“I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph” was the motto of Iznogoud, the wicked, scheming grand vizier of Baghdad in Goscinny and Tabary’s French comic series of my childhood.
Apparently, the phrase has passed into everyday French to describe overambitious people who want to overthrow the boss and take his or her place (thus the name ‘he’s no good’, pronounced with a French accent). Which was of course not me, and not how I ended up being the managing director of STP.
Global research by Common Sense Advisory indicates that most translation companies are small businesses with less than half a dozen employees. It is safe to assume that such companies are often managed by their owners who work full time in the business, either in a linguistic role or on the commercial aspects.
The business provides the owner with a life-long career and income, and many only start to think about an exit strategy after reaching a certain age, or burning out. The options are to find a buyer for the company, to pass it on to their children or to get someone else to manage it. Family succession is a great solution when the next generation is competent enough – and interested enough – to take over and inject new blood. If this is not an option, it is natural to look to promote someone from within.
When Jesper Sandberg, STP’s founder and now executive chairman, appointed me managing director a year ago, I had already been working in the company for almost 15 years, building the empire with him block by block, probably considering it mine as much as he considered it his. Consequently, our staff did not seem particularly shaken or stirred by my appointment.
Wondering how different it might be in a company where the baton is passed to a descendant rather than a colleague, I asked Thomas Faust about his experience. Thomas recently joined his father in running FaustTranslations, a Luxembourg-based translation company which, like STP, has grown to its current size from one man’s freelance business.
Thomas grew up watching his father translate, went to study business and tourism, and still took some time to decide that taking over a translation company was what he really wanted to do. Not wishing to see his father’s legacy pass into the hands of a stranger was a strong motivator for him.
How to replace the irreplaceable?
Many translation company owners worry deeply about finding someone able to run the business like they do. Surely no one else would be willing to put in the hours, have the attention to detail, possess the dedication, share the vision and master the minutiae. No one else could possibly care as much. This may be true, but it’s also the point. No hired manager will ever do the job exactly like the owner did. And there are benefits to that, the same as when a parent entrusts their kids to a nanny.
The parent has unparalleled love and concern for their children, plus a brilliant vision for what they should grow up to be. But a professionally trained, emotionally detached nanny may do a better job of bringing them up with discipline, good conduct and structured training – and equip them to deal with an outside world that does not automatically think them special.
Likewise, when considering passing the reins to the next generation, it might help to think of them as a translator working on a text originally created by someone else. She may not be as precious about the original as the content owner is, but regarding the version she is writing, her feelings of ownership easily equal those of the original writer, and she will dedicate all her skills to creating a product that will have the same impact on her target audience.
Thomas believes that working your way up is probably the best way to enter a management role, because it proves to everyone that you have earned the position and you have gained credible industry skills on the way. But, he adds, it is not always a feasible option in small companies. The organisational structure is flat; there is the team and there is the owner. There is no career ladder to climb and no opportunity to learn management skills in stages.
The team size limits the talent pool to choose the management material from, and promoting one person from a small group of peers carries the risk of causing friction and raising suspicions of favouritism. When Thomas stepped straight into his managerial role, he spent months familiarising himself with all the tasks in the company. What really helped him, though, was that he knew the members of the team personally, having already spent time with them outside of work. It enabled him to quickly establish good working relationships, though he knows that he will still have to work hard to prove to everyone – including his father – that he is worthy of their trust.
When a company is owner-managed, it is quite possible that everyone else in the company has well-thought-out, accurate job descriptions, while the MD has none. The first step in transferring the job is to write down what the MD does. The next step is to decide how much of that should belong to the remit of the new MD, and then write a job description accordingly.
When I sat down to write mine a year ago, I divided my new responsibilities into three processes:
This means that I’m responsible for creating and implementing STP’s strategy and directing the company’s work, resources and policies.
This is about translating the strategy into business plans and monitoring our teams’ progress against those plans by setting performance measures, by verifying the appropriateness of our service with our clients and stakeholders, and by directing internal development.
I oversee the organisation of all of STP’s functions: linguistic production, project management, IT and language technology, HR management, vendor management, customer relationship management and communications management.
Whatever duties are included in the new MD’s responsibilities, it is important to agree a transition period for the handovers. And it is important to realise that some processes may need to be changed before they can be handed over.
As an owner-manager builds a company from scratch, they tend to develop solutions organically, reactively and independently, as needs arise. This may result in systems that only they understand. With a new manager taking over, it is likely that such systems need to be updated, perhaps even reinvented.
For me, access to real-time financial analysis and accurate management accounts became paramount when I started managing someone else’s money. Thomas says that he identified processes in need of optimisation at his company, which led to restructuring of workflows and implementation of new software. At other companies, decision-making, approval and reporting channels may need to formalised. Or targets need to be set – and met.
Handing over company leadership is like running a relay race. In succession planning, you identify and develop the person you want to pass the baton on to. A relay race brings out the best in everyone and, apparently, increases rather than decreases the speed of the athletes. A 400-metre relay team, for instance, can achieve a time that is better than the four runners’ combined 100-metre times, because the athletes are already running when they receive the baton.
A well-planned transition period in a company can achieve the same result. It is also great that a baton drop does not automatically disqualify a team; whoever had the baton when it was dropped may pick it up and continue the race. Ultimately, it is all about the baton, not the individual runners.