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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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!

7 Deadly Sins of Recruiting – Practical Insights from the Hell of Hiring

In this short post I show you the worst examples of recruitment behaviour I have experienced, I show you the root of all recruitment evil – and I also ask a small favour! :-)

Recruiting revisited – still terrible

Recently I had many conversations with different people who are intimately involved with recruitment: corporate recruiters, headhunters, CEOs, and of course candidates. Observing different processes at different companies is really interesting, especially when you hear the people in charge throwing around buzzwords such as ‘employer branding’ or ‘active sourcing’. And then putting none of that into action. I feel quite passionate about this topic, since I believe recruiting is a strategically important function in companies of any size and industry – and yet it is very often lumped together with HR, which really is not the same!

Recruiting is an active role concerned with finding new talent to secure the company’s future, while HR to me is more of an administrative role, trusted with matters such as payroll or disciplinary procedures.

While still important, the latter does not have strategic importance. Recruiting does. So I decided to list the 7 deadly sins of recruiting I have come across over the years. I believe each one of them is terrible on its own, but I have seen many companies committing more than one, which really is outrageous. Here we go:

7 Deadly Sins of Recruitment

The 7 Deadly Sins of RecruitmentWhy this behaviour is not ok
Take longer than two weeks to give feedbackThe candidate might decide to go with an employer who treats them as a higher priority
Suddenly go dark and never respond againNot even sure where to start on this one…just communicate and be honest
Tell the candidate they will need 2-4 more weeks (or longer!) to screen other applicantsThe candidate is expected to wait in limbo because the company has a terrible recruitment process
Send a template email rejectionMight be ok before first round interview, but after that feedback is not optional. It is good tone and fair
Be late for a phone call or face-to-face interviewOne of the first things they would criticise the candidate for - simply disrespectful to make someone wait
Be vague about what they expectIt is good to be open-minded. It is terrible to be unprepared
Be dishonest about the reason why it did not workThe truth usually is not that hard to take, and it is the only way the candidate can learn something

To me, this list shows one thing very clearly:

Employers still do not treat potential employees at eye level.

Imagine candidates displaying any behaviour of this kind – it would be the end for them. And quite rightly because it is terrible to do any of these things. For companies, however, it still seems to be perfectly acceptable. How many times have I seen a CEO frown at a candidate for being five minutes late, while he made it a habit to make people wait 10-15 minutes – because he is the CEO, right? Best to establish that right from the start: Know your place, and shut your face! Wonderful.

What is needed for recruiting to work

In order for recruiting to really work, companies finally need to start perceiving and treating it as an essential pillar of future growth, not a back-office department generating nothing but costs. This would also result in them treat employees with more respect, leading to a better quality of available candidates and, as a consequence, a better team.

The word candidate, in fact, should be abolished: It makes the company again look superior and the potential employee appear like a petitioner. In today’s world, I think neither party should have an edge over the other when it comes to recruiting. Even in a temporarily one-sided market, the “stronger” party should be smart enough and not take advantage: the tables will turn again eventually, and treating people fairly from day one will be repaid in loyalty.

All of this may seem like old news to you – but that is precisely my point: those thoughts really are not new, and yet it still has not changed, although everyone keeps talking about the importance of it. So I thought it is time to make this list and ask you to do one thing:

Please share this list on Twitter, LinkedIn and anywhere else suitable. The more people see this, the better. And whoever sees this – they will all benefit from recruiting finally getting the focus it deserves.

Making recruiting better than it is today is really important to me, and it would mean a lot to me to get your help with this.

Got any more deadly recruitment sins to report, or any other thoughts? Please 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!