How I Grew: Meritocracy Helped Us Grow to a $350 Million Company


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How I Grew: Meritocracy Helped Us Grow to a $350 Million Company

By Liz Elting

New York Enterprise Report - October 3, 2013

In 1992, when Phil Shawe and I were MBA students at New York University Stern School of Business, we saw an opening in the marketplace. Businesses were rapidly going global and needed a level of professional translation and localization services not available in the industry in order to ensure a smooth transition into international markets. Twenty years later, we have a $350 million global communications company that is spread across six continents and employs more than 2,000 people. 

How does a business achieve that kind of growth?

The answer is not a simple one. We worked hard to get where we are and made some difficult decisions along the way. However, from the beginning, we made one easy decision that we have stuck to ever since: TransPerfect would be a meritocracy. This foundation has allowed us to build our company from within on the hard work and ambition of our employees, and to grow organically from the ground up.

Some business leaders claim there is no longer such a thing as a true meritocracy. Too many people in management positions have internal blind spots and subconscious biases that will overshadow a fair and unbiased evaluation of an employee’s performance. For example, a manager may operate under the preconceived notion that an employee who is a mother will be too distracted by home responsibilities to be a productive, upwardly mobile team member. Or perhaps a supervisor will be too focused on an employee’s past impressive performance to recognize that recent results have been lacking. Even worse, there are still many people who are aware of these sorts of prejudices and yet choose not to correct them. 

With these sorts of obstacles, how can we ever put our faith in the promise of a legitimate, functioning meritocracy? This is admittedly a difficult concept to bring to fruition, but I firmly believe it can be (and has been) done—as long as the necessary elements are in place. Here are some real-life examples based on my own company's experience as a meritocracy.

Support Mentorship

As half of a partnership of founders, I am fortunate to not be in a position of having to prove my professional worth to my superiors. While other women were trying to lean in, I was busy moving forward, and I continue to do so to this day. However, I could not have reached the position I am in today without help. When I first entered the translations field, my boss Martha stepped into the role of my mentor. She taught me valuable lessons about how to juggle my home life and my career, and by watching her flawlessly execute on both fronts, I learned how to do the same. 

This mentoring relationship inspired the courage I needed to pursue the next level of my career. Martha’s faith in me constantly renewed my sense of faith in myself. It is that sense of independence and self-worth that we work to foster every day at TransPerfect. 

Because of my personal experiences with the value of mentorship, we provide our employees with opportunities to interact with higher-level executives on a regular basis. One example of this is our innovation program, a company-wide initiative that teams up employees at all levels of development to join forces in quarterly brainstorming sessions. The goal of these sessions is to find new ways to solve challenges for our clients across all the industries we serve, and to evaluate internal processes to determine what’s working and what needs to be changed. In addition to spurring creativity, this is a chance to develop mentor/mentee relationships, and it has resulted in a group of people who feel comfortable putting themselves in the spotlight and speaking up to share their ideas. In turn, these team members are encouraged by the recognition they receive, and are even more committed to moving up the company ladder.

This dynamic was essential in building the career of the head of TransPerfect’s New York–based sales operation. This woman started as an entry-level trainee in the pharmaceutical client service division. Her direct supervisor, who formerly held her same position, picked up on her rapidly developing skills and supported her ambitions to take on greater responsibility within the company. Over time, she absorbed enough knowledge of the industry that she was able to replace her mentor when he took on the role of senior vice president of worldwide sales. Creating a succession roadmap for both the employee and her mentor saved our company the cost and effort of looking for candidates outside of the business, as well as the on-boarding resources required to train someone who was unfamiliar with our approach.

TransPerfect strives to promote from within whenever possible, with the goal of ensuring all our employees feel truly integrated within the company’s structure and system. We all learn from example, so when we can internally set the performance and promotion standard, our entry-level employees take note. They can observe firsthand what sort of work ethic and results are rewarded, rather than simply hearing vague remarks from management about what sort of person the company is seeking. That sort of ambiguity leaves people stranded, so Phil and I lead by example and ensure the other managers follow our lead. We are still extremely hands-on with our management team. I spend a lot of time traveling between our offices around the world, meeting with our division heads and managers. I’m very focused on learning—firsthand—about their progress toward meeting the goals we’ve mutually established. This isn’t as easy as it used to be; we have 2,200 employees in offices in over 80 cities on five continents. But it is an essential part of being an effective leader and sustaining the culture of a meritocracy. 

Consistent Communication

This focus on clear and constant communication is a key element that is often brushed aside. We need to clearly define expectations and encourage open conversations. In the average company, too many suggestions and solutions are never heard simply because people aren’t sure how to go about sharing their ideas. Management needs to make it a priority to ensure employees feel comfortable coming to them with thoughts, questions, and concerns. A nervous employee will not be a productive or fulfilled employee, and will not have the necessary confidence to truly display his or her full value to the company. I have often said that my door is always open to anyone in the organization, and when I meet with our management teams in my travels, I expect to see the same approach, company-wide.

That being said, there is a final component of our system that many companies are all too eager to ignore, which is upper-level responsibility. The benefits of open communication and encouraging employees to speak up are not to be ignored, but it’s ultimately a two-way street. C-level executives have just as much of a duty to recognize their employees as the employees do to get themselves recognized. This basic reality of the mutual effort needed across the board has been what we’ve kept in mind from day one; it is this foundation that has allowed us to maintain a successful system regardless of the number of employees involved overall.

Communicating an employee’s talent and value will help that employee recognize the potential in others. We had an employee join our company more than 10 years ago as a project management trainee. When we hired him, we knew he’d been a talented language student, but his affinity for project management became clear due to the observant nature of his managers. With their encouragement, he began to assume a greater role and quickly rose through the ranks, building on his managerial skills every step of the way. In turn, he was able to put his personal experience to use by seeking out promising new employees. He was able to replace himself with the talent he had personally developed, and then give himself the freedom to grow into his current role as head of worldwide translation operations.

Whether someone is performing above and beyond expectations or perhaps struggling and in need of some extra support, an employer must take stock often of all employees. Ask them how they feel about a new project; check to see how they are settling into the new city. These conversations lead to the greatest insights and ultimately the greatest results. 

When an entrepreneur starts a company, the urge to “do it myself” is strong, mainly out of necessity. However, as a company grows to the size of our business, it’s important to put the time and resources into selecting the best, most trustworthy employees that do a job well, and then empower them to “own it.” In my experience, if you hold people responsible, you are in essence empowering them. When you hand over a project or task and give an employee the freedom to achieve a goal, it means that they have total ownership—for better or for worse—and they become personally motivated to make it happen.

Accountability

As with most things, executing these strategies is easier said than done. The path to success is never a simple one, and this particular path is no exception. We did not know from day one how this meritocracy would develop or what the best practices would be. What we did know was that a meritocracy was the only model we felt we could truly believe in and fully support. We created a foundation of accountability that not only gave our employees the motivation to succeed, but also presented management with clear opportunities to unequivocally note an employee’s success. By holding each individual responsible for their goals and role within the company, we have been able to empower each member of TransPerfect to take ownership of their contributions and truly demonstrate their value. This core idea helped drive our very first employees; 2,000 people later, it continues to drive our business today. 

Fostering a meritocracy is challenging. It requires leaders to commit to a level of hands-on work early in the development of their company culture in order to build the right team, and then the ability to delegate and let the team achieve. But it is by no means impossible; you simply must create a work environment that renders the obstacles obsolete.

 
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