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From Employee to Entrepreneur to Leader: One Step at a Time

December 13, 2010

Meryl Natchez was a learning team track facilitator at the 2010 Women in Leadership Summit.  She is also the Founder of TechProse, a company that helps organizations integrate technology and processes through technical writing and corporate communications.

As a former English major with no business training, I’m an unlikely global business leader.  I didn’t have much knowledge or respect for business at the start of my career. I didn’t even think in terms of a career. I thought in terms of paying the bills. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to create a thriving business with almost 100 individuals on payroll, launch a robust non-profit organization (now in its tenth year), and establish a reputation as a global leader in the field of technical communication and business management. I’ve spoken on these subjects to business audiences in Japan, France, Germany, England and Canada, as well as across the United States. How did this occur and what about it might be applicable for you?

In looking back, much of the success of TechProse, the company I founded in 1982, came from a desire to break out of the constraints I had seen as a corporate employee and create a workplace that was more in harmony with my personal ideas about how a business should run. I had the luxury of testing every utopian ideal I ever had about work and finding out what was viable and what wasn’t. I also was willing to make decisions based on my best guess and take risks when necessary. And most important, I acknowledged my own weaknesses and found others with corresponding strengths. By accepting my weaknesses, I was able to build a strong network of people I respect who could act as informal advisors in the many areas in which I didn’t have expertise.

I learned that a company is bigger than any of its parts, that no matter how great your ideas and the quality of your service, if you aren’t profitable, you will fail. Profitability has to be a consideration in every decision. For example, I wanted TechProse to offer excellent benefits; but until we reached a certain size and scale, we didn’t have the money to do this.

All this might seem pretty basic, and it would have been basic if I had come from a business background. But I didn’t. I came from a very different set of values and assumptions, and had to learn what was possible. What was possible and valuable was to treat everyone with respect. Whether colleague, client, competitor, or cleaning staff, every individual deserves basic courtesy. I also felt it was important to have a “no blame” corporate culture in which mistakes were valued, not punished. After all, I was learning by trial and error myself. I wanted everyone’s experience to add to the mix. If we make a mistake, and that’s inevitable, we simply acknowledge it and fix it, and hopefully learn from it. A third winning strategy was to value productivity above face time. As a working mother, I’ve always believed that we can be most effective if our work fits the demands of our lives. Measure productivity, not face time has been a mantra for me. Finally, quality work has to be everyone’s top priority. Nothing should ever go to a client that hasn’t been reviewed by at least two sets of eyes.

In terms of communication and management, I learned several lessons early. The first was to include the ultimate user of the application, business process, or product in the discussion from the beginning. So much disconnect in the corporate world seems to arise from one group of people prescribing solutions for another group whose concerns and needs they really don’t understand. This lack of user perspective underlies that depressing statistic that 75 percent of major corporate initiatives fail. Ensuring that all affected parties have a voice in planning, design, and implementation is vital to success.

And there is almost never enough honest communication. Change is painful—letting the team know what’s going to be a problem from the beginning helps them prepare and accept the pain that leads to the gain.

These principles: user-centric development, honest communication, respect, no blame, flexible work hours, and a commitment to quality have been responsible for creating a work environment that I have enjoyed for almost 30 years. Our office hums with activity and collaboration. We have a good time, and we get a lot done.

TechProse grew over the last three decades from a one-woman operation to a company with annual revenues of more than $15 million. We’ve added change management, e-learning, and project management to our technical writing and instructional design capabilities. TechProse is a pioneer in single source development. We have a department that specializes in documentation and training for transit, and a very rich portfolio of online training. While in the beginning I did everything, others have led and developed these areas.

A team of empowered people can do so much more than one individual. The key to leadership is to lead, then to step back and let others excel. I give one presentation whose title (from a book on Zen) expresses it best: Good leaders are loved; great leaders are invisible.

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

Women in Leadership Institute

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A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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