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How Messed Up Is Your Management?

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It’s taken me 15 years in this industry to figure out how to be any good at what I do. I don’t know how to write it all down yet, but I’m going to give a piece of it away to you in the next 5 minutes.

It starts with an observation that is controversial to many folks, even though I think it’s like saying that water is wet:

Managing people is exceptionally hard to do well. People are complex, and organizations are just full of them.

I have managed many people at a variety of scales, and worked with leaders of other organizations big and small. I’ve trained up new managers and watched them grow into strong leaders. I’ve sat with them through hirings, and firings, and watched them struggle with both. I’ve had members of my teams get married, get divorced, have kids, lose kids, attempt suicide and (mercifully) fail. I have had an employee die, and to this day the social network birthday reminders gut me. No one who takes management seriously, and does it well, finds this stuff easy. No one who’s been at it for very long imagines that there are shortcuts.

But, as PT Barnum probably didn’t say:

There’s a sucker born every minute.

The infatuation with management shortcuts, particularly in startup culture, is rampant. The charitable explanation is that a lot of classic management practice feels slow, and founders are trying to unfetter their people. I think the harsher, truer explanation is that many founders are inexperienced managers, and don’t understand the trade-offs they’re making at their employees’ expense.

Let’s Try a Quiz

Score 1 “My management culture is messed up” point for each of the following:

  • We have an unlimited vacation policy
  • We don’t do regular 1:1s, but we have open office hours/are super available if anyone wants to chat
  • We don’t have a process for interviewing, we just hire awesome people when we meet them
  • We super care about diversity, but we don’t want to lower the bar so we just hire the best person for the job even if it means diversity suffers
  • We don’t have defined levels and career paths for our employees, we’re a really flat org
  • We don’t have formal managers for every staff member, everyone just gets their work done
  • We don’t have, like, HR HR, but our recruiter/office manager/only female employee is super good if you want someone to talk to
  • We don’t do performance improvement plans for employees that are struggling. We just have a super honest conversation about how they aren’t a good fit and fire them
  • We would have some hard explaining to do if our salary list accidentally became public

I’ll give you your first point for free. I’ll give you second one because it’s hard to run a business and there’s always something you wish you could get to but haven’t yet. I understand that. And, if you’re on the bubble, I’ll give you one more if there’s a thing on this list you are trying to change.

So how’d your company do? Fewer than 3 points? I’m happy for you and your colleagues. 4? 5? More?

What a Waste

I’ve talked to people who score 7s and 8s. Sometimes they’re proud of it.

What I’ve learned is that a high score on that silly little quiz tells me two not-silly things about you: you’re wasting time and you’re wasting your investors’ money. And what’s extra sad is that you thought you were doing the opposite.

You thought you were saving time by cutting needless process and especially needless meetings. Ugh, meetings, right? But a lot of these practices will increase turnover and lower productivity.

You know what costs a lot of time? When good people quit. You lose accumulated knowledge, you take a significant velocity hit, and you often have knock-on morale drag on the staff that stay. 1:1s take time, but they let people get things off their chest. They also feed motivation and team identity. Defined levels and career paths take work to develop. But they’re a straightforward way to give people mastery goals and direction. A well designed PIP takes longer than summary dismissal, but it can turn a struggling employee around and lift an entire team’s output.

Some of these policies do seem to save money. As the commenters point out, unlimited vacation can be a useful way to avoid paying out accrued timewhen employees leave. And not hiring an HR person does save you their salary.

But a core value of good management is that your investment in your employees pays off as they grow in scope and impact. Well managed employees make your company better. They mentor new people, take on new skills, and take personal ownership in the quality of their team’s work.

Ever look at some company getting it right and think, “How did they hire all those amazing people?” I’ll tell you how. They grew them. And they retained them. And that attracted more great people. People talk, and that flows both ways. Skimping on your people is a foolish (and gross) way to save money.

Don’t Take My Word For It

I try to manage well and thoughtfully, but there is certainly no shortage of disagreement out there on the right way to run things.

Valve software’s culture doc is near-biblical for many folks, yet it garners a pretty high score on my test. They make more money than I do, and better games, too; maybe they’re right? I don’t know. Former valve folk are not gentle with their description of a culture that “felt like high school” with implicit favour-based power structures operating behind the scenes. I don’t want to work in that kind of place. Maybe you do?

Remember when GitHub was so proud of how they didn’t really bother with traditional management? Somehow, even with their unlimited PTO, it didn’t go well.

I hear they’re hiring more managers now, and I’m hopeful for them. My hope is not that they feel beaten and subjugated and pay their manager tax. My hope is that they realize how harmful their hubris is to the employees that helped them build such a central piece of the technology landscape.

An Extremely Boring Manifesto

Look, management may be hard, but this test is pretty easy to pass. And it proceeds from the first rule of startup club:

The First Rule of Startup Club: if you’re not planning to be the best in the world at something other people already do well, then don’t mess around with implementing your own version of it, use theirs.

We usually cite this in reference to databases, or unit test harnesses, or snack providers. But it’s just as true here.

I don’t need you to be the best in the world at management. But if you’re not planning to be, if you’re not going to be really studious and dedicated to it, then for god’s sake stop messing with it. I promise you can’t build a better management system in your spare time.

  • Set up every employee with a clear direct manager, and expect them to hold regular 1:1s. Discuss their current work, but also their goals and development.
  • Be clear about every role or, if you can’t manage that, at least every role with multiple people in it. Define the expectations of the role, and where it’s headed. Employees should know which level/role they’re in.
  • Set salaries according to role and calibrate against your market (your HR person can help here).
  • Have a basic process for sourcing and interviews. Eliminate bias where you can. Interview for well defined roles so that you know what your salary range is, and don’t get anchored off of savvy candidates manipulating the offer phase.
  • Give people benefits and vacation that make them feel loved and help them be excellent, without exploding your burn rate. Make sure they take that vacation.

It’s stupefying to me but if you do those things you’ll be head and shoulders above many of your peers in industry. You’ll be able to attract and retain talent better. Your employees will grow and take on broader leadership roles. Word will get around that your company is run by grown ups.

What’s even more amazing to me is this: most people won’t. Most people will still try to shortcut things, and then wonder aloud why they can’t find great people. They’ll conclude that they need to pay higher salaries because their people keep fleeing. They’ll miss targets, they’ll fail, and they’ll explain that startup is just super hard and maybe they were just too early. ?

Like most manifestos, this one’s easier to read than it is to live. I understand that business is full of conflicting tensions and priorities. But if you can’t do these things, these table stakes things, then I need you to seriously consider the possibility that running an organization is not for you. Find a cofounder who understands this stuff. Hire and empower leaders to operate while you stick to the ideas and get out of their way. Something. These are people’s lives you’re dealing with. If I sound irate, that’s why.

And to those of you out there who do understand this, who operate for a living and do it well: I see you. You are heroes who don’t get enough credit. And if you’re ever in Toronto, your first drink is on me.


About the Author
This article was written by Jonathan Nightingale of the co-pour a blog dedicated to leadership lessons and business insights. Jonathan is the Editor of https://mfbt.ca.

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and Digital Innovation Strategist

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

I am talking to Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and freelance Digital Innovation Strategist. Tara was selected and recognized by TheNextWeb.com as one of the 500 most talented young people in the Dutch digital scene during the 2017 TNW edition. Tara is known for her creative, entrepreneurial spirit, which she is using to her advantage in leading the change in SMEs and corporates around the globe.

What makes you do what you do?

I tend to see life as a big, complex puzzle. Because of my curious nature, I am in constant development, looking for new angles and new approaches to business problems. Innovation through technology is exploring ideas and pushing boundaries. The most radical technological advances have not come from linear improvements within one area of expertise. Instead, they arise from the combination of seemingly disparate inventions. This is, in fact, the core of innovation. I love going beyond conventional thinking practices. Mashing up different thoughts and components, connecting the dots, and transforming that into something useful to businesses.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I consistently chose to follow my curiosity, which has led me to where I am today. If you want to succeed in the digital industry, you need to have a growth mindset. Seen the fact that the industry is evolving in an astoundingly quick rate, it’s crucial to stay current with the trends and forces in order to spot business opportunities. I believe taking responsibility for your own learning and development is key to success.

Why did you take on the role of Digital Innovation Strategist?

The reason for this is twofold. On the one hand, I got frustrated with businesses operating in the exact same way they did a couple of decades ago. Right now we are in the midst of a technology revolution, and the latest possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge technologies are evolving every single day. This means that companies need to stay current and act lean if they want to survive. On a more personal level, I noticed that I felt the need to use my creativity and problem-solving skills to their maximum capacity. In transforming businesses at scale, I change the rules of the game. I love breaking out of traditional, old-fashioned patterns by nurturing innovative ideas. This involves design thinking, extensive collaboration and feedback, the implementation of various strategies and tactics, validated learning, and so on. I get a lot of energy from my work because it is aligned with my personal interests.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries?

Yes, I look up to Drew Boyd. He is a global leader in creativity and innovation. He taught me how to evaluate ideas in order to select the best ones to proceed with. This is crucial because otherwise,you run the risk of ideas creating the criteria for you because of various biases and unrelated factors. He also taught me a great deal on facilitation of creativity workshops.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I tend to have the characteristics of a transformational leader. People have told me that my enthusiasm and positive energy is motivating and even inspiring to them. Even though I take these comments as a huge compliment, I am not sure how I feel about referring to myself as a leader. To me, it still has a somewhat negative connotation. I guess I associate the concept with being a boss who’s throwing around commands. But if a leader means listening to others and igniting intrinsic motivation in people, then yes, I guess I’m a charismatic leader.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Yes, one hundred percent. I believe that creativity and innovation flourish when a highly diverse group of people bounces ideas off each other. Diversity in terms of function, gender,and culture is extremely valuable, especially in the ideation phase of a project, as it can help to see more possibilities and come up with better ideas.

Do you have any advice for others?

Yes, I have some pieces of advice I’d like to share.
First of all: Develop self-awareness. You can do so by actively seeking feedback from the people around you. This will help you understand how others see you, align your intentions with your actions, and eventually enhance your communication- and leadership skills.

Surround yourself with knowledgeable and inspiring people. They might be able to support you in reaching your goals, and help you grow both personally and professionally.

Ask “why?” a couple of times. This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. Make sure to often remind yourself and your team of the outcome of this exercise to have a clear sense of direction and focus.

Data is your friend. Whether it’s extensive quantitative market research or a sufficient amount of in-depth consumer interviews (or both!), your data levels all arguments. However, always be aware of biases and limitations of research.

Say “Yes, and…” instead of “No”. Don’t be an idea killer. Forget about the feasibility and budget, at least in the ideation phase. Instead, encourage your team to generate ideas without restrictions. You can compromise certain aspects later.

Prioritization is key. There is just no way you can execute all your ideas, and, quite frankly, there is no point in trying to do so. Identify the high potential ideas and start executing those first.

Encourage rapid prototyping. Don’t wait too long to experiment, launch, and iterate your product or service. Fail fast and fail often. Adopt an Agile mindset.

If you’d like to get in touch with Tara Velis, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/taravelis/

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Callum Connects

Marek Danyluk, CEO of Space Ventures

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Marek Danyluk has a talent for assessing the competencies of management teams for other businesses and pulling together exceptional teams for his own businesses!

What’s your story?
I am the CEO of a venture capital business, Space Ventures, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses. I also own and run Space Executive, a recruitment business focused on senior to executive hires across sales, marketing, finance, legal and change.

My career started as a trainee underwriter in the Lloyds market but quickly moved into recruitment where I set-up my first business in 2002. The business grew to around 100 people. I moved to Asia in 2009 as a board member of a multinational recruitment business with the mandate to help them scale their Asian entities, which helped contribute to their sale this year, in 2017.

My main talent is assessing the competencies of management teams as well as building high performing recruitment boutiques and putting together exceptional management teams for my own businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
Building the business is very much about attracting the best talent and being able to build a culture which people find invigorating and unique. It’s an exciting proposition to be able to define a culture in that regard and salespeople are a fun bunch, so when you get it right it’s tremendous.

From a VC point of view there is just so much happening. South East Asia is a melting pot of innovation so the ideas and quality of people you have exposure to, is truly phenomenal. The exposure in the VC has taken me away from a career in recruitment. Doing something completely different has given me a new level of focus.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Whilst I came here with work, both my boys were born in Singapore and to them this very much is home. That said, my father in law spent many years in the East so coming and settling here was met with a good degree of support and familiarity.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Possibly Hong Kong. It’s the closest I’ve been to working in London. Whilst there are massive Asian influences people will work with you on the basis you are good at what you do and work hard. I find that approach very honest and straightforward.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Always treat people well on the way up!”

Who inspires you?
I like reading about people who have excelled in business such as Jack Ma, James Kahn, Phil Knight, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, all have great stories to tell and they are all inspirational. No-one has inspired me more than my parents and they are well aware as to why…

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Pretty much any technology innovation blows me away.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Whilst it is important not to have regrets I do continually wake up thinking I’m still doing my A’ Levels. So, I’d have probably tried a little harder in 6th form.

How do you unwind?
I like the odd glass of red wine and watching sport

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Japan skiing. I love skiing and Japanese food and it’s a time when I can really enjoy time with the wife and kids. I recently tried the Margaret River which was divine, although not technically Asia.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Barbarians at the Gate

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive is the fastest growing recruitment business in Singapore focused on the mid to senior market across legal, compliance, finance, sales and marketing and change and transformation. Multi-award winning with exceptional growth plans into Hong Kong and London this year, and the US, Japan and Europe by the end of 2022. We are building a truly global brand.

Space Ventures is interested in any businesses that require capital or management and financial guidance or any or all of the above. We have, to date, invested in on-line training, food and beverages, peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring as well as other tech and fintech start-ups. We are always interested in hearing about potential deals.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

Twitter handle?
@Spaceexecutive

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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