This article was originally published at matteosutto.com on January 27
I joined iPrice in the summer of 2016. At the time,it was a very promising regional affiliate player with an encouraging initial traction and around 1 million monthly users.
I left at the end of last year, after a terrific journey which saw us becoming the leading meta-search e-commerce aggregator in Southeast Asia. We grew our userbase to over 15 million monthly users, closed two rounds of funding from some of the best VCs in the region and grew our headcount to more than 150 employees from all around the world (>30 nationalities).
During those three years, as part of iPrice Leadership team, I spent the majority of my time finding ways to maximise managerial leverage and increase our organisational output. Above all, we created and maintained highly productive teams as our organisation faced rapid growth.
In other words, I was learning and practicing the art and science of effective management.
Reflecting on my experience, I’ve decided to write down the most important management lessons I have learned during my journey. The hope is to provide some valuable insights to managers and leadership teams in other scaling organisations, especially in the region.
I’ve split the learnings in five different sections: Hiring, Promoting, Communication, Relationships and Performance Management.
Front-load your People Investment
Laszlo Bock, (former) VP of People Operations at Google
“At Google, we front-load our people investment. This means the majority of our time and money spent on people is invested in attracting, assessing, and cultivating new hires. We spend more than twice as much on recruiting, as a percentage of our people budget, as an average company. If we are better able to select up front, that means we have less work to do with them once they are hired”
It all starts with hiring.
The moment you fully realise this fact, consider making a few fundamental adjustments to internal hiring practices.
First, hire more slowly. Never, ever, compromise quality over speed. Even when it seems like it is taking too much time, and especially if you are hiring managers (more on that below). The cumulative amount of time you will spend fixing your bad hiring decisions will almost always be of an order of magnitude higher than your initial time investment.
Second, invest enough time in writing a truly articulated and inspiring job description (JD). Assuming the company branding is not on the same level of Google or Go-Jek, it is important to put in the work to differentiate the company from the competition and inspire top applicants.
The best candidates always pay attention to a well written job description.
Most of the best candidates I have interviewed referred to the job description as one of the major factors that convinced them to apply. Despite this empirical evidence, few companies get it right.
Third, add written screening questions to each of your openings. This is important for three main reasons:
- It is the fastest way to screen out candidates and therefore minimise time spent interviewing.
- Again and again, I found the quality of the answers to be among the most correlated factors in determining whether the candidate is truly a top talent.
- It motivates the best candidates to apply (self-selecting them). Instead of becoming a burden in preventing the busiest and most talented candidates to invest time in the application process, it reinforces their interest in the company.
Beyond the above tips, at iPrice we started to gradually implement some of the hiring and interviewing process used internally by Google, resulting in a substantial improvement in the quality of our hiring.
Two books have been particularly valuable in giving us an inside look of some of the most valuable Google hiring practices:
- Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock
- How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg
From structuring a collegial interview process, to building candidates ‘packet’ or making internal hiring calibration, there are plenty of actionable practices that can be adopted into an organisation.
When hiring managers, your focus should be in assessing their ability to manage people. Simple in theory, hard to execute in practice.
Assessing how smart a future manager is or her strategical savviness is relatively easier. Assessing her ability to truly manage people effectively is way trickier.
Especially with senior managers, past performance is typically the best indicator of future performance. Therefore, how to assess ‘past performance’ when it comes to managing people?
The biggest and most recurrent mistake when hiring managers is to confuse the quantity of people managed in the past vs. the quality/effectiveness in managing them. That is, assuming that since the person managed lots of people in the past, she must know how to manage them effectively.
Therefore, don’t rely too much on questions such as “How many people did you manage in the past?”
Below, some of questions that I found to be much more effective to ask when assessing new managers:
- “Tell me an example of person you are particularly proud of having hired and coached during your career? What make you so proud about it?”
- “What are you doing today as a manager that you weren’t doing 5 years ago?”
- “How do you structure your 1:1s? Which topics do you cover, with which frequency, etc”
- “Have you ever promoted someone in your team from individual contributor to manager? If so, which reading material did you recommend her?
- “If you had to spend only 1h per week with your newly promoted manager, what would you spend your time teaching her?”
- “When managing a new team, what are the first things you do in your first 30 days?”
I also recommend you to ask your candidates to share with you one or more examples of performance evaluations they did in the past for their direct reports.
Regardless of how poorly structured the performance evaluation process was in their previous companies, when a manager truly cares about her people (which is among the most important pre-requisite for being a good manager), you can see it from how she has written her performance evaluation in the past.
The speed at which fast growing startups typically require their junior staff to take on managerial roles can often create big organisational frictions, increasing employees churn and ultimately slowing down the growth of the company. Think of it as ‘organisational debt’ (not unlike technical debt).
When it comes to promotions, there are typically three types of bad promotions to avoid:
- Promoting individual contributors (ICs) who don’t have any desire in managing other people
- Promoting ICs who think they can manage people, but in reality don’t want to put in the effort to become good at management
- Promoting ICs who want to manage people and are willing to put the efforts to learn, but are left alone in figuring it out by themselves
The first case of bad promotion is the easiest one to avoid. With transparent and frequent conversations, it should be obvious whether managing people is something a person wants.
The second case of bad promotion is trickier. Many ICs can be seduced by the prospect of managing other people as the only (or fastest) way to progress in their careers. To reduce such instances, establish company wide and separate career tracks for both ICs and Managers.
See below an example of dual career track we implemented at iPrice:
Besides this, to further reduce the risk of promoting ICs to a managerial position they are not ready for, try the following:
- Have them manage one or more interns
- Have them onboard and train new team members
Expect to be surprised by how much useful information comes from just observing the potential manager perform the two above activities.
The third case of bad promotion can be avoided only if Senior Managers are willing to put the time and effort to provide the necessary guidance and training to their first time managers.
As the former CEO of Intel Andy Grove writes in his (highly recommended) Management bible:
“Training is the manager’s job. Training is the highest leverage activity a manager can do to increase the output of an organization.”
– Andrew S. Grove
Don’t expect first time managers to learn all by themselves. It won’t happen (fast enough).
I found a few areas to be the ones where guidance is most needed:
- How to hire – Don’t expect someone who has never drafted a job description nor interviewed someone to know how to do it. Review their job descriptions, share with them examples of questions to ask during the interview, sit with them during the initial calls to provide them feedback and teach them what great answers look like.
- How to run effective one-on-ones – Which topics to discuss, which inputs to expect from their direct reports, with which frequency, etc.
- How to write and deliver a performance evaluation – Review every single written performance evaluation until they get to the expected level of depth and quality. Run the first performance evaluation together with them, to provide feedback on their delivery
- How to handle performance management – This is probably the hardest one for any first time manager. Michael Brown, former UBER APAC Head, puts it best in a First Round Review article:
“I’ve learned that young managers tend to move too slowly to address underperformers on their teams. They hope something will change, and they want to avoid uncomfortable conversations — so they let low performance fester. More senior or experienced managers must recognize when this is happening and give their younger or less seasoned colleagues the push they need to proactively deal with these situation”
Last and probably most importantly, its important to also be a great manager. By being a great manager, any person on the team, once in a managerial position, will start to naturally imitate the behaviours and practices.
This is why management (both good and bad) is so contagious and can create so much leverage within an organisation.
Establish a company wide cadence for each of your managers’ one-on-ones and make them stick to it. Weekly is the most popular frequency and what we were doing at iPrice.
Once a manager starts having multiple people reporting to them, ask each of team members to set up the agenda of the discussion. Ideally, it will stick to a consistent format. Even better, ask them to send the topics of discussion ahead of the face-to-face meeting.
This will not only allow managers to make the most of their limited time, but will also allow them to focus on what matters the most to the team, thus empowering them.
Provide impromptu guidance
Don’t wait to schedule ad-hoc meetings to provide feedback to the team. Do it after each meeting with internal or external stakeholders (or after each email sent, if necessary).
Don’t wait for weekly or monthly alignments to share feedback. It will be much less effective.
Even worst, don’t wait for any quarterly/bi-annual/annual formal performance review to dump all of the feedback at the same time. Performance reviews should never come as a surprise to the recipient.
Praise Publicly, Criticise Privately
Public praise gives more weight to your appreciation, thus incentivising the person to do more of the same. It also provides an opportunity to reiterate the company values to the team(s) and to the entire company.
When it comes to criticism, any public display of it will most often have negative consequences. It makes it much harder for the receiver to accept it, due to the triggering of her/his natural defensive reaction. If it is necessary to criticise over email, just reply to the individual removing any other people in the email thread.
Try to build strong personal relationships with the individuals that make up the team. Without a connection, managers will face an uphill battle in their role.
The best way to build personal relationships is by showing genuinely care for people. There is no way around it and it is impossible to fake. It is essentially to genuinely and personally care for their personal and professional development.
By building such layer of personal care, bosses will be able to challenge the team directly without deteriorating the relationship. On the opposite, challenging them directly shows that their growth is important to the manager.
Build a safe pasture
In order to get the most out of the team, it is crucial to create an environment where people feel psychologically safe and secure under the leadership team. More specifically:
- Make it clear that they won’t be punished if they make a mistake
- Try to always be the first one to let them know the bad news, so they don’t get distracted by rumours
- Defend them from outside criticisms. Always take the blame while always give the credits to the team
Being able create such an environment can lead to unconditional loyalty from the team.
*For more on the topic, read The Way of the Shepherd
It’s OK to Micromanage
This will probably sound controversial, given the widespread belief that good management is mainly about ‘getting out of people’s way’ and ‘letting them do their job’. I found this to be an easy excuse typically used by lazy and/or bad managers.
To the opposite, a good manager is someone that will keep on challenging the team directly.
Micromanage each of the team members until they consistently perform at the high standards expected from them. Then, gradually let it go.
In practice, this means investing energy and time into things which often might seem trivial from the outside: correcting the emails they send or the terminology they use in their verbal communication. I found both activities to have extremely high ROI and leverage in the long-term.
At the end, it boils down to establishing a culture of high standards from the get go. Borrowing a favourite quote on the topic:
“A culture of high standards is protective of all the “invisible” but crucial work that goes on in every company. I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward – it’s part of what it means to be a professional”
– Jeff Bezos
Being a Public Figure
As a manager, especially if in a senior/leadership position and especially if working in a multi-cultural environment, actions outside the office (hours) matters.
The higher the seniority, the more people will start looking view the person as role-model; and not only inside the office.
It is just something that needs to be accepted.
It’s not what you Preach, but what you Tolerate – Jocko Willink
Especially in Asia / SEA, I found the bar for complacency and conflict-avoidance very high when dealing with performance management.
When having to make tough calls, a few principles can help address such situations with enough proactivity so to avoid creeping under performance.
First and foremost, a low performer is always, in 100 per cent of the cases, affecting the rest of the team and their morale. As a manager, when the under performance of an individual becomes noticeable, the rest of the team is already well aware of it (in well functioning and performing teams). Addressing underperfomers is a matter of respect to the other people on the team that are doing a great job.
Second, reject the claim that “someone is better than nobody”. Poor performers typically create more extra work for everyone else on the team (and their manager).
Third, it is possible to let someone go and still leave on good terms. Demonstrate to the person that it is not personal and that the judgment is only about their work. Reach out some weeks after they have started a new job to check how they are doing. More likely than not, they will express happiness about being in a new environment.
How a manager handles the people that they let go will have a big impact on how the team perceives both the leader and the company. Don’t underestimate it.
When it comes to the performance of managers, leadership needs to be much more strict. Bad bosses have huge negative consequences for the team and for the entire company. Always think about the damages a bad manager can have on the career of an individual.
How to evaluate the performance of a Manager?
First, start looking at a team as the by-product of the Manager. Jocko Willink, in Extreme Ownership, summarises it best : “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders”. It is a major red flag if the manager doesn’t fully own the performance of the team.
Second, leaders will encounter cases where the team is performing well from an overall output perspective, but the Manager is not performing up to expectation. The single most effective way to discover such cases is by starting regular, and recurrent, skip-level meetings with tbe team members. Establish it as a normal practice from the get go. This way it prevents the Manager from feeling threatened.
Third, there is typically a strong correlation between how well the performance reviews of a Manager are written and the performance of the Manager himself. Take a look at them as an additional performance proxy.
Finally, run team happiness surveys across the company.
How to proactively perform self-criticism as a Manager?
The survey mentioned above is typically a good tool. Another very insightful exercise we implemented at iPrice were quarterly bottom up reviews from the direct reports. Some example of questions we have been using:
- Value Creator – Her/his involvement in my activities maximize the impact of my work
- Availability – I get the right amount of support I need from her/him
- Communication – Communicate to me tasks clearly and concisely in verbal and written communications
- Problem Resolution – Able to quickly resolves issues/problems that I bring to him or questions/doubts I have
- Personal Growth – Allows me, by direct coaching or indirectly to keep learning at the speed I want (new or existing skills)
- Career Growth – Able to provide me with a clear career trajectory
Bringing it all together
Effective Management is among the most scalable and defensible assets a leadership team can build to increase the output of their organisation and support its growth.
As an individual, if there is motivation to become a better manager, start training. Anyone can achieve greatness and improve their own and the group’s performance and productivity, regardless of what is happening in the rest of the company.
Thanks for reading! For any questions or thoughts, you can comment below or you can find me on Twitter .