Categories
Change Management Strategy

Empowering, not imposing – a lesson for hard times

Empowering people is hard. Imposing an opinion, solution or direction might seem like an easier way in hard times.

Spoiler alert: it’s not.

When you’re starting out a new role or a new project, or if you’re simply going through some changes in your professional or personal life, you’ll find yourself reacting with your lizard brain, the “thinking fast” one. That can get you out of trouble fast. But it can also create a lot more chaos than it was to begin with.

Reflections from a personal story

I was in a situation like that recently and I was fortunate enough to be able to reflect on it a few months after the dust settled. Mergers and acquisitions are hard. Integrations are where a lot of companies end up failing. There is also constant context for conflict and roadblocks for projects. For months, as a new hire, I was involved in integrating two brands. That meant meetings, not only to get to know people, but to build things with them from the get-go. We went from forming to storming really quickly and it was hard to see the clear path to norming and performing.

I saw people being in the way (and they weren’t), so I tried to push them out of the way (so they pushed back).

It’s not very empowering, is it?

That made my life and my goals much harder to achieve. It also didn’t benefit me or the team, or the larger company context altogether. I went into meetings with a clear outcome in mind, and tried to impose the best way forward. That prevented me from collaborating with everyone else in the room. It also took much more work from my side to get to a real solution, and move things forward.

I was missing an important piece: I didn’t consider what I didn’t know. I assumed I have enough information to formulate a clear conclusion about the future.

For me, it’s not natural to admit I don’t know something or that I need help. It’s something you’re taught to avoid while growing up as a man in Romania. You have to be strong and decisive, provide solutions fast, think on your feet at all times. After all, in school, in class, whenever we were asked a question, we had to answer on the spot or get punished. Not the most empowering environment. It also builds a “come up with any answer” mindset that’s not helpful later on.

Empowering: Stop and think

I recently learned a cool way to reframe this. Before making a major decision or change of direction, ask yourself:

“What are the implications of the things we haven’t considered?”

Let me unpack that a little bit.

First, you are already a step ahead by telling yourself that there are, in fact, things that you might not have considered.

Secondly, those things are likely to have implications in your projects/tasks/endeavors.

By spending a few more hours / days thinking about this question, you’ll be able to make better decisions and empower, not impose. You’ll have strong reasons for the way you are envisioning.

This way you’ll turn to empowering, and drop the impositions.

But this was recently, months after I had got through working on the big change project.

Turning imposing into empowering

Back to my personal story. What helped me turn around was asking myself: “Is what I’m doing right now helping the team succeed?”. If the answer was no, I would shut up and let others move on with their desired path. If it was yes, I would try to ask more questions. I would also be able to suggest other outcomes as I learned more about what I didn’t know.

Next time you feel like you want to grab people and show them the way forcefully, don’t. Choose your battles.

Think of it like you are across the field from them. Instead of trying to pull them to your original position, walk towards them ask them to walk towards you. Now you both have a slightly different perspective about the problem. Now you can try to see a shared path to the solution. Ask questions, listen and and walk with them to the shared solution. Just be careful to not walk too far in their direction and lose the way completely.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Categories
Change Management Politics

Freedom in the time of COVID-19

For the first time in decades, our freedom is under threat again. This time, it’s not even a human-made one, but a virus that’s infecting people at an accelerated rate.

Governments around the world have hit their big, red panic buttons. They have stopped tourism, travel, closed borders altogether and have severely restricted freedom of movement. Some have gone as far as enacting military orders and curfews.

History all over again

While some think this is justified by the imminent danger of a pandemic, I can’t but see how much power decision-makers are harboring over everyone. A part of the population is begging government to intervene because they can’t self-organize.

People fail to remember the 30s, which gave rise to nationalist regimes and eventually WWII. That was a time of economic crunch, much like we will have in the upcoming years.

People also fail to remember or ignore what communism did in Eastern Europe and other places in the world. There, up until 1989, the government and their cronies dictated who could do what, when, how much you could buy and from where, what to think, do, publish, travel etc. Retrospectives with and for those who lived through those times might help with remembering all of this.

I hope this time we’ll look back and not allow narrow-minded, aggressive leaders to pit country vs country based on COVID-19 responses, quarantine measures and numbers of infections.

So yeah, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We’ll remember the freedom of 1990 – 2020 fondly, when we could travel to most countries around the world and there were little restrictions in place.

The next 10-15 years will be interesting to watch, with the world becoming an increasingly divided place – even with the coronavirus pandemic solved by vaccines.

The price of freedom

Let’s talk about freedom for a bit. Do you value freedom, or would you rather be safe?

If you don’t value freedom, then close this window and go back and wait further instructions from Big Brother.

If you do value it, have you ever asked yourself what is the price you’d pay to defend that freedom? Or the price you pay for having it?

I have. I will always prefer a system that recommends and allows people to decide for themselves over an oppressive, overstepping leadership that uses guns to dictate policies. Think about it, they tell you it’s temporary. Then elections come and those get postponed. They might cancel elections altogether, to avoid the risk of contamination. This is in spite of the fact that we have tools and technologies to vote online – with face recognition, fingerprinting and document verification with liveness checks. Would you then defend your freedom?

Something to think about while in shelter-in-place vs military orders to stay in your houses, depending on your country. Think about your governments and decision makers. Do they deserve to be given power again or if you much rather give that power to better people?

Stop cheering for imposed restrictions, cheer for people freely electing to protect others. These imposers are only gaining confidence every day that they can take a little more freedom, and people will still be ok with it.

Photo by Toni Lluch on Unsplash

Categories
Change Management Life

From “hungry wolf” to “fat cat” – how culture can promote or hinder growth

I’ve been sitting on this concept since a conversation I had with a friend who visited me in San Francisco last month. She had been traveling since she started studying for her MBA degree at INSEAD and had left a successful career in commercial real estate in Romania.

Both of us have friends who are successful people in their fields in the country and we discussed the concepts of hungry wolves and fat cats, and their relationship to growth – both personal and systemic. I had already written a post about attitudes in the US vs Romania, so this intrigued me to the point where I had to write about it.

Hungry Wolves

A hungry wolf is the metaphor for relentless ambition, the kind that you need to break through glass ceilings, to start great companies, to win impossible races, to build amazing products, and, in general, to improve yourself and the world around you. It’s that inner fire you feel every morning and the drive to go beyond what’s expected of you and over-deliver. It’s that drive to change things for the better, instead of letting them fester. This is the kind of person that pulls communities forward, both economically, politically and socially.

It’s usually associated with under-privileged people, who usually have to fight harder than others to move up in the world. Immigrants, minorities and people from lower income backgrounds tend to be hungry wolves. Sometimes, the environment plays a key role in keeping wolves from turning to fat cats – high cost of living, working culture, social norms, competition can influence this behavior.

Fat Cats

A fat cat is someone who is content with what they have achieved. Generally, people become fat cats when they don’t feel their success is temporary and they stop growing/advancing. They stop and settle, and every day starts to resemble the previous one. There are two main kinds of fat cats: made and born.

The fat cat that made it is, usually, a former hungry wolf that decided it had enough and it’s time to focus on other things, and not fane those inner flames anymore. Maybe it’s early retirement, or desire to pursue a slower life, or they just had enough of the rat race. They stop giving it the extra edge, stop over-delivering and settle to do the bare minimum to keep things going, keep the lights on. You can spot them at work, in your friends groups and in the way the talk about their goals and ambitions. They don’t shine anymore.

The other type of fat cat is the one that was born like this. They usually come from wealthy backgrounds, have had safety nets their whole lives and are the representation of privilege. They don’t have to worry about the future, so they don’t invest time thinking about it too much. They share the same symptoms as the fat cat that made it, but the difference is that the born one might not have had a flame to begin with. They are easy to spot in the wild – spending money that’s not a result of their work, making poor life choices and surrounding themselves with fake friends to run from their own lack of purpose in life.

My Romanian and US experience with fat cats and hungry wolves

It’s 2020 and we’re still in growth mode globally, still let by the US economy, in spite of the crisis super-cycle that historians have identified. The US has had crisis ever 1-2 generations, and every time it has recovered because its culture is built on the hungry wolf concept. Some argue that socialist measures might stifle some of this drive and turn hungry wolves into fat cats, as more safety nets get built into the system. In key places in the US, though, there are some key factors that will delay and even prevent this from happening.

I have been living in San Francisco since 2016, and in cities like this it’s hard to see a majority of people turning into fat cats. The cost of living, its growth, the work culture and competition, the lure of the next biggest thing in startups, growing companies everywhere keep that flame alive. Hell, it even sparks flames in former born fat cats. This type of economy, while taxing for the average individuals – sometimes with burnout, depression, social anxiety, drives growth. It’s a price people pay for their advancement. This perpetual hungry wolf doesn’t think their prosperity can last forever, so it works hard so it has a base to land on if things go South. They create to invest, they prepare for long term prosperity.

On the other hand, I lived in Romania growing up and for a good part of my early adult life. The culture there, while still rewarding and encouraging for hungry wolves, has a very specific local flavor. Parents and other people in social circles that are risk averse repeat a very damaging mantra: “isn’t this enough for you?” (I wish there were a good explanation for this. Here’s my take on it: When you get a mortgage and a car, that’s when people start to say that you made it, and your mom tells you to stop pushing, because you have enough).

This type of culture socially punishes overly ambitious people and helps create an environment where it’s ok to settle for enough. While this can be great to the individual’s immediate quality of life, if prosperity goes away, and the fat cat becomes a skinny cat, then will it have enough drive to turn back into the hungry wolf it needs to be? Or will the former born fat cat have the strength to spark that flame on its own?

But back to the hungry wolf. The trap there is not to overdo the hungry part, and end up bursting from over-eating. It’s ok to be just a little bit hungry sometimes and not terribly hungry all the time. I’ve seen some people call it the long term greedy approach. Seems to work for successful and happy people.

This is the Romanian article (EN translation) that contributed to a few of the ideas this post.

Later edit:

I had a cool exchange on LinkedIn with a friend of mine, Ciprian (Chip) Borodescu (Co-founder & CEO at MorphL), and I wanted to share it with people reading this later here:

Hey Titus, interesting analysis and I think I agree 99% of it.  One thing that I struggle with is the very last thing you wrote: “I’ve seen some people call it the long term greedy approach. Seems to work for successful and happy people.” In my opinion success ≠ happy. I think the fat cat is very happy, don’t you think? (that’s certainly the case for my cat, haha!) Is that cat successful? It depends on the definition of success. Success for some people is external: if they have a great professional career or other people think highly of them, that immediately translates into success. If not, it’s a total disaster. Success for other people comes from inside – their own sustainable definition of success, that’s not attached to the success of a startup, project, deal, etc. Success is found within and they don’t seek validation from outside. Both have a growth mindset, only the latter has a more mature and balanced approach to life. You’re encouraging hungry wolves to find a balance: “a little bit hungry sometimes and not terribly hungry all the time”.  However, this places the balance in the realm of wolves still. How about placing the balance in-between the two? Cats are predators too – which I read as a “growth mindset” 😉

To which I replied: Great point! I think fat cats can be happy and successful too, as long as they are able to stay fat 🙂 for me, the two concepts are.about active and passive approach to life/growth. I like your internal / external lens, and to the definitions in the article, if you take an active approach to either success paths, you’re still a hungry wolf, seeking improvement. A fat cat is happy with where it it is.

Photo by Patrick on Unsplash

Categories
Change Management More

People that smell the failure

I heard the original line while driving to Los Altos, for the Romanian presidential elections, round one. My wife said it out loud in the car while we were discussing attitudes towards failing and where we had all grown up, back in Eastern Europe, and connected to a message on one of the leading party’s WhatsApp group about a candidate that received over 1.7M votes.

I thought then and there that I wanted to write about the topic, about our shared trauma, as a generation that grew up in fear of this dreaded failure. There’s more to it than that, but not for today.

Today, I was also prompted by something else. Another friend of mine wrote a beautiful post (in Romanian) about admiration and how rare of a muscle this was, and to some extent, still is where we come from.

While I was growing up, I didn’t understand until later that you had to hide any kind of weakness or hint of deviation from the norm. Others did, and the way they did it was directly linked to the ones that didn’t – like me. They learned to see a blush, a tremor in ones voice, a showing of emotion and to turn that against the “perpetrator”, thereby deflecting any attention on their own failures. It’s like they “felt” when someone around them could be perceived as failing and took the opportunity to point the first finger, and so positioning themselves in a safe space, as the accuser, not the accused.

Memories of public micro-moments where I failed, trying to ask girls out, speaking up against bullies, speaking out on topics I enjoyed, playing basketball, and later in work environments, both in companies and as an entrepreneur or consultant, they all share the same thing – one person or, usually, a group of people constantly looking for ways to tell you how you’re failing or you are going to fail.

It’s an incredibly toxic culture that pushes people to close up, create a large wall, a persona to hide behind and only come out when things are “perfect”, or not come out at all because they do not fell “worthy” or “enough” to face the scrutiny of the finger-pointers. This breeds insecurities and the imposter syndrome. This also breeds fake people, that are risk averse to anything that might tear down the wall or pierce the vail.

If I look inside and am very honest with myself, it was less about economic opportunity when I left Romania, it was more about escaping this cultural context where failure was ridiculed and constantly tracked. It still is, and probably will be until enough people speak up and tell those people off.

It’s ok to fail, it’s ok to try and not always win, it’s ok to show that you’re human.

I admire people who start something knowing that it’s highly likely they will fail.

Where I come from, it takes real guts to do that.

Categories
Change Management Startups

Applying Agile Performance Management in a High-Growth Startup

I created this project while working as GTM Country Manager for a fintech startup in the UK in 2016, as part of a McKinsey Agility Hackathon.

Insight: People perform better when the manager spends time with them to set individual objectives as part of the bigger picture.

I observed this insight after running a test project with two new joiners in the TransferGo team. Given the nature and stage of the business, there was no structure or process to translate high level business objectives like corridor activation rate or number of distinct buyers to the level of individual contribution.

I worked with Robert and Elena to create these individual goals, keeping the context and the company / corridor objectives in mind. I’ll explain how this evolved in the context.

Thank you: McKinsey Agility Hackathon 2016 Group No.2 – Performance Management and to my colleagues at the time, Robert Popescu & Elena Grapa

Context

The Agility Hackathon start date is in sync with one of TransferGo’s fastest growing months and throughout the length of I on-boarded two new members in our Romanian corridor team.

TransferGo is a 3 and a half year old startup at its 3rd round of funding, having grown from pre-seeds to one of the largest seeds in the industry. The company focuses on international digital transfers, mainly from UK to Eastern Europe, targeting markets like Romania, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. We are currently offer local in local out money transfers from the European Union to up to 42 countries.

Over 100,000 people have already saved millions worth of commissions versus banks and other traditional money transfers providers and we are proud to have contributed to the recent changes in the margins that Western Union or Moneygram use for their Romanian, Polish or Lithuanian customers.

Thanks to the latest 2.5 million USD investment, our headcount has increased significantly but the core structure remains relatively flat. We work in clusters around ethnic corridors – Romania and Poland – and with a core team responsible for all other parts of the business.

Agile Marketing Management

As a Country Manager, my role is to increase new distinct buyers, activation rates, money flow, revenue and overall branding and marketing indicators. While at first it was a one man game, the volume of work and the scope of the responsibilities has grown and I added two team members, one Customer Engagement Specialist (Robert) and one Community Manager (Elena).

Not only did I create the job descriptions and responsibilities for them from scratch but I also had to make sure that they had some sort of measurable outcome of their work. We also had to build the performance management system from the ground up, as there was no previous history of any similar roles.

Agile allowed us to move quicker and be more strategic in our approach to design and plan for the new roles. The marketing team had experimented with the Agile methodology, having switched from two week sprints to one month ones to dropping them altogether and focus on daily stand-ups and weekly catch-ups. While this method is extremely agile, it can be very confusing if you are a new hire and it is expected of you to generate daily priorities and weekly objectives that contribute somehow to the overall corridor results – new distinct buyers, activation rates, money flow, revenue and overall branding and marketing indicators. So how did we transfer the overall objectives to individually digestible pieces?

The Hackathon Pilot Project

We had difficulties in finding the sweet spot for both positions in terms of initial objectives, as we had no reference point in the business, so we decided to estimate what would be an ideal outcome – how many people they were supposed to bring in through customer calls or through our referral program, then start working and review along the way over each cycle – weekly and monthly.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 14.08.10.png

Design, Work, Learn – a mix of Scrum with Lean Methodology.

Customer Engagement Specialist

For Robert, our Customer Engagement Specialist, we had to review the objectives and reshape them to reflect the reality of our database – number of UK based phone numbers, age of each lead and the likeliness that they would pick up and convert. This resulted in creating a system that initially focused on monthly objectives, which was less motivating and resulted in high variance in call numbers. After a month, we switched to metrics he can fully own (like number of call attempts per day and win rates) and call numbers instantly became more consistent, with conversions rising. Robert also became more engaged, more proactive, thanks to our weekly catch-ups where we looked for solutions and celebrate small wins.

Community manager

The second part of the pilot project meant I was to start weekly sessions with the Community manager as well. However, the goal setting and management process here is less precise due to the nature of the job, but we gradually formalized metrics to measure growth – registrations, activations and meetings with our referring customers. This meant that Elena knew how she was performing every day against the weekly and monthly targets but also towards the commitments that had indirect impact on the referral program growth.

Implications & Outcomes

I found that individual accountability is critical to the overall success of the group, in my case – Romanian language migrants corridor, as it gives team members the ability to plan and act on their own, reduce dependency on the manager and increase personal effectiveness.

Even if the goals are not realistic at first, it’s important to set fluid objectives where each new hire can operate, otherwise they will feel lost. You, as a manager, should make sure that the team revisits objectives and that they reflect the market reality and the capacity of the employees, so as not to demotivate them due to the objectives being too low or too high.

Remember to celebrate small wins, it helps with team member morale and contributes to proactive ness, autonomy and personal effectiveness.

Going forward, for me the challenge will be to scale and adapt this successful experiment for further hires and train future managers to use the same principles that worked in my case – the Agile On-boarding Playbook.

Ask

I’m looking to evolve the model, so please send me your thoughts about:

  • How this on-boarding process works for other managers, other companies, other cultures and other stages of the business
  • What’s missing and what can be improved in the current model
  • How this scales to larger teams without adding more management overhead

I’ll take comments & direct notes!

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash