Success = luck + how you deal with it

Quote - Joe Campbell - November 20, 2017

Kevin Systrom, one of the co-founders of Instagram, ended his NPR “How I Built This” with an interesting theory about life and success:

I have this thesis that the world runs on luck. The question is what you do with it.

Everyone gets lucky for some amount in their life. And the question is, are you alert enough to know you’re being lucky or you’re becoming lucky?

Are you talented enough to take that advantage and run with it? And do you have enough grit, enough resilience, to stay with it when it gets hard?

Because everyone gets lucky in minimal ways every week. You find a dollar on the ground, you get a break at work to work on a cool project, or you meet someone really interesting. The difference between people who succeed in the long-run and people who don’t is that optimism that you got lucky and now it’s yours to make awesome.

Kenny Rogers had a similar insight on a different level of success:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

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What does it mean to be loyal to a company?

Experiences - Joe Campbell - November 1, 2017

It’s something that comes up again and again. Especially in an organization in the middle of a crisis.

I have always believed that loyalty to a company is superseded by loyalty to people. Because I don’t believe it’s still called loyalty if it’s not a two-way street.

Most companies these days have at-will employment. Their HR teams are meant to protect the company rather than to help you. The sole legal purpose of a company is to provide money to shareholders, and as such, the structures in place are designed to ensure this single objective is followed above all others.

When I come in to work in the morning, it isn’t because I really want to make some shareholders some money. It is because I believe that what I’m doing will make the lives of my colleagues and teammates better. I go in to work because I believe in my manager’s vision of where to go next. I go in to work because I feel loyalty to my colleagues in sales and production and technology and management. I feel loyalty to these people – and that is why I work as hard as I do.

A company can help create these relationships by encouraging entrepreneurship within the organization:

I have felt empowered here at TransPerfect thanks to my manager, Phil; my colleagues in production whose client focus is second to none; my partners in sales with whom I’ve built relationships of mutual trust as we created client solutions; my fellow technology leaders and experts across the company who have overperformed day after day; and most of all, my team, who each day inspires me to be better. TransPerfect has created something special in how it has empowered so many people. And that is one the main reason why I have found value at TransPerfect. Because in my personal experience, for much of my time here on the tech side, promotions were deserved and incentives were tied to success. I was able to carve out my small portion of the TransPerfect dream.

Conflating the loyalty you hold towards your colleagues to the loyalty to a company is a confusion of category. Though it is in some people’s interests to do so, it’s a game of two card monte. As Upton Sinclair wrote:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

My loyalty lies with my team, my colleagues in sales, production, technology, and the rest of those I work with.

Because in the end, that’s where loyalty should lie – with those who have helped make you successful. Those with whom you have formed partnerships – either as a manager, a colleague, or a subordinate.

This loyalty is a two-way street. It is earned and deserved. And TransPerfect has long been the beneficiary of the system of loyalties it allowed to flourish. And I have been fortunate enough to find many colleagues who earned my loyalty, and to whom I have given mine in turn.

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Are you a Leader or a Boss?

Experiences - Joe Campbell - October 30, 2017

Because you can’t be both.*

I propose 3 questions that determine the difference.

1. Do you embody the values you preach? Or are you a hypocrite?

If you are a manager, then your actions are under extra scrutiny. People will notice when you say one thing, but do another. The quickest way to demoralize your employees is to be a hypocritical boss rather than a leader with integrity.

If you’re a boss, you may expect your employees to work late, while you go home early. You may take holidays that you don’t give them.

A leader and boss may say the same words, but their employees know the difference. And the exact same words have a markedly different effect.

When a boss talks about promoting “a collaborative workplace culture” as they act dictatorially, it saps at morale.  When a leader encourages open dialog and collaboration and brings employees into decisions, it boosts it. When a boss brags about “protecting their team” even as they publicly criticize them as underperformers, the hypocrisy is clearly telegraphed and undermines faith in the enterprise.

2. Do you have a vision or a PR team?

Everyone with a certain level of success can amplify their voice. Even Bill Cosby has a PR team. But having a real vision that can motivate people is something special. Many managers simply don’t have it. They may ask their employees for ideas, and then take the credit for them. They may jump from one idea to another without regard for the consequences. These are signs that a manager has become a boss rather than a leader.

A leader on the other hand has a vision of the future. It may change and evolve with conversation and collaboration. It will have to grow if it is to succeed. But it’s there. You can see the light in their eyes when they talk, the excitement in their voice. A leader can authentically persuade people to buy into their vision.

Others may pose as leaders – while making clear they aren’t – insisting that they persuade their teams by exercising “authority” through use of “positional influence without being seen as dictatorial.” In the end, the game is given away by the phrasing: “Don’t be seen as dictatorial” is something a PR team tells you…that you aren’t supposed to say out loud.

In public though, a PR team is a decent way to paper over this difference – but in private, it’s almost impossible to motivate a team by pointing to news clippings. Especially when they are contradicted by your own behavior.

3. Self-aware or self-made?

A manager needs to understand that they are in a position of power over their employees. And that that position can easily be abused. Words said by a manager carry extra weight to their employees. Self-awareness is a key aspect of the emotional intelligence required to be a good manager. As Sharron Adler wrote:

It is not the monsters we should be afraid of; it is the people that don’t recognize the same monsters inside of themself.

A leader needs to be aware of their own monsters – for if they only see monsters in others, it’s certain theirs are running wild.

Leaders acknowledge this and go the extra mile to make sure that their employees know that they don’t consider themselves intrinsically better. They realize that being a manager is a privilege. And that their teams aren’t just necessary props who can be “replaced” or “upgraded” but are owners and drives of the leader’s own success. They bring them into the process. They trust them and empower them with actions, instead of just words.

A boss on the other hand will declare that their success is self-made. And not realize the slight this gives to everyone who works with them. A boss will take every opportunity to demonstrate their power, at worst through bullying and harassment. A boss will see a line waiting to go up to the elevator and decide against basic rules of fairness that they have the authority to walk to the front and cut that line. This lack of self-awareness leads to toxic behavior.

***

The little things people do are noticed. They make an enormous impact – far more than PR agents ghostwriting. Those whose images are pristinely kept in public, hiding monsters within, are those who fall hardest when truth outs, as it does eventually.

***

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A 6th Way to Demoralize Your Tech Employees

Experiences - Joe Campbell - October 25, 2017

I wrote about 5 ways to demotivate your employees a few weeks ago. But today I’ve found a 6th.

I’ve never seen this before – but LinkedIn inserted an article into my feed because it was trending at our top competitor, Lionbridge.

Given what’s occurred at Lionbridge over the past year, I can see why this article struck a chord.

It’s interesting information and I’d love to see more of this. But it also makes me anxious about what of my data is being used for. (This is the eternal dilemma with the new tech world we live in…it gives us more interesting things, but it exploits us at the same time.)

In this case, it gave me a 6th way a CEO can demotivate their tech employees…so, this time, it’s worth the bargain.

With Uber in an uncertain time, Justin Bariso, an expert on emotional intelligence in business, explains, they need someone at the helm who is empathetic, self-aware, and can understand other’s perspectives. While these are sometimes seems as touchy-feely soft skills, they are essential in guiding a business going through a rough patch. Especially in the face of uncertainty, people are often guided more by emotions than by reason.

Bariso praises Uber’s new CEO for his first email in the post-Travis era, praising his a sense of maturity and wisdom.”

Just a short time later though, Dara Khosrowshahi sent out a new email as he grew frustrated with attempts by Travis Kalanick to increase his influence.

Bariso calls this out as disruptive to the company because:

  1. It shows disrespect to someone who helped build it. No one acts alone. No fortune can be self-made. Travis Kalanick, for all his faults, was a driving force at Uber. For the new CEO to publicly (if mildly) disparage him undermines everyone’s faith in Uber.
  2. It promotes disunity. As Bariso explains:

It’s like if your dad says your family needs to improve their ability to work together, and then calls out your mom’s actions as “disappointing” and “highly unusual.”

Now, Khosrowshahi’s email was fairly mild in it’s tone – but Bariso still sees it as disruptive to an organization in crisis as it shows an alarming lack of emotional intelligence.

One can only imagine what more inflammatory comments do.

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What to expect when you’re expecting…to sell out!

Experiences - Joe Campbell - October 23, 2017

Rory Cowan gave a fascinating presentation at SlatorCon on October 12, 2017 entitled, rather enigmatically, “A Seller’s Journey from a Buyer’s Perspective.”


He framed his talk as a guide for founders and translation company owner-operators. But in an industry fraught with mergers and acquisitions, it had lessons for everyone.

Cowan’s Tenure in this ‘Curious Industry’

Cowan gave this talk from a position of unique insight. He founded Lionbridge in 1996 and led it as CEO through 20 acquisitions. In 1999, he brought the company public. And then he brought it back private again in a sale to the private equity firm H.I.G. in 2017. (I met Rory when he first arrived at SlatorCon, and with a smirk, he introduced me to a fellow from H.I.G. who happens to also be on the Board of Directors.)

Cowan described the translation industry as unique. He said it in a way that you might talk about a talented but frustrating teammate when you’re trying not to offend anyone. He played up this specialness of the owner-operators in the translation industry, declaring that most founders were “sensitive humanities majors” and “global misfits” who lack “street corner hustle.”

Cowan implied that his success at Lionbridge came because he didn’t have one of those “sensitive majors”, but a Harvard MBA. The path he charted for Lionbridge could serve as a primer for the evolution of the trends du jour in the business world…going public, synergy, outsourcing, crowdsourcing, on demand, the cloud, private equity. In contrast, TransPerfect’s success has often come from New York City hustle: the willingness to work harder, figure out how to do things for the first time, and the willingness to invest in people and long-term projects. I think it’s a stretch to attribute all of this to the comparative merits of an NYU versus Harvard MBA, but there’s a reason that most of Lionbridge’s growth has come from what he called “sporty” M&A deals with owner-operators.

Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle with which to analyze his talk….Much of the team that built up Lionbridge left as the sale approached, feeling frustrated and marginalized – several of them to become my colleagues. But…only a few short months after the sale to H.I.G. closed, Cowan stepped down as CEO after 21 years. I understand that many of his closest allies at the company have been let go by the new owner as well. He remains Chairman of the Board.

Should I Sell?

Cowan said the main question to determine whether you should sell or not was whether you woke up in the morning wanting to go to work. If you don’t, he said, then this was the time to sell – at what he believes is a market peak. He focused on companies that were having trouble scaling – a major problem among the many small to mid-sized companies in the industry. He attributed much of the problem to the founders themselves, as the skill sets that make a small company successful need to evolve in order for the company to keep going. For those struggling, Cowan suggested selling out as a means to cash in and get the help needed to scale.

Cowan emphasized that the process of selling was going to be painful. And it would need to be “endured.” The roller coaster process of Lionbridge’s sale was described in an excellent Slator piece by Florian Faes: as bidder after bidder dropped out, as H.I.G. was accused of “not adequately valuing the company” and “management attention was drained.” The deal did eventually close, but as Florian concluded:

It can be taken as an indication that ownership and top management at leading LSPs consider mega-mergers in the language services industry as difficult to pull off — and post-merger integration, risky.

Cowan gave 3 warnings to any company that might consider being sold. First, be upfront:

Be sure to “Clean up” or proactively disclose all ambiguities before starting process: Buyer WILL find them and they WILL taint value.

Second, there needs to be syzygy, a complementary pairing, between the purchasing company and the purchasee. “Values and culture are paramount,” he stressed.

Third, and the most important thing being purchased, according to Cowan, was “the next tier” of leadership. Buyers need to “risk adjust” the founder’s departure. He explained that this is why it was essential to involve the senior team of the company in the acquisition process. If you don’t, you risk disappointment, he warned.

After the Sale: Curing Founderitis

Given that the industry is filled with founders who own-operate their business, and given that Cowan has acquired 20 such business, and that he was recently acquired only to be pushed out himself…he clearly has a lot of opinions on this topic.

He suggested that buyers should do more than simply price in the founders’ departure: it was better them to leave as a way to cure the “founderitis” that he saw afflicting many companies. Only then were companies able to move “from maternal/paternal leadership to business metrics.”

Addressing the 80-odd members of the language industry, Cowan was brutally honest about the costs of selling out though. Here’s my best attempt to recreate his slide:

(Sort of kidding. Cowan didn’t use a meme – though as Renato and I agree, the translation industry needs more memes…)

This for real is my best attempt to recreate Cowan’s slide:

Cowan makes very clear that founders need to get out in an acquisition – or if they stay, that they should become closer to team leads than the founders they used to be. As a founder who was pushed out of his position and much of his handpicked team fired after being sold, I wasn’t sure whether Cowan meant this as a warning or as a positive. Maybe just a description of reality.

He used a rather Harvard MBA term – “Synergy Targets” – as a soft way of saying something. He was more explicit about culture. I thought he even sounded bitter when he described how a sale destroys the culture you have built up.

The ideal seller in Cowan’s world is someone who wants to “exit” and sip Mai Tais on a beach. Because in the end, the point he tried to emphasize to any prospective seller…selling is about losing control.

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The best ROI

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 23, 2017

Simon Sinek in Leaders Eat Last writes:

Marine leaders are expected to eat last because the true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.

Leaders don’t cut the line waiting for the elevator. They don’t threaten their employees. They don’t claim all credit, as if they made themselves successful with hard work.

Leaders don’t get to be leaders because they’re bossy. They realize that leadership, like success, is a privilege, which comes with responsibilities.

But, a shrewd leader realizes:

The point is, invest in your team. They will provide you with better ROI than any other investment. And without them, there is no company.

Jinny Oh, founder of Wander. Read her whole post.

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Crazy enough to think you will succeed…

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 20, 2017

As someone launching a new venture (or reinventing an established one), you are signing up for long days, sleepless nights, and maybe some missed birthday parties. You will hire people who need to believe in you and your idea enough to be willing to make the same sacrifices. To do all this, you have to be crazy enough to think you will succeed, but sane enough to make it happen. This requires commitment, tenacity, and most of all, single-mindedness. When Israeli tank commanders head into combat, they don’t yell “Charge!” Rather, they rally their troops by shouting “Ah’cha’rye,” which translates from Hebrew as “Follow me.” Anyone

Eric Schmidt and Rosenberg, Jonathan in How Google Works (Kindle Locations 837-842). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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To be more human…

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 19, 2017

My favorite slide from my GlobalLink NEXT presentation:

Technology and machines need to enable humans to be more human

It has also now sparked a serious consideration for a career change. I want to be a cyborg anthropologist!

But really…from Amber Case’s TED talk, which is from 2010, but more prescient today than it seemed then:

[The planet Earth] has its own external prosthetic devices, and these devices are helping us all to communicate and interact with each other. But when you actually visualize it, all the connections that we’re doing right now — [the main image on this post is] the mapping of the Internet — it doesn’t look technological. It actually looks very organic. This is the first time in the entire history of humanity that we’ve connected in this way. And it’s not that machines are taking over.It’s that they’re helping us to be more human, helping us to connect with each other.

The most successful technology gets out of the way and helps us live our lives. And really, it ends up being more human than technology, because we’re co-creating each other all the time. And so this is the important point that I like to study: that things are beautiful, that it’s still a human connection — it’s just done in a different way. We’re just increasing our humanness and our ability to connect with each other, regardless of geography. So that’s why I study cyborg anthropology.

To me, this is exactly what I aspire to – to work with a team of dedicated folks to make something that helps customers accomplish something more easily and efficiently, and that in the end, allows them to be more human. Something that helps them cull the data they have into the data they need. Something that gives them the freedom to exercise their own human judgment.

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Data: the new industrial revolution

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 18, 2017

But data isn’t enough.

At the Tableau Conference in Las Vegas last week, Steven Levitt shared an insight especially directed to the crowd of 15,000 business analysts and data junkies at the conference:

You need to ask the right question. Bumbling around in data doesn’t lead to answers. You need insight.

I wrote it down – because it called to mind something that had just struck me in a podcast:

In mathematics, someone instinctively believes something, and then they set about to prove it or disprove it. But the mathematics they use to prove the theorem – that isn’t the mental process they use to generate the theorem in the first place.

This causes people to think there might be a process for doing this stuff, that if followed, must work every time.

The thesis in both cases is that data is essential – but it’s not enough. It’s not what leads to insight and innovation. In each case, what leads us there is human imagination and judgment. This is a timely message as more and more of our largest companies focus on machine learning and data harvesting, and as the consequences of that begin to come home. Cathy O’Neil wrote about the dangers of  big data and algorithms last year:

The math-powered applications powering the data economy were based on choices made by fallible human beings. Some of these choices were no doubt made with the best intentions. Nevertheless, many of these models encoded human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into the software systems that increasingly managed our lives. Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal. And they tended to punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Kindle Locations 95-99). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

The conclusion is inescapable. Data isn’t enough. Just like machine learning isn’t enough. And technology isn’t enough. All of these things are tools. We can become Luddites, trying to ignore the data economy around us, unable to figure out how to use Apple ear pods, or…we can use our uniquely human moral imagination, quoting Cathy O’Neil again:

Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination, and that’s something only humans can provide. We have to explicitly embed better values into our algorithms, creating Big Data models that follow our ethical lead. Sometimes that will mean putting fairness ahead of profit.

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5 ways to demoralize your tech employees (and the other ones too)

Experiences - Joe Campbell - October 17, 2017

I’ve managed over 50 technology employees over my career – and have been managed as a tech lead for quite some time. Here are some hard-won lessons from my experience.

1. Be bossy.

We’ve all seen Steve Jobs running around Apple having tantrums in movies. Especially as a young manager, he did this often – before he learned there were better ways to manage. There’s a small place in the world for that. Being bossy doesn’t always fail, but it is a recipe for disaster. When you look at the inspiring example of Sheryl Sandberg and the transformations she wrought at Facebook, you can see the benefits of true leadership.  Leadership that is earned rather than cheap theatrics. Google has a culture that encourages cooperation and has created one of the most profitable companies in the world.

Ed Catmull is the founder of Pixar and the author of one of the best books on management, Creativity Inc. He explained what he saw as the core of good management:

I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.

Many managers seek to emulate the raging teenager in Steve Jobs mode. They take as their naive mantra, “Be Bossy.” That’s the quickest way to lose all your best people.

2. Create a culture of blame.

I used to work for a company that had a top-down culture of blame. I hadn’t realized how bad it was until after (I was working in a different division). I heard horror stories from people who now lead this group. They spoke of how the head of their group would yell at their boss for every failure. And then how their former boss would break phones and throw stuff against the wall and loom over their desk. There was a rigid process to follow that was almost impossible given the rate of work. Anyone who tried something new was personally blamed. The turnover rate was catastrophic. It took a herculean effort to transform this culture into one where people felt able to fail and innovate.

The worst companies are those that are built on a culture of blame – because this leads to the creation of bureaucracy – quoting Rory Sutherland:

Bureaucrats really love a formula because it prevents them from having to exercise judgment for which they might be blamed…

You can avoid blame by claiming what you did was entirely rational, and as if the act was therefore unavoidable because reason told me to do this. We scoped the market, did market research. It told us that people needed that. So we produced that. If you follow all the precepts and fail, you won’t get fired or blamed because you were rational. If you do something which is better, but involves a degree of human imagination or judgement, if it works, well and better, you might get a bit of credit but you probably will get people saying it would have been even better if you had followed reason. If it goes wrong, you’re fired.

Innovation comes when you take risk. And bureaucracy is it’s death.

To quote Eric Schmidt: “To innovate, you must learn to fail well.” Failure is inevitable. And a business needs to acknowledge that. The businesses that are best with technology are built on this assumption. For the company in question, this led to a rapid adoption of various technologies and the development of many new ones.

3. Don’t value your employees.

One of the most dispiriting things I’ve ever experienced was a cartoon villain of an attorney threatening a room full of employees that we could be “upgraded” in a week. It’s hard to feel motivated and to push yourself and to make the small right decisions everyday when you feel devalued. And the truth of technology is that doing it right is hard. It involves long-term thinking.  You need to design systems – and make decisions that allow you to scale. If you’re pushed to think short-term because you’re short-staffed or undermined or a pawn in political games, things will go okay for a while. Until they don’t. Those who sell and those who produce create value every day. But technology sets the foundation for them to create more value next year than they did today.

Never push loyal people to the point where they don’t give a damn

People aren’t interchangeable. They can’t just be upgraded like a faulty RAM drive. In the tech world where there is so much demand, that’s especially true. You especially need your tech team committed to making your company better and thinking long-term.

If you’re a decent person, a decent manager, an effective CEO, when asked the question of what made you successful…the answer is never “hard work” or “a great idea“. All of that helps. As does luck. (We all need to check our privilege.) But the one core common thing is a great team. This is a truism that Rory Cowan (former CEO of Lionbridge) stated at SlatorCon last week: “What someone buying your company is buying is ‘the next level’ of executives below the founder.” It’s probably one of his few areas of agreement with rival, Phil Shawe (co-CEO of TransPerfect). As Phil stated in his GlobalLink NEXT presentation as the key to the company’s growth:

– Find the best people.
– Align incentives.
– Get out of the way.

4. Be a Communist.

You can’t centralize everything. Anyone who promises to centralize all technology in a single group is promising to destroy innovation. Technology needs competing groups. It needs side projects. It needs, to quote Phil, controlled chaos.

What a tech company does need is to agree to the “rules of the road.” They need to agree on rules for competition and cooperation. But if you put one dictator above everyone, you will fail.

5. Being clueless about technology.

You don’t need to be an expert in technology to lead a tech company. After all, it was Steve Jobs, not Steve Wozniak, who ran Apple. But you do need to engage with the concepts and care about it. You need to have a base level understanding of what’s going on at minimum. And from there, you can often manage people rather then technology. The best tech CEOs need to be able to assert in clear principles their vision.

What you don’t want is to not know how to operate the most basic consumer technology. I once worked with an executive to whom I handed a set of Apple earpods. This was back in the day when Apple earpods still had wires and when there was still a headphone jack on the phone. (*Those were the days!*)

I handed the package over to the executive, and they looked at me quizzically. I assumed they just wanted me to open the package, so I did that, and handed the opened case over. They were still confused. So, I unwound the headphones and held them out. They asked me to explain how it worked – and I really wasn’t sure what to say. “These pieces go in the ears,” I said. “And you can talk normally, but the microphone is here.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. My frustration came when the same executive told me that they didn’t understand what tech people did all day. And then assumed that they must be lazy and drains on company profitability. Many companies have thought that over the years, but few of those companies continue to exist today. I was just lucky enough that another executive came along to guide my career from there.

Conclusion

It’s easy to say you’re a tech executive. It’s harder to be one. In the end, most of the things to avoid are the same things that you should avoid if you want to be a good person.

Retain humility. Don’t be bossy. Give credit to your employees. Encourage competition.

Despite everything, that’s one of the things I’ve always seen at TransPerfect. And one of the reasons I’ve been proud to be part of the great team we have had here.

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