they are able to say, “O.K., I was able to accomplish that.” They’ve become a fighter who doesn’t quit, and as a result they can be the strongest employees and leaders. 

Q. What other sort of intangible qualities are you looking for?

A. Positive energy, people who are competitive, people we can envision being leaders.  We like humble people.  We like people who like to have fun, who like to be part of a team, who work well together. People who are good listeners, people who are detail-oriented, people who are good communicators, people who take risks. And proactive problem-solvers — that one’s really important.

Q. How do you find out about that last quality?

A. I’ll ask, “Have you ever been in a situation where you thought something could be done better, and have you brought an idea to your company about it?” Or, “Have you ever had a problem with a boss, and what did you do about it?”  We’re looking for someone who takes responsibility and solves, not someone who blames and complains.  They have a choice — they can be part of the problem or part of the solution. 

Q. What about hiring mistakes?

A. One of the things we’ve learned about hiring is that if we have any doubts, we don’t proceed.  That’s one of the things I tell people — and it’s been hard for us.  We’ve grown quickly.  We’ve hired a lot of people each year, and as a result often we need people very quickly.  And it’s the challenge of needing people to do the work, but not settling.  And that can be a real challenge in a growing business. 

We tell our people, “You can’t settle, because when you feel like you’re settling, when you’re not impressed by something they said or did, when you have reservations, when you have concerns, your intuition is practically always right.”  So don’t make that mistake.  Don’t settle, and make sure the decision is pretty much unanimous.  We want the team to say, “Yes, we must hire that person,” and people not feeling like we’re settling, ever.