Kristin Quinlan on leadership: "Everything has to do with the spirit"


As Certified Languages International grew in recent years, chief executive Kristin Quinlan shuddered at the thought her company could bear any resemblance to her first introduction to corporate culture.

“It was do as I say because we’re going to have meetings for the sake of having meetings because this is what we do, and you’ll be here at 6:30 in the morning and you can’t leave until 7 at night,” Quinlan says.

If she ever had the chance, she vowed to herself, she’d do things 180 degrees differently than what she experienced early in her career.



That helps explain Team Week, a summer break for the entire Portland office. It’s seven days filled with team-building games, scavenger hunts and jet boat rides. But it also includes exercises to foster collaboration and problem solving in the office.

“It’s amazing how much people value the opportunity to stop what they’re doing and really understand and listen to other people in the office,” says Quinlan.

An annual employee survey also helps guide decision making. While Quinlan wants to foster an atmosphere where there are no surprises, that might be inevitable as the company races to adopt the latest technology to serve clients. A monthly newsletter was launched to assist keeping the 150 or so employees informed of changes.

Quinlan firmly believes she’d be courting disaster if she came up with what she thought was a brilliant idea and forged ahead without a thorough vetting among several employees.

“We encourage, promote and support collaboration,” she says. “The whole spirit of our success is unity. It takes many, it doesn’t take just one.”

The adoption of a new interoffice communication platform required plenty of teamwork. Quinlan, who noted she remembers when the arrival of external email was a big deal, says the new program presented a technological hurdle for some older employees. But eventually they got it, just like any of the other software the company adopts.

“Everything has to do with the spirit that it’s approached,” Quinlan says. And if an employee finds a tech challenge insurmountable, “we’ll give you any tool to help you understand, and we’ll give you help.”



For a company that relies on global diversity of language, and cherishes diversity in its workforce, Quinlan acknowledges the political climate the past two years has sometimes been dispiriting.

“It’s really horrifying and embarrassing and appalling to me that not only is the world slower to adopt the very natural way of thinking that we have here,” says Quinlan, a registered Republican, “but our head of the country is encouraging and slightly celebrating the fact the white mainstream dominates. I don’t understand it.”

This article is part of a feature package on leadership and culture change that appears in our May 2018 issue. To read more in the series, click here.

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