Going International – Part 1- Startup Interview with Workable

This post is part of my “Going International” video interview series. It tells the stories of different startups expanding internationally and discusser the challenges and lessons learned.

In this first episode, I spoke to Nikos Moraitakis, the CEO and Founder of Workable. His company is a startup producing an online recruiting solution tailored to the needs of small and medium sized businesses, and their international expansion was a bit unusual, and therefore particularly interesting – check it out!

What I find the most fascinating about Workable’s story is the fact that they not realised early on that having an international presence is vital to their business – but also that they had the courage to actually do it, in multiple countries! And it worked.

Another important point for me is Nikos’ comment on hiring. Since empathy is one of the cornerstones of a great business culture, it is something to watch out for in your team members. Nikos mentioned that you cannot teach people to be empathetic, but that this quality is something you need to look for in prospective employees already.

Personally I agree that you cannot teach someone empathy from the beginning – you need a certain foundation in a person’s character to build on. However, you can sharpen someone’s understanding of empathy over time, helping them understand people even better. And I believe it is one of the greatest ways to unlock your team’s true potential.

Workable also shows the advantages of having a product with little room for product customisation, another pain point for many startups. This does help a lot when entering markets as it keeps complexity at a manageable level.

I am excited to follow Workable’s future journey and I hope you enjoyed listening to their story as much as I did! :)

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How NASA Taught me to Build a Culture of Excellence

Ideally, we all want our colleagues to make no mistakes, or at least get them as close to that as humanly possible. Simply telling them, however, has proven to be ineffective. You want to create accountability in people: “I truly feel responsible for my actions”. If you want your company to really thrive for excellence, you need to build the right company culture, and for that to work you need employee buy-in so you have your team’s commitment.

How do you do that? By becoming NASA!

You cannot manage excellence into people

Here is a typical situation which I have seen happening many, many times: The sales team has a product presentation, during which the client points out a flaw in the product. The sales team raises this issue with their colleagues, and all agree that customers should not be the ones finding the mistakes.

So the decision is made to have everyone focus more on attention to detail. This is then announced to the wider team, either through an email to “team@somefirm.com”, detailing the sales team’s recent dilemma, or in an all-hands meeting, or whatever the communication culture suggests.

And now management expects things to change. After all, everyone should have understood this is important, and therefore they are waiting for results to improve. Only, in many cases at least, they won’t. And while management then starts blaming people for being lazy and for not caring about the company’s success or culture, this very often is not even the problem.

The issue is rather that people quite often simply get no answer to the most important question: Why.

To build a culture of motivation, give reasons.

Changing behaviour starts with providing the bigger picture

Here is a little secret about human behaviour: If you ask someone to do something without explaining to them why they should do it, you might be very lucky and have someone very smart in front of you, who figures out the reason on their own. Very often, though, they add a little sentence to your request: “Because I told you so”.

This does not happen consciously, but subconsciously: falling back to the default reasoning if none other is provided. You give them none, so they assume there is none, other than this being your personal preference. And how much do you think they care about that?

When that happens, you can be almost sure that this person will not fulfil your request out of conviction. They might still do it, either because it does not bother them, or (worse) because they fear the consequences of not doing it.

Whatever their motivation will be, it will never achieve the passion and commitment you can unleash in people if they understand the reason for your request. Bigger picture helps building a team cultureIn our example, the product team will understand a lot better why attention to detail is important if you explain to them how badly it affects their colleagues in sales, how badly they feel in this situation, and how it ultimately harms the whole company’s success.

This may sound like the answer to your problems – but what if your culture simply is not strong enough? What if your colleagues are a little self-centred, or maybe lack the empathy to understand the impact of their behaviours on others?

That is when your company becomes NASA.

Understanding empathy, at rocket speed!

Why NASA, you may ask? What on Earth (pun intended) does outer space have to do with my company and its culture? You are right, this is not about the fact that NASA is all about missions in outer space – but the fact that it is about making decisions in the face of life and death. And this latter fact will help make our point about the importance of company culture. Empathy is the basis for accountability. In order for this to work, you should get everyone in your team together in one room. Then you explain to them that you want them to imagine that their company is now NASA.

To make this as realistic as possible, you can assign people actual roles: Steve here is an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS), Alice is the pilot of your space ship, Robert works in the control center, and so on. Don’t worry, this is not going to make it insanely complicated, it just helps people’s imagination.

Then, you set the scene and talk about your next mission: sending a new replacement crew on Alice’s space shuttle to the ISS to relieve Steve, and also send much-needed supplies along with it – after all, their current supplies run out in a few months. So Robert should already be doing all the necessary planning!

Attention to detail, at NASA level

And then you give them the brutal, honest facts:

    • The ISS orbits Earth at a an enormous speed of X kilometres per second
    • Timing therefore needs to be precise to the 100th of a second in order for the space shuttle to reach the ISS as planned.
    • It also requires that everything is ready: the technical equipment needs to be in perfect order, the calculations for travel time and route need to be meticulous, and all crew members of course need to be in the required shape for the trip

Even without doing an actual calculation or going into further details (you can of course do it, if you think it helps your team understand), your colleagues will get what you mean when you say:

    • If Steve is not ready for the trip on time because he slipped just a little bit on his preparation, the mission will not happen.
    • If Robert has tiny mistake in his calculations for the space ship’s route, they will not reach the ISS – in fact, they will fail by a few thousand kilometres

Whatever examples you name, the message is simple:

You mess up because you are sloppy, and you put your team members’ lives at risk. Your mistakes can cost lives. Our culture as a team is not just important, but essential.

This is a very, very powerful message.

Implementing the NASA culture

Now that your colleagues understand what lack of attention to detail can cause in organisations other yours, you can add that NASA has only ever been successful because each and everyone in this organisation is aware of their responsibility for each other.

That they are all part of something bigger that can only function if everyone perceives a mistake as not just a personal failure, but as a failure towards their colleagues. This is central to their team culture and individual perception.

And now we finally close the loop and get back to your company and its culture. The example of NASA has helped your team understand that:

  • An organisation is not an anonymous entity, but an interdependent group of people
  • NASA employees do not just act out of mere duty (or fear of losing their job), but because they actually care about their colleagues, and possibly their higher responsibility towards advancing science in general
  • This leads to an extremely powerful culture where every member of the organisation thrives for achieving a zero-mistake score

At this point, your colleagues will understand why you asked them to join you in this little thought experiment – because everyone knows what it feels like to care for another human being. Maybe they just never saw their colleagues the way people at NASA see theirs?

This new level of awareness will help you build the culture you need to achieve excellence in your company. How exactly you go about it, is obviously down to you and your specific situation. However, asking yourself “how would people at NASA do it?” may help you and your team on the way to developing an empathy-driven, passionate culture – passionate about perfection!

How do I know about the culture at NASA?

The obvious question I already got asked by a friend while writing this post. Did I just make some assumptions about their culture, based on the environment this organisation operates in?

No. I was fortunate enough to talk to the last crew of the Discovery shuttle after their final journey. When I spoke to the astronauts and asked them about life aboard the ISS, the feeling of camaraderie and, yes, family amongst them, I got the picture.

Listening to those people who had actually been to outer space, watching them interact with each other, I could really feel it too. :)

Have you ever been through this process of developing such a culture? Share your thoughts in the comments! Got any other questions on how to ignite the fire in your own team? Email me!

Why Most of Us are Terrible at Leadership

We often develop our personal idea of good leadership from being led by bad leaders and our desire to do it differently. Yet many of us end up being quite similar to the very people we once despised. Why? Read on. (hint: it is NOT because we are stupid!)

Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to visit One World Observatory on top of One World Trade Center. This magnificent building had been opened to the public just a few days before, it was a perfect day and I had an amazing view over New York.

Picture showing New York from One World Observatory
View from One World Trade Center

Looking at such a mighty city from above is one of those moments for reflection, and on this day I had one of my biggest in a long time:

Why most of us suck at leadership, and what do to about it.

I want to share it with you.

Learning about Leadership: Shock Therapy

Do you remember those classes you might have had on leadership at university or MBA school? Me neither. It was one of those courses which, although perhaps taught brilliantly, simply did not mean much at the time. The first real lesson in leadership is usually taught once we finish uni or do our first real internship.

Do you remember the first time a manager yelled at you or another employee? I do remember that moment very clearly – and also how it made me feel.

There you go, that’s your first real lesson in leadership. In my case, my reaction was two-fold:

  1. Something just went terribly wrong and I need to make sure I avoid doing this going forward.
  2. This person is a horrible boss for delivering criticism this way, and once I am in a senior position, I will never be like this!

Sadly, this was not the last time I experienced behaviour I thought of as bad leadership, but the beginning of a journey which has lasted throughout my career, now covering almost 9 years. Each time a new example was added to my personal collection of bad leadership behaviour, my determination grew to be a better person once I am ready.

Stepping up – and tripping over

And when I was ready, I made sure I never raised my voice at an employee, and until this day never have. Neither did I do anything else quite on the same level, which is something I am happy about. However, I did come to realise that I started displaying some other habits I previously criticised in my bosses! And here I was, responsible for a team for the first time, doing things I had loathed before when they were done to me.

Amongst my shortcomings were:

  1. Trying to make team members deliver against our targets, sometimes resorting to “Come on, it certainly is possible and we have to do it” when intrinsic motivation would not develop as expected
  2. Being bad a communicating because I felt too swamped and unable to handle it all, causing delays and frustration for others
  3. Defaulting to “management paradigms” trying to end a discussion I did not want to have at the moment, because I did not have time or the answer right away

Once I realised it, I felt terrible about myself. The fact that this happened confused me a lot because I could not understand why, until I realised I was not alone: Many friends of mine made similar experiences and were equally nonplussed by them!

So why on Earth does this happen to so many of us? Why do we display behaviour we previously identified as bad leadership qualities?

Leaders are just another brick in the wall

Assuming we are able to critically reflect on our own behaviour, it does seem strange that we adopt behaviour patterns we strongly despise in others. For me, there are two possible explanations for it:

  1. We have been conditioned to behave like this by our professional environment and are unwilling to break the pattern – we feel we now have earned the right to rule.
  2. We still do not agree, but succumb to the dynamics of the system and feel we are forced to behave this way – we feel we have no choice but to follow the pattern.

The first explanation indicates a desire to reclaim: we were once treated unfairly by our bosses, and now it is our turn to re-establish the balance – irrespective of the ethical implications. This often happens to people with very hierarchical world views. The second explanation demonstrates idealistic views, combined with the inability to overcome the (perceived) dynamics of our professional environment.

I do not wish to judge since I have empathy for both points of view. However, the first position indicates a questionable moral compass. As long as a person does not critically reflect on that, they will not be able to progress to the next stage.

To me, the second position is that next stage. You might see it as a weak position, but there is motivation to “do the right thing”. Let’s focus on this.

True leadership is about building the right system

Once I understood my situation – wanting to do what I felt was right, but feeling the organisational structure and culture inhibiting me – I focused on the limitations to my success. I realised that me (and possibly many others in similar situations) feel powerless even in positions one would normally associate with formal authority.

The reason is actually quite simple:

Formal authority itself means nothing – because you cannot force change in people who are conditioned otherwise.

In a system where people are used to a certain status quo, implementing change in leadership will not be possible unless you change the system itself from the bottom up. I believe in many cases this will only be possible when starting a whole new business – with people who are not already highly indoctrinated or at least are open-minded enough to go back to square one.

This is the true definition of leadership for me: To build the right system and then let people operate freely within it. It does not mean actively leading or managing them – you won’t have to if you build the system the right way.

Please don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that it will be easy to build the right kind of company identity, communication structure and, most importantly, establish a culture of mutual trust.

It actually is a very difficult process, and it will take time. And yes, you will mess up – it is inevitable. However, if you keep going, you will be able to create an environment for your team which allows them to unleash their full potential.

Putting it all together: From Leader to Architect

Declaring that building the right system will be the answer obviously poses the next question: So what is the right system? (“And don’t you dare end this post without saying it!”)

The answer is actually quite simple: The right system should make one position superfluous: the leader! In this system, this person should be an “architect” who is responsible for designing and setting up the structures for everyone to operate in. And that’s it.

If done correctly, actively leading people will not be necessary because they will be empowered and capable enough to make their own decisions. How so?

Because they fully understand their role in the business, they feel part of it and, because they feel it is based on fair rules, they also feel committed to its success. 

And you should leave them be and trust them – because it makes no sense at all to centralise decision making when you might not know nearly as much about, for example, the clients as your account management team does! Why not let them decide what is best? Why interfere?

To me, a major flaw in management theory is the basic agreement that people actually need leadership: It implies they are incapable without it. And this basic assumption is wrong. They only become incapable of acting independently once they have been indoctrinated with hierarchical thinking and top-down leadership!

If you set up the right system, hire the right kind of people who are open to working in an organisation without mind-numbing hierarchies and decision making, and if you are able to really live up to those principles, you can build a great, successful organisation with a solid structure – from the ground up.

Building the right organisation with leadership from the bottom up
One World Trade Center – from below


What are your thoughts? Have you ever been able to implement real leadership change in an established organisation? Either way, I want to hear from you, so email me: matthias@matthiaslissner.com or leave a comment!

Sales vs. Marketing – A Proposition for solving the conflict

First, I would like to say that I did not really plan to write this post – it is more the result of my frustration over a topic which is well known to everyone working in sales or marketing: the constant struggle and blame game between both teams. Yes, let’s call it what it is: sales and marketing people hardly ever appreciate each other – but why, and how can we fix it? Here’s how I would do it.

Sales and marketing hardly ever get along

Have you ever spoken to a sales person about the marketing team in their company, or vice versa? I am willing to bet pretty much anything that 9 out of 10 times this will result in an avalanche of complaints, allegations and other varieties of displeasure.

“If only marketing could get our message across properly, we would not have such trouble closing deals!”

“If only sales did not try to squeeze the last cent out of every client, our marketing strategies would actually result in conversions!”

To me, this is really fascinating since I also worked in companies where this blame game took place, and from a management science perspective it was interesting to watch it unfold.

From an operational point of view of someone who was involved against his own will, it was hell. In high-def. Having dynamics like this in a company does not only endanger its performance, but also deteriorates the culture in no time. So I decided to take a closer look at why these two factions behave the way they very often do, and how it could be changed.

The unfortunate role of management

The first, arguably quite obvious observation I made was that this whole situation is completely absurd. Think about it: sales and marketing are both:

  • directly responsible for generating revenue
  • dealing with clients (at different parts of the purchase funnel, but still)
  • conveying the value proposition of the company

Looking at this, you would think that these two teams should act like one army, each group supporting the other, with a common goal and intimate knowledge and understanding of the other team’s function and processes. So this whole conflict does not make any sense now, does it?

It does, unfortunately, when you factor in the role of management. What does management do? That’s right, they seek to maximise the performance of the company by driving revenue up and costs down, and in order to do that they set targets. Marketing have their targets (e.g. generate x new leads per month, to make it very simple), and so do Sales (sign y new clients per month, again greatly simplified).

Now I will show you why this might work nicely on paper, but almost always gets messed up in practice.

Opposing targets – a firm divided

Let’s imagine our marketer now who knows about his monthly target: generate new leads. What kind of target is that? Correct, a very stupid one! It is very stupid because it incentivises the marketer to simply drive up the number of his leads, irrespective of quality, just to hit his target! (Note: I am aware that real targets often contain mechanisms to prevent such obvious flaws, but believe me they are not perfect either). A goal set in isolation, designated to work in a complex environment like a company, is a recipe for disaster.

So let’s switch to the sales manager who receives those leads from marketing, and who needs them to achieve his monthly goal of signing new clients. Will he be happy about the work marketing did here? Probably not. And will he blame marketing if he is unable to achieve his monthly target? You bet he will – even though his own performance might be mostly responsible, but hey, who’s counting?

What is happening? Both sales and marketing are doing exactly what management instructed them to do, and they are pursuing their individual targets. They key word here: individual. As you can see from our little example, the problem is not that either marketing or sales are underperforming; they are both trying to perform well – but according to targets which are set in isolation from each other!

So the answer is that neither sales or marketing are ultimately at fault, but instead the conflict of interest between both groups is caused by the KPIs put in place by management. Is this the case in every company? Probably not – but I have seen it happening too many times to believe that it only applies to a few.

As a manager I do appreciate the difficulty in setting the right KPIs for an entire organisation, which is quite a complicated system on its own. And when you then factor in the human component, it becomes highly complex. Sadly, there is no quick fix: you do have to take all of this into consideration when setting targets, otherwise you will achieve terrible results.

So let’s look at a potential solution to our problem here.

Removing the barriers: an experiment

Thinking about how to better align sales and marketing to avoid these unintended conflicts of interest, I came up with an idea: Why not combine sales and marketing in multiple, mixed teams?

The idea is to create small, agile teams of marketing and sales people and give each team the target to sign a certain number of new clients. That way you would assure that marketing provides not only a high quantity, but also the right quality of leads which can then be converted by sales. And sales would be incentivised to work more closely with marketing and communicate their message in a better way. Both groups’ interests would therefore be aligned.

An additional benefit of removing the barriers between sales and marketing should also be a greater exchange of information. From my own experience this only happens in a limited way if both teams act in isolation (again, lack of common goals), and it is crucial for a company that all information about clients is shared across the organisation.

I do not know whether this has been tried before, but to me it would be a worthwhile experiment to see how sales and marketing interact in small units with aligned goals – could this end the struggle between both teams?

What are your experiences with sales vs. marketing? Have you experienced similar situations? And do you think this solution could work? Leave a comment!