Compare the Market was nice enough to invite me to speak at their tech managers’ off-site about distributed teams. This talk reflects my own experience leading distributed teams.
I was presenting to them over video. Their meeting included people in two different offices and also folks dialing in from home. Ironically, in the middle of my talk, I got disconnected from the video conference. Because I was sharing my slides full-screen and had my speaker notes on my second monitor, I didn’t notice. So I spoke to myself for about 15 minutes before I realized what happened and dialed back into the meeting. It was a bit mortifying, but the folks in the UK were extremely nice about it. I can’t think of a better example though of the challenges around working with teams who have to communicate over electronic means constantly, so it was a good illustration of the issues I raised. 🙂
Now that the sale of Avvo has closed and the transition is progressing, I’ll be leaving the company. It has been an absolutely stellar experience. I have loved working with everyone here. After Spotify, it was critical for me to find another company that had values that aligned well with my own, and a senior leadership team and board that I could learn from. Avvo was that place.
I’m extremely proud of the team that we’ve built and the one-of-a-kind engineering culture that now exists at Avvo.
I’m taking a bit of time to consider my next move. I always aspire to be deliberate in my actions, and I need to get a bit of distance to decide what is next. Now that I have a bit more time, I hope to share some of my lessons from Avvo in writing and talks.
This is the e-mail that I sent to my team:
In Simon Wardley’s article “Bits or pieces?: On Pioneers, Settlers, Town Planners, and Theft“ (http://blog.gardeviance.org/2015/03/on-pioneers-settlers-town-planners-and.html), he talks about the need for skilled folks to explore uncharted lands (the pioneers), to take the crazy ideas and turn them into practical products (the settlers), and to industrialize those products (the town planners). I have worked in all three of these roles in my career, but I am happiest as a pioneer and settler. Last year, an interviewer asked me about this article (https://youtu.be/4tqJJ2c6BrU).
As Avvo moves into its new home in Internet Brands, it needs a new leader that will help it thrive and grow in a company that excels at Town Planning. I know that I am not that leader, and so I’ve decided that it is time for me to find my next set of uncharted lands.
I have been privileged to work with every one of you. I am incredibly proud of what we have accomplished together. We have built a mentoring, inclusive, diverse and agile culture with strong teams of people who support each other. While sometimes we focus on how far we are from where we want to be, it is worth realizing how far we’ve come and what rarified air we breathe.
It’s important to understand that the tough changes that have come are not due to the culture that we created. They are the result of two very different companies coming together with different priorities and goals. I will do my best to make sure that every person who is affected gets a new role as soon as possible.
For those that have joined in the last couple of months, I am disappointed that we won’t have more time so that I could get to know you better. I have been thoroughly impressed by what I have seen. For those that I have been able to spend more time with, I’m glad to have been on this journey with you.
I wish each of you the absolute best of luck. While our paths are diverging, there is a bond that we share and a responsibility towards each of you that I will always feel. I’m always available for a coffee, a beer or a phone call if you want someone to hash through something with you.
This week, we kicked off manager training for Avvo technology managers. Before we could build a curriculum, we needed to decide what was important to learn and where we as a group needed the most development.
If I had done this with my organization at Adobe, years ago, I might have made a list of capabilities or requirements for our roles and then assessed each person against those requirements. I’ve since learned that the top-down approach tends to isolate and alienate people. It is something done TO them. They don’t feel investment or ownership of the process. If they disagree with the list or my assessment of them, it is hard to challenge due to the nature of the process.
When I was at Spotify, I worked with Paolo Brolin Echeverria and Mats Oldin to build manager training for my Tribe. They developed an excellent kick-off exercise that I repurposed for my team at Avvo.
The process is straightforward.
We began by individually thinking about the qualities of a good leader in our organization. We each wrote every important quality we could think of onto individual post-its. This effort took about 20 minutes. Then, one by one, we put each of our post-its onto a large board. As we placed each quality, we explained why we believed it was important for a leader at Avvo.
When we finished putting all of our post-its on the board, we affinity-grouped them. Affinity-grouping resulted in 30 groups of similar qualities as well as a few individual post-its that did not fit into any group. The grouping process required a lot more discussion so that we could all agree on the final groupings.
At this point, we had collectively described 30 essential qualities of a leader at Avvo, which is far too many to effectively focus on. To narrow things down, we each received six votes to put towards any group of qualities that we felt were the most critical. Then, we tallied the votes and took the top eight as our core qualities of a manager at Avvo.
The voting process also led to a lot of valuable discussions as we saw where we had voted as a group. Were these right eight? Were they the most important eight? The eight qualities that we picked were: empathy, develops autonomy, builds good teams, is real and trustworthy, is a big picture thinker, supports mastery, gives feedback, and has a bias for action.
Individually, we then assessed ourselves against the eight core qualities on a three-point scale: “I need training on this,” “need training, but it can wait,” and “I can train others on this.” One by one, we went up to a board that had the eight qualities mapped on a spider graph. We put dots on a line for each quality where we rated ourselves. We explained why we chose that assessment. This led to further good discussion about how to assess ourselves against these qualities.
The group as a whole found this exercise to be very valuable. We had excellent discussions on what it means to be a good leader at our company, including the values we agree on, and the ones that we don’t. We were also able to prioritize those collectively in a way that everyone feels ownership and allegiance to them.
And we came to an understanding of where we need to develop the most as a group. This mutual understanding will inform the curriculum for our management training – my original goal.