Published on 03.09.2022
By Tucker Johnson
As any organization grows, it necessarily evolves. What works for a 3-person company will not work for a 10-person company, and certainly not for a 50-person company. This applies to process, policies, structure, people, and expectations… In a word, it applies to company culture.
The language services industry is perhaps the most culturally diverse place to work in the world. Virtually every culture, background, religion, nationality, orientation, and race is represented at least at some level. While this brings many benefits to our industry, it also creates an additional level of complexity for localization leaders who would like to shift the culture of their organization or their team… because there are already so many (often conflicting) cultures at play!
During my time consulting with many LSPs over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to survey many professionals about how to manage organizational culture. I’ve also had the opportunity to influence the cultures of the companies that I worked at earlier in my career, and later the company that I founded, Nimdzi Insights. Along the way, I have learned much about building, maintaining, and evolving culture within a global organization. Some of this I learned from observing the excellent leaders I’ve had the opportunity to be around, while some of it I learned “the hard way…” You know what I mean.
Today I’d like to invite localization leaders to examine some of the most successful methods I’ve observed for localization leaders to influence and evolve culture within their team. Some of these lessons I’ve learned along the way so that perhaps at least one or two readers of this article can be spared from “the hard way” that I had to endure.
1. Understand and accept the current culture for what it is, not for what you want it to be
Culture comes from the top. Always. This means that localization leaders have the responsibility to actively assess and manage their team cultures. This isn’t to say that if you do not actively manage your team’s culture that it will not have any culture. It will just have a culture that you may not like and that may not be conducive to a healthy working environment.
Shifting cultures is an intentional and long-term process. It doesn’t happen overnight. But before we even begin to shift the hearts and minds of our teammates, we need to sit down and talk to them. Ask them how they feel about their current work environment. What do they like? What do they dislike? What are they afraid of? If you already have a high level of trust with your teammates, sit down and talk with them individually. Do it over food. Food makes everything go smoother. If trust is still a challenge on your team, that’s OK too. This is why we are working to improve! In such a case, it may be helpful to bring in an unbiased third party to perform confidential interviews, or you could run anonymous surveys to collect information from the team.
2. Be open about your intent and communicate with your team
Once you have an accurate baseline for where you are currently, it is up to you to decide in which direction you want your team to head and then make that known publicly. The go-to method for doing this is of course the good old mission statement and vision statement. Even if there is already a mission statement at your company, there is no reason why your team cannot have their own raison d’etre that you strive to follow internally. Keep in mind that a mission statement is only valuable if everybody can remember what it says. Make sure to repeat it often and publish it in a public place for all to be reminded of.
It is always best to include your team when deciding where you are headed. Even if you are promoting what you feel is a healthy and necessary change, you would be wise not to assume that everybody is on board. Your top-performing team members may be especially resistant. After all, they have done well for themselves in the current culture (hence why they are top performers). Make sure to listen to the concerns and suggestions of all stakeholders and to take all their feedback seriously. This is the deal: if you are not prepared to address every piece of feedback from your team, then you are wasting everybody’s time. In fact, you are actually training your team not to be transparent with you in the future, since you are showing them that it is not worth their time or their vulnerability to give it to you.
As much as the efficiency-driven project manager in me cringes to say it, this communication and feedback process will take time. Crafting an agreed-upon mission statement can take months of conversations and these conversations are not anything resembling “efficient.” People need to talk. More importantly, you need to listen. Let the process happen at its own pace and remember that along the way, the journey you are taking to get there is already working to your benefit to build trust and openness within your team.
3. Walk your talk – constantly
Along your journey towards a new and improved team culture, there will be setbacks. Sometimes it is two-steps-forward-one-step-back… other times it will feel like one-step-forward-two-steps-back. Throughout it all, though, you are the leader, so you need to act like one. It’s not enough to simply announce that you would like to see a culture of openness, honesty, and vulnerability. You have to be open, honest, and vulnerable with your team. And you have to do it first. They will follow your lead.
It is not enough to set a good example only every once in a while. Acting out your intended ideals needs to be organic. It needs to be authentic. It needs to be constant and consistent. For example, if your intent is to increase trust between team members, then you need to learn the phrase “I trust you.” Practice it in front of a mirror. You need to say it often to different people in different ways and in different contexts. Then you need to act as if you actually believe what you are saying. If your goal is to improve the team’s work ethic, then you don’t get to show up late to the office or take long lunches anymore. Ever. You get to lead by example.
Furthermore, it is not enough to just walk your talk. Your team has to see you doing it. This isn’t to say that you should artificially make it look like you are doing it. No saving an email for three hours before hitting send just so you can make it seem like you are working late—your team is too smart to fall for that! What it means is that you need to be in constant contact with your team. Check in with your team members regularly, daily if needed. Don’t cancel scheduled 1:1 meetings if there is nothing to talk about. You are the leader – it is your job to find something (productive) to talk about, even if only for 5 minutes and even if it is 4:00 p.m. on a Friday.
4. Learn to let go – Give your team (and yourself) permission to fail
Some advice I’ve given to almost every people manager I’ve ever managed is that leaders need to learn to let go. Many of us find ourselves in managerial positions because we are good at our jobs. At least theoretically, the best PMs get promoted to team leads. So why, once we are promoted, do we expect all of our team members we manage to exhibit the same levels of skill, knowledge, and experience as us? It is unreasonable – if they did, you would maybe be reporting to them, not the other way around!
In order to improve, people need to be allowed to make mistakes. That’s how we learn. This means that no matter how grievous the mistake, you need to fight the urge to overly criticize, shame, or talk poorly about the person who messed up.
When going through times of change, I would actually recommend celebrating mistakes. If we are making mistakes, that means we are learning what not to do in the future, right? Run a post mortem, analyze the root cause, address the issues, and create an action plan for how the whole team is going to work together to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This way you can move forward confidently looking forward to your next (new, different) mistake so that you can continuously improve together.
5. Don’t neglect to invest in developing yourself and your fellow leaders
I’ve been referring throughout this article to “localization leaders,” but I haven’t provided a solid definition of that term, so I will now. A leader is somebody who acts like a leader. Leadership is not solely based on a title, a job description, or a set of qualifications. Inspiration, service, and leadership can come from surprising places in your team. It is your job to identify the leaders on your team that have potential, and then invest in them.
Remember our example of good project managers getting promoted to team leads? Keep in mind that the skillset that it takes to be an excellent project manager is not necessarily the skillset it takes to be a good leader. Leadership skills need to be learned, just like any other skills. So we need to make sure that we are providing ample opportunities for our team members to develop and exercise these skills. Are you providing mentorship opportunities or professional coaching services to your team members? If you regularly hold workshops and training sessions, are you only focusing on “hard skills” or are you making room for “soft skills” like communication, motivation, conflict resolution, and leadership? If not, I encourage you to research the many free and paid resources available out there for developing new leaders on your team that you should definitely be taking advantage of.
Recognize your team’s culture for where it currently stands. This is the first step toward building a culture of trust with the team. Be honest about where you are currently so that you can work with your colleagues to plan where you are heading together. Confidently communicate your intentions to shift the culture and work closely with the whole team to craft an agreed-upon mission statement. As a leader, you can’t wait for your team to take the lead. Leaders must lead by example and exhibit publicly the traits and ideals to be strived for. Along the way, there will be setbacks and that’s OK because every mistake made (and analyzed) today teaches a valuable lesson and empowers the team to go make different mistakes tomorrow. You and your team members are in this together. Leadership is a mindset, not a job title, so identify your fellow team members who can help you clear the path for the rest of the team, and then make sure to invest in getting them the knowledge and skills they need to do so.
Cultural change will not happen overnight. It will not be efficient. It will be painful at times and mistakes will be made. It is all part of the process. It is important, though, because remember: if you have the culture of a 3-person company, it is unlikely that you will ever become a 50-person company! As an organization grows, actively managing and evolving culture is crucial. And trust me… it is worth it.
About the author:
Tucker is a co-founder of Nimdzi Insights and an expert in translation, localization, and all-things-language industry. In addition to the work he does with Nimdzi clients, he is also an adjunct professor at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey and a co-owner of MultiLingual Media, publishing MultiLingual magazine.
Tucker is a founding host of Nimdzi LIVE!, which is regularly livestreamed to Linkedin and recordings are available wherever you get your podcasts. He also leads a number of virtual and in-person workshops on topics ranging from project and account management, sales and marketing for LSPs, remote team leadership, and more. Contact [email protected] if you are interested in getting in touch!