Smack bang in the middle of the COVID crisis, it seemed only right that our first MTP Leader panel should tackle something currently at the forefront of most leaders’ minds – leading in uncertain times.
This remote session was hosted by Marc Abraham, Product Lead at ASOS and, who welcomed the following line-up to the panel: CPO at Chopra Global, Josh Wexler, Senior Product Director at Intercom, Jane Honey, VP Product Management at Sterling, Darlene Miranda, and COO / CPO at Tide, Laurence Krieger.
Watch the video to see the panel in full or read on for an overview of the discussion (please note, some comments have been shortened for the purpose of the overview).
Topics and Questions
- The impact of COVID
- Supporting teams in times of crisis
- How to bring your team to a consensus when proposing a major change
- What’s different that you will maintain going forward?
- Advice for new leaders in lockdown
- The best tools for remote work
- COVID’s impact on OKRs
- Fears – what’s keeping you awake at night?
The impact of COVID
We came into this thinking ‘how are the businesses going to survive in this situation?’. Small businesses are the lifeblood of the UK economy and if they’re all locked up in their homes and unable to do business, it’s going to be terrible.
We then set about to do as much as we possibly could to help SMEs, dealing with this crisis. First, with advice. We did a lot of social and thought leadership. We also helped to lobby the government to try to encourage more relief for small businesses because we saw what it was doing to our members. It was heartbreaking.
From there, what we’ve seen is a very interesting thing – traditional banks have been ill-equipped to deal with this crisis operationally, whereas digital challengers like Tide have been much better equipped. We were able to flick a switch and to move into working pretty much as per normal, from lockdown from day one. So, while we thought our business and our new business would drop off a cliff. It was actually the opposite.
Most people know that Intercom can be used for either sales marketing or support, but obviously support is the sector that’s been really hit hard during this crisis. Support volume is incredibly high – most of our customers are dealing with an unprecedented level of support queries coming in, and there’s also been increased expectation. It’s therefore been critical for us to reach out to our customers to reassure them that we’ve got a business continuity plan in place and that we’re safe and secure and we’ll be there for them to utilise.
We also very quickly stepped up and provided a load of best practice information on our blog around how to handle support volume and how to implement things like bots, and self serve content to and to help teammates deal with what’s going on. We moved quickly to offer a free service for not for profits. So, we have lots of new people trying Intercom for the first time, either charities, medical companies GP practices, governments even, so we were quick to optimise for those types of businesses.
We also realised we had to stay really close to these support teams while they were facing this volume, to understand the challenges and to make sure that what we were building was the right thing to be building during this crisis, or whether we needed to pivot. Also, we’ve been looking at our company performance to see which segments are seeing spikes in volume and which segments are okay.
It’s been an interesting scenario that feels as though it could be chaotic and worst and uncertain at best. I’d like to say that there’s this perfect playbook for handling uncertainty, but there really isn’t.
At the same time, we as a company were being forced to make some rapid decisions about our employees and our customers. Our customers were in the same boat, trying to figure out, ‘well what does this mean for our business?’ and, ‘how are you going to help me?’ so our first priority really was around supporting them, it wasn’t about us anymore.
We realised it was going to be a case of hand-holding our customers through this process, ensuring that we could deliver without any interruption, and ensuring that we could give them proactive support. We made that our priority and that gave us this common mission, and a common sense of purpose.
That describes the first few months and now that we have that continuity in place our focus starts to shift a little bit. What we prioritise and what we align around has had to fundamentally change.
Chopra Global is in the world of offering both spiritual and science-based solutions to life’s problems, and so the word uncertainty is actually something that we talk about all the time, especially when you think about meditation practices. It’s a whole other world now that everyone’s in the same boat.
In fact, I was talking with Deepak just a couple of hours ago and he’s all fired up because everyone is starting to recognise that actually, there may be a little bit more to life than a job, or than some of these things that we’ve had in the past, these external markers of success. So when we think about our business, in some ways it’s completely transformed. We’ve started to offer things like meditation and audio meditation which have started to do incredibly well.
Others in that space, like Headspace and Calm, they too are having to deliver twice as fast now because the people are really demanding this. For me, personally, I’m really excited. I joined this company, a little over a year ago because I believe in this mission of bringing things like meditation and mindfulness to the world.
For me, it’s been chaotic, but there’s also a lot of opportunity in the chaos, not just from a business perspective but from personal growth and spiritual growth perspective too.
Supporting teams in times of crisis
I found that I was actually quite reliant on my team. I needed their support and they needed my support in a way that I’d never experienced before. I spoke to them quite a bit about the idea of compassion, and the compassion that it takes to really lead in a time like this, and that compassion needs to be the operating principle for us going forward.
An enormous amount of psychological difficulty has happened, certainly for my team, and really rapidly, and so constantly checking in and being compassionate on a deeper level has been really important.
My view has always been that I trust my team to achieve outcomes, versus whether they’ve got to be in this meeting or that meeting. We’ve also established a very clear cadence for the team, which has been incredibly helpful, such as no meetings Wednesdays. Assume the best in others and encourage team members to ask for support.
We changed our employee benefits slightly to help people set themselves up with a physical space for remote working. So, whether that was getting better Wifi or routers or better chairs and kit etc. We’ve some training around building resilience and collaborating remotely. And we’ve shared some best practice on remote working in a blog and from some team members who have worked remotely for years.
We’ve also been deliberate and considerate around engagement and trying to drive positive fun interactions with the team so that it wasn’t just all about getting the work done. We’ve had lots of fun. We’ve done virtual museum treasure hunts, and people have been sharing their fridges each day. It’s been really critical to make sure everyone’s still having fun.
It’s funny because I’m asking more of my team now than I ever have and I’m right there with them. It’s not that I don’t give 150% every day, I just acknowledge that I’m asking them for a lot.
I practice a lot of gratitude, but I’m also honest and transparent, that’s one of my key values as a leader. I don’t hide when I’m stressed, I don’t hide when I’m feeling uncertain, for example, I had to cancel my vacation and I said ‘you know what guys, I’m not having a great day, I should be on a beach right now’. I’m just very honest about those things with my team and that opens up dialogue.
I was thinking about something the other day, which is that, in product, our function is essentially to take the uncertainty and break it down into pieces that we can manage. We bring the known to the unknown. So, when the team’s feeling overwhelmed, I go back to like our product skill, this is our wheelhouse. This is what we know how to do. This is our skill set and part of our toolkit that we are good at. We just need to apply it in a different way.
I have two hats. I look after the operational part of the business as well as the product part of the business. We’ve never been busier. We are literally working every day and I’m not just talking about me but others across the organisation. We’ve been flooded with new business and we’re incredibly privileged that we’re in that position.
We’ve had to make a lot of adjustments in terms of our roadmap, planning and everything else so the demands on the business are so huge right now. And everybody stepped up to the plate. Everybody’s worked incredibly well and cohesively. And I think the only way we were able to achieve this, is that after taking that big inhale.
For us, it was all about being mission driven because, however crappy it was for us, I remember that the first day of working from home, the kids were there and I was sitting on a sofa, I didn’t have a desk or a chair or anything, I was like oh my back’s hurting. Then I read some of the support queries from our members’ businesses that they literally could not put food on the table. These were the type of responses we were getting from our customers and it really brought it home.
Luckily, we have venture capital behind us and we’re going to get paid and we have a salary. We don’t have the kind of worries that a business owner would have who’s perhaps built a business, put all their hours into it and then all of a sudden, they see it just literally fall off a cliff.
Where we could actually relate to the pain made us incredibly focused. We took all of our own personal worries out of the situation and started completely focusing on our members and being mission driven.
How to bring your team to a consensus when proposing a major change
Consensus and buy-in are essential. If you haven’t got the buy-in then really you’re not going to achieve very much. Being mission-driven, and having a really clear purpose is vital. The second thing I think is creating clarity and you have to do that at a strategic level. For us, OKRs really give that clarity, on a team and personal level as well.
And, the way we organise ourselves at Tide is that we have various different product areas. We have VPS that run those product areas. They have their own, we call them playbooks rather than roadmaps – they’re a longer-term vision of what we’re trying to achieve. They have their own strategies. They look at their own roadmaps for the quarter. But ultimately, everything plays into the OKRs for the company. Achieving those targets and achieving those OKRs really brings clarity and the purpose to the table.
The other thing is about having really clear guardrails as well. So giving people the freedom to be able to go off, and not interfering too much in the day-to-day role, but having a few guardrails, or crash barriers, in place so they don’t go off into the wilderness and just do some crazy stuff.
We centralise our thinking around a couple of key, central tools and make sure that it’s there front and centre for everyone to go through. When we have anything that sits outside of that vision, we go back to that and we circle around that almost like a campfire.
What’s different that you will maintain going forward?
We share five things each week in the team meeting – what’s top of mind for them, what have they learned that week, what help do they need, what have they had as a personal win etc. So they’re opening up and sharing how they are feeling, what their battery levels are like.
Our personal wins might be about getting hold of some flour, so the details have changed, but the environment to ask for help and to trust each other hasn’t changed at all.
Bizarrely, considering remote working, I think it’s broken down some barriers. The very fact that my kids will probably run into the meeting in a second, or that somebody will be holding a baby on a Zoom call, or that you have to open the door because Amazon’s arrived, I think we’ve become more human. We’re seeing each other in our own homes, and in some ways, I think it’s brought us closer together.
The other thing for me is certainly, from my personal perspective, is that being in the office meant I had very little thinking time. My thinking time would tend to be the weekend or in the evenings and now I get more of that time and there’s actually a bit more breathing space even though things are even busier than ever. I think office environments are incredibly distracting places.
Advice for new leaders in lockdown
One of the things that we’ve carried through, which has been super important about onboarding, is the buddy system. So, whether you’re onboarding now or before COVID, you have a buddy.
Be good at documentation and the communication of the business strategy so that when you’re onboarding you really start to understand the business in a deep way. With us, everything is on Confluence.
Also, book a lunch with people, especially with people who are just onboarding, rather than having a formal meeting which can be a bit daunting for people. You can eat your sandwich, or whatever it might be, with each other and just have a chat.
Joining a new organisation as a leader is still the same in lockdown. I always make sure that I have established checklists that are very visible and enable easy collaboration for any new employee. Hold yourself to the same onboarding standards that you always have, just make sure that you’re structured about it.
Do things in exactly the same way and be really deliberate about getting to know all the same people that you would have done pre COVID. We’ve just onboarded several new people during this process and we’ve just adapted.
The best tools for remote work
We use all the usual ones, e.g. Slack and Zoom but what I would also like to bring to this is Lattice. We use Lattice as a HR tool. What’s nice about that is that people can tell you how they’re feeling just from smiley faces. They just click on how they’re feeling today (which integrates into Slack as well), so I can get an email saying that my team member is feeling unhappy because he’s put on the sad face. That means I can then go and check in with them to see what’s wrong. I think that’s incredibly useful.
COVID’s impact on OKRs
We try to avoid changing our OKRs at all costs because it just causes chaos. The interesting thing was that while a lot changed in the business, our OKRs pretty much stayed stable. Having OKRs doesn’t mean that you have to continue with the existing roadmap, it doesn’t mean you have to continue with the existing feature set. So, we didn’t really have to change them, it was that we made adjustments to the roadmap and then allowed the teams to work it out.
Fears – what’s keeping you awake at night?
I really care about the people I work with and I care about the success of our business so what keeps me up at night it’s just making sure that we are making the right decisions and giving it everything that we have to make sure people can keep their jobs and keep their livelihood. As a leader, we need to worry about that kind of stuff. It gives me a mission, it gives me purpose but I do worry about it.
For me, it’s the team. How my team is doing, how they’re managing how they’re dealing with all of this and just keeping them going and focused.
It’s about how we satisfy our members’ needs in this crisis. And actually, we are fortunate that we’re actually scaling really fast at the moment and that brings new challenges. We’re having to scale the teams on the lockdown, which is very challenging itself. So, it’s also about making sure that we have enough bandwidth internally to support our members as much as possible.
I’ve got teammates who are struggling with all sorts of personal situations and that makes it really tough. So just ensuring that I’ve made the right call on what’s important, and that I’m adding the most value when I’m supporting them, and that I’ve pointed them at the place where they can add the most value as well, especially for those who are really struggling, that’s it for me.
How do we make the right decisions, right now?
We’ve become absolutely ruthless about prioritisation and about focus. Everything that we thought was important before, how we were thinking about ‘solutioning’ anything, we, we are now ruthless about it. We’re asking, do we really need to do it, and if we are going to do it, do we need to do it in this way or can we be leaner about it.
Focus and harder prioritisation and get as close as you can to any data sources that you can. We’ve been doing a lot more interviews and discussions with customers and we’re finding it a lot easier to talk to customers because everyone’s at home.
One other thing that might be a bit of a left-field, is that as a product manager you have a lot of skills in prioritisation, many of which I’d forgotten that I had learned over the years. And in talking to some of my colleagues they were like ‘wow you’ve really got the team focused, how did you do that?’. I started to explain it and I realised that this is one way I can help build bridges and relationships for people with people at the rest of the company. I can help them understand how a product manager prioritises, which, I hadn’t thought about until just last week but it is something that I’ve been trying to do more – helping others to realise that prioritisation is a real skill.
We make sure that any decision we’re making is paying into the overall mission and strategy but then it’s really driven by the team, rather than driven by me or anyone at C-Level within the business. We can only set the strategy and the priorities in terms of the company. Then we leave it to the teams to devise their own priority list.
Normally it’s really a matter of how can I help that team member unblock whatever they need to unblock – what do they need in order to make this happen, rather than me having to make the decision.