Dennis Fois, CEO NewVoiceMedia, reflects on the challenges of leading a scale up through fast growth, the importance of vulnerability and permission to fail and why radical simplification and execution are the difference between winning and losing at scale.
- Why CEO’s must abstract themselves from the problems they are trying to solve
- If you build a great team, you must let them shape the vision
- On bastardising McKinsey’s Three Horizons!
- Stand back from your ideas – the moment you find yourself defending an idea too hard start to question yourself.
- In a world of no absolutes it is vital people can develop ideas without fear of failure.
- Why Dennis learned to love the SFD – the shitty first draft!
- Why radical simplification and execution are the differences between winning and losing at scale.
As a leader, when you are guiding a company through fast growth at scale, one of the most important challenges is to combine three things: clarity, a focus on execution and a strategic mindset. We all have to figure out what works for each of us individually. I was lucky to work with some very large organisations, blue chips if you like, that gave me good theoretical grounding and I then became more involved in start-ups. NVM is definitely in scale up mode, and there are a few principles that I adhere to.
My first principle is to work hard to remove myself from every equation. A difficulty that creeps in with founders and CEOs is that they attach too much of their identity to the business and the stage it is at. So what I try to do from the start is to not insert and assert my point of view too hard right. I do that my defining a strong vision for the future, something really big, and a clear point of view about the market. So when the business goes through a period of change I can go back to that vision and what I then do is really double click on the point of view. I look hard at the industry and think about what it is we do that is different. Often what I find is that the product or service may not be unique, but the way you look at the problem is. So I go in hard on that.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
My second principle is to establish a small number of priorities and focus on communication and repetition. We all know how important this is, and you really need to feel as if you are repeating yourself on a daily basis, on every medium all that time.
What that does is create a cycle of communication which challenges you as a leader on how accurate and sharp you are, and it allows the team and wider organisation to really own take ownership.
Build a team and empower them
Ultimately when you get to a scale up, what matters most is building leadership teams for the next phase. You are constantly building teams and hiring and enabling talent. It is often too easy for the CEO to see themselves as the flag carrier for the vision. The problem with that is that nobody feels they can challenge it..
The way I look at that is to talk more to the point of view, allowing the vision to flex and evolve. Unlike much received wisdom, the vision cannot be fixed in perpetuity. What is important is that you agree on the point of view – how you look at the industry, how you build a category – in our case we are breaking out of out category, and in effect creating a new one by evolving what people believe a contact centre should do. Once you have agreement on the point of view, you will find people understand “the why” much better. And once they understand “the why” they will help you develop a far better vision for the future which they will defend, stand by and take with them in their day to day decisions. All of a sudden you find the whole executive team is very articulate on why the company is going in a certain direction. Which enables and empowers them and aligns their teams.
Bastardising McKinsey’s Three Horizon for short, medium and long term thinking.
I don’t believe there is mutual exclusivity between short term focus on execution and long term thinking, that would be a mistake as it primes you to think about short and long term as linear, so you have to do things in series. I believe that is wrong; you need to do both at the same time. I like the way Mckinsey think about this challenge, with their three horizons model, though I’ve bastardised that heavily.
Horizon 1 is about today. It’s about the focus on the plan for 12-18 months out – this is what we are doing, this is what we are selling, this is how we are reducing churn, this is the business trajectory
Then I go straight to Horizon 3 and look at the most profound shifts that could happen in our market that would represent major opportunities or threat to the business, so for NVM that might that in 5 years voice is no longer important, no one cares. Another might be there is a very positive angle: voice is a more important input mechanism, so people no longer type. This might be 5 years out.
Then I use Horizon 2 I as the bridge between 1 & 3, describing how will make the transition to address this change or threat. Then I compartmentalise my time, and that of the team and talk to investors about spending spending 70% of our efforts on horizon 1, 20% on horizon 2 and 10% on horizon 3. Then you try to align your roadmap thinking on horizon 3, being much more experimental but very practical.
This can be hard for people and teams to work with, so we spend a lot of time together discussing this. Take an offsite as an example. How many times have we been on offsites when everything is about the QBR – Quarterly Business Review – you are looking only at the lagging indicators? You need to change the dynamic, so we look at team evolution and threats, carving out time to discuss, “what happens if?” so that we are primed to respond. This can’t just be an academic exercise, you really need to think about how you would execute against these big issues and changes.
I am a bit of a geek…
A word of warning. There is one skill that I believe particularly important in the context of decision making and that is agility of thinking. The strongest bias, which is particularly dangerous when you get into mental models, is availability bias. You start to view things through the lens you are most comfortable with, and you only have to look around yourself to see that happening every day. So what I try to do is to be as flexible as possible and not to see things as “my ideas”, and the moment I find myself defending an idea I force myself to back off and listen to the criticism.
I’m a bit of a geek about this whole topic and a big fan of mental models, but I think the biggest skill for a leader, especially in a fast growth environment, is not to get too wedded to a mind map of models and systems as that itself is flawed. You need to be flexible as a leader and recognise that the models you use and the systems you have created may well be flawed.
This ties back the need to be constantly hiring extraordinary people. If you hold hard to the fact that you have the best ideas, then hiring those extraordinary people is at best compromised or worse completely flawed.
There are no rights and wrongs.
I want people to embrace open mindedness and to use tools and models to help them understand how they make decisions, which then makes stress testing those decisions very important.
How I do it is by applying a lot of inversion thinking:
- What if this is not true?
- What if we are entirely wrong?
- What if we don’t have the evidence we need?
I can be quite cynical and negative if I need to be, so that by the time we have decided something is a good idea we at least have the basics. People need to challenge each other and call each other out:
- Why do you really believe that?
- Is that really how you are thinking about this problem?
- What evidence do you have to back that assertion up?
You can do this is by creating a culture where people feel it is ok to test an idea. But you can’t over rotate on this, you cannot just shoot an idea down, you need to build it up. Íf a problem is really worth solving, how are we rapidly developing something into an evolved idea or solution? Everything needs to be done in the tone of an accretive contribution.
But you also need to communicate that ideas are not sacrosanct, that they can come from anywhere, that we should value diversity of ideas and inclusion, and we need to be aware of cognitive biases, are all incredibly important. As a CEO it is incredibly important that you allow for input into the system so the ideas that we come up with are not just from or owned by one person, one way to do this is of course to seek active input but also to ask people how they will communicate an idea to their teams. That culture needs to be flexible. People from different cultures, and who grew up speaking different languages, work in different ways, for example I have a Polish CTO and an Israeli CPO and you need to be able to accommodate their differences as those differences make us better.
Making it OK to fail – the role of the SFD.
One thing that has worked well. When I first started at NewVoiceMedia I realised there were lots of controls and measures, lots of complex processes and also that we were building a very complex product. When you are building a product for voice there is no tolerance for latency. And the organisation has high levels of control to ensure that quality is guaranteed. So the idea that you can fail in that environment is unnatural. Early on I was working on a proposal for a product and not really getting anywhere, and it was really poor, so I decided to release my proposal as an SFD, a shitty first draft.
When you position it like that feedback is very welcome and also I didn’t feel the idea was mine or one I needed to defend. And now the execs are using this SFD, and it’s a great way to fail early on as opposed to later. So what we are doing, if you like, is being shitty on the front end, and invite a lot of feedback, and what then happens is the person promoting the idea doesn’t feel wedded to an idea. It’s OK to fail.
Letting people know you don’t have all the answers is incredibly important, especially when you have some amazing people on your leadership team and across the company as we do.
Another thing we started to do is to avoid over complicated powerpoint, but rather use hand drawn slides which are then cut and paste into ppt purely for presentation, with no design input or iteration. So the whole thing is more relaxed and more often than not these drawings end up in the final decks!
The beauty of execution is that at scale it is the difference between winning and losing.
I’m at the point that I am learning more than at any point in my career. This role is stretching me, but the two most profound things for me are: simplification and execution.
When you are operating at scale these are critical. When you find yourself developing priorities that touch every part of the company. My natural bias is to focus on go to market, I feel very comfortable in marketing, channels, sales and in those you can create compelling views and can find yourself as the CEO becoming very passionate about your vision for the market, communicating that to customers and prospects and feeling really good about yourself and your company. The reality is that when you are driving a scale up for growth that is not particularly effective and your role as the CEO is about concerning with how do you make what you are saying executable. How does a new person coming into the company find their way through the complexity to execute to the plan, the vision and the values – asking yourself “how does that work, really work in the detail?”
So I have learned to appreciate the beauty of execution, building people and teams and spending most of my time there. This for me is the difference between winning and losing. The ability to hire, recruit and enable people and connect them to very compelling execution. I don’t mean execution as some kind of dark and driven culture, but more creative. People want to see things getting done, coming true, being delivered to customers on time, with high quality and embracing the fact that we are getting stuff done and put away and celebrating that fact. I was always geared to execution but now I’m really doubling down and the details really matter.
The second thing I’ve learnt is the importance of simplification, radical simplification. Everyone will fight you on this and talk to you about complex systems and you need to fight that as the CEO. If its complicated it won’t scale.
When I think about the importance of radical execution and beautiful simplification, the last thing I would say is the importance of always trying to work on the problem, not in it. That for me encapsulates the role of the Scale Up CEO.