Effective Teams

Book Recommendations Shortlist

Need a book recommendation? Check out these non-fiction classics

5275 3517 Paul Breloff

I love to read. So when my team asked for book recommendations in a recent Town Hall, I hopped on the opportunity to reflect a little on the books I’ve found helpful on my career journey these last 15+ years. These are all nonfiction favorites — narrowing my fiction favorites is simply too big a task — and all made a strong impression at the times I read them, even if they may not all stand the test of time equally. While these aren’t the most original or arcane selections, they’re ones you’ll almost certainly be glad you checked out.

Happy reading!

Books about the world: 

  • Guns, Germs and Steel (Jared Diamond) – One of the very first books I read that sparked my interest in why certain places were different than others. I am pretty sure I read it while backpacking in Vietnam. One idea that stuck with me was about the conditions that enable a production surplus (i.e., enough food that we can save it for the future) and how that served as the foundation for modern civilization (e.g., science, philosophy, commerce). The flipside, of course, is how horrifying it is to learn the ways those tools were used against the defenseless as imperial ambitions grew…
  • Cosmos (Carl Sagan) – This is a Carl Sagan classic, and if you don’t know about the Big Bang or time dilation or how big the universe is and you want to have your mind blown, read this book. While it hasn’t directly shaped my career, it’s definitely shaped my worldview (er, universe view) and I like to think there’s an alternate dimension in which I’m an astrophysicist.
  • Sapiens (Yuval Noah Harari) – This guy writes his book as if he’s sitting on a nearby planet, thoroughly untroubled by the contemporary concerns of humanity and more interested to understand our trajectory from a cosmic or millennial perspective. The way he grounds the arc of human experience as an extended trajectory of conquest and stories, always within the frame of Earth’s lifetime, makes everything feel small but in a powerful, mind-expanding way.
  • India After Gandhi (Ramachandra Guha) and The State of Africa (Martin Meredith) – I read these books about a decade apart (IAG around 2009, SoA only this year) but they were indispensable books for me as I seek to better understand the context and history of these amazing markets I work in. The books are similar: massive tomes that take on the task of telling the myriad stories of hugely complex and diverse places from the time of independence movements (roughly mid-20th century) through the early 2000s. Obviously, any book like these is totally incomplete and I’m sure disputable on many fronts. But for me, they’ve been useful tools to help me structure my understanding of where India and Africa have been and search for clues about how best to navigate the present and look ahead.

Books about work and teams: 

  • Execution (Larry Bossidy) – I read this book a long time ago, and I fear it’s better suited to a simpler, pre-digital age — in certain parts they recommend writing hand-written letters! It contains a lot of wisdom and best practices about how to create systems for people, strategy, and operations to get stuff done and ensure maximum impact, productivity and accountability. While some of the tools work better if you’re leading big teams, there are ideas anyone can take advantage of, even if you’re just the boss of yourself. Another book recommendation on the execution theme is The 4 Disciplines of Execution. This one pushes us to focus on our “wildly important goals” and keep track of progress via “lead” measures on a scoreboard, all while (reassuringly) acknowledging the whirlwind of day-to-day stuff that can suck up 80% of our week.
  • The Four Hour Workweek (Tim Ferris) – The Tim Ferriss classic… It seems cliche to recommend this but what I really liked and what led to some useful epiphanies is the reminder that a good business makes money, and some of the best businesses make money quite simply — without crazy new ideas, lots of VC money, and impossible odds. It’s kind of an antidote to the voracious world-dominating viewpoints of most VC / entrepreneur books (e.g., Zero to One!) and re-grounds business in a simple profit equation: Put in as little resources as possible to make as much money as possible, and focus on actual free cash flows so you can live a really cool life.
  • High Output Management (Andrew Grove) – Another classic, written by the longtime Intel CEO and Silicon Valley legend Andy Grove. Maybe a little dated, but still largely applicable and covers a lot of amazing basics about building and growing teams, running complex organizations, creating leverage points, and making decisions.
  • The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) – This one rocked my world, and was a topic of a previous blog post. In essence, Daniel Coyle asks, “Why some teams are more than the sum of their parts, and some are less?” This gave me a way for thinking about teams of all stripes (athletics, business, etc.) and what makes them great, without just falling back on some flaccid notion of “shared values.” There are a number of other culture-oriented books I’ve also enjoyed (including Primed to Perform, Delivering Happiness, and Setting the Table, to name just a few), but this one is special.
  • New Power (Jeremy Heimans) – Written by the CEO of Purpose, I recently found this book a very insightful and useful framework for thinking about the role of social media and movements and virality in building great businesses. I fear I am still an “Old Power” kind of guy (maybe it’s my age?), but there’s a lot in this New Power method and philosophy I’d genuinely like to learn and leverage to unlock professional potential through Shortlist.

Books about development: 

  • The Mystery of Capital (Hernando De Soto) – The book that drove me to become (briefly) a real estate lawyer… This is one of the most insightful development books I’ve ever read, describing the complicated interplay of law, record-keeping, and politics that turns things we own into “capital,” i.e., things we can easily turn into money through mortgage, collateralization, etc. The idea of widespread “dead capital” in emerging markets was fascinating to me, and I went into real estate law so I could learn in detail how a web of property rights and contracts could actually turn this dead capital into living, breathing capital ready to be deployed toward investment and growth.
  • The Elusive Quest for Growth (William Easterly) – The William Easterly classic (along with White Man’s Burden), which I remember as one big, brilliant takedown of traditional development economics and the development-industrial complex that rests on it. Easterly became a persistent counterpoint to Jeffrey Sachs and his “if we only had enough money, we could solve all the problems!” idealism. I like that this book eschews big development aid in favor of letting a thousand flowers bloom. This was an initial spark that got me more excited about tools like microfinance and entrepreneurship to solve big problems rather than massive institutions like the World Bank.

Books about startups:

  • The Hard Thing about Hard Things (Ben Horowitz) – A more recent hit, written by the iconic founder of venture behemoth Andreessen Horowitz. I found the first half a bit self-congratulatory, but the second half was full of interesting examples and insights about the challenges and celebrations along the way of building startups.
  • Traction (Gabriel Weinberg) and Lean Startup (Eric Ries) – These are good books to refer back to every once in awhile; they’re kind of like two sides of one coin. Lean Startup focuses on the “rules” of building product in a rapid prototyping/iteration model (“build-measure-learn” cycles), and Traction focuses on distribution and goes through a bunch of marketing and sales tactics to get your product out there.
  • Zero to One (Peter Thiel) – This is the Peter Thiel meditation on what makes a high-growth, dominant startup. There’s a lot here that I question or don’t agree with (e.g., the focus on building a monopoly as a positive thing, the need to dominate markets, etc.). But, it’s a really useful framework to try to make sense of the modern tech landscape and the difference between a normal business and a venture-backable startup.

I hope you were able to pick up one or two ideas for your next read. I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own book recommendations, so please leave comments or write me at paul@shortlist.net.

Managing distributed teams

Distributed Teams: Eight Ideas to Help Them Thrive

2246 1090 Paul Breloff

We believe that talent is global and the strongest teams are borderless. The digital-first jobs of tomorrow — engineers, data scientists, digital marketers and content creators — can be done by anyone, anywhere as distributed teams,  as long as they have the right skills, a computer, and wifi access.

The rise of global freelance marketplaces like Upwork, Fiverr, and Toptal is a bellwether, but so is the increasing number of firms that choose to be distributed from the start, with teammates scattered across living rooms, coffee shops, and WeWorks, and connected through Slack, Zoom, and WhatsApp. Some investors have gone as far to proclaim that distributed teams are the “new cloud for startups.”

The concept of a global distributed team is deeply ingrained in our Shortlist DNA. We launched in two markets (India and Kenya) nearly simultaneously, and today have three offices across two countries, along with consultants and board members in New York City, Washington DC, San Francisco and Mauritius (not to mention clients in 12+ countries).

We certainly still believe in the power and the magic of working (mostly) alongside our teammates. Special things can happen when brainstorms are done in person with a whiteboard, when data can be explained while pointing at the same screen, and when relationships can be formed over regular coffee or lunch meetings rather than just messaging platforms.

But with 80+ Shortlisters in across our Nairobi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad offices, we’ve become thoughtful and creative about how best to build a #OneTeam culture and generally get stuff done efficiently and to our high standards. So what are some of the things that have worked for us in operating through distributed teams?

1. Create spaces for chatter and personality

Because we can’t count on the spontaneous collisions of a single shared space to deepen connections, we have had to create these opportunities digitally. We have a series of WhatsApp groups keyed to different logical divisions (by geography, function) where there’s a steady flow of welcomes, birthday wishes, photos of social events, GIFs, and more. It’s the modern day company-wide water cooler.

Shortlist team

We also have a weekly Zoom call among the senior leadership, which is less a space for substantive discussions and  decisions, and more space to just chat and catch up. Each person has a lightly structured few minutes to share travel plans, a mood check, points of nervousness and points of celebration, which usually involves a lot of venting, movie references, and vacation longing. It’s the one time when no one cares if you take the call from the back of an Uber.

2. Institute a global social operating system

As we’ve built and tweaked our social operating system (i.e., the processes and tools in place to ensure an efficient flow of information and decision-making), we’ve done so at a global and local level. It’s helpful when everyone is on the same page about how we structure functional team check-ins, send calendar invites, and join video chats – especially when they’re happening remotely!

We have quarterly Town Halls where we attempt an (often fraught) global video-conference, with all the offices beaming in (below are all three distributed teams tuned in to our most recent Town Hall). The meeting features updates on important stuff, but also introductions to new folks, celebrations of promotions, and cross-office “high fives,” where the Kenya team gives shout outs to members of the India team and vice versa. It’s a valuable chance to express recognition of great work to team members who you won’t have a chance to thank in person.

3. Invest in “unnecessary” travel for distributed teams

We accept that part of the cost of multiple offices is increased travel bills. We make sure to budget for frequent flights between Hyderabad, Bombay and Nairobi – for the senior functional heads, of course, but also for more junior managers on the team.

These visits serve a critical culture transmission-and-smoothing tool, as teams learn from the visitor (who is usually extra motivated to go out for some local food, drinks and adventures) and the visitor brings back lessons and perspective to their home office. Below are snapshots from Product Manager Austen and Talent Advisor Mehndi’s visits to the Mumbai and Nairobi offices.

4. Commit to annual retreats

While this can sometimes feel like a scary line item in a startup budget, I highly recommend committing to gather parts or all of your distributed teams together in one place on a regular basis. Our leadership team meets for a retreat at least once a year (here we are during an epic brainstorming session) and we make sure to find a place that feels suitably adventurous: the hills of Lonavla outside Mumbai; a house on the shore of Lake Naivasha outside Nairobi.

It’s an incredible opportunity to push strategy forward but also go deep as teammates and as whole people, and have a little fun as well. We also recently invested in an “All-India” retreat bringing together the Mumbai and Hyderabad offices at one resort for a couple days of programming, a “gala” evening of team appreciation, and a surprisingly competitive cricket match.

5. Don’t cheap out on phones, speakers and internet

This should probably be #1! We’ve cycled through so many different pieces of technology in hopes of finding the Holy Grail of cross-border communication. Would that Pied Piper’s video calling were real!

The best answer we’ve come to (and we’re not being paid to say this): the Jabra 510, a steal at $110. We have a few Jabras and it takes us from our standard sequence of “Hello?… Can you hear us?… What?… Switching wifi to data… Seems there’s a delay… There’s an echo… Let me try you back…” (you know you’ve been there!) to a welcome sense of “We’re in the room together” crispness and clarity. Even better is when we get video working: we’ve had a lot more luck with Zoom than Google Hangouts or Skype but we’re still hunting for The Answer!

6. Enshrine and preserve the important stuff at a global level…

We’ve had to be even more deliberate and intentional about defining our global values, culture and identity, given the fact that we can’t count on it to simply “emerge” from the great people we have sitting around the same table. We spent significant time on our core values (read how we did it here and here), and we make sure to highlight these values and recognize the importance of company-wide culture and ways of working together at every chance we get.

Last year our co-founder Matt started an internal  “values podcast” in which he interviewed folks on the team about their personal stories and journeys to Shortlist, including a deep dive on the person’s favorite value and what it means to them. It’s been amazing to draw out the different dimensions and texture of our values that are important, deepening the words beyond just posters on the wall.

7. …but let local be local

At the same time, not everything can be global. We have such vibrant teams and offices in our two markets, and there is plenty of space for local innovations: from our Holi parties to games of Kahoot to First Friday team brainstorms to “Biggest Loser” fitness challenges to “Wellness Wednesday” self-care breaks (check out that chair yoga!) to the once-famous “Meditation Room” to the Snack Wars to the After-Hours Ping Pong Tournaments to the chai breaks to the Throwback Thursdays (game of “guess who” with childhood pictures) to Friday Jam Sessions (with guitars and beers), each office has found unique rhythms and rituals and inside jokes to keep things fun and human.

8. Cherish the diversity 

One of the best parts of building global distributed teams is that there are so many differences across the group, and so many opportunities to learn from each other. Beyond national diversity, we’re proud that 75% of our senior leadership and 65% of our global team is female. We celebrate a range of Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian holidays, we sample foods from all over India and Kenya, we learn from the dramatically different life experiences of folks who have grown up in all sorts of different circumstances, went to all sorts of different schools, come from all sorts of different prior jobs.

Managing distributed teams

This is magical and fun and one of the most enriching parts of my job, so while building that global team, don’t forget to embrace and enjoy the differences!

To be clear, we haven’t figured it out and we’re always looking to make improvements, learn, grow. We’d love to hear how others do it out there. If you’re on a team that’s distributed across multiple locations or has multiple offices, how do you make it work? Any tricks, tactics or tools you can share? Let us know; this is only going to become more common and more pressing for all of us to figure out!