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!

talent recruitment

Talent Recruitment: How to crack the talent test

400 308 Paul Breloff

By Paul Breloff & Shloka Nath

Running a social enterprise is hard, particularly when catering to “base of the pyramid” customers. Marketing to low-income customers, infrastructure and distribution challenges, razor-thin margins, raising money from investors — these challenges would test even the hardiest entrepreneur! Then, of course, there’s the major task of talent recruitment.

In other words, hiring and retaining great people. Although this challenge around talent recruitment is typically overlooked, it is probably the greatest factor driving the success or failure of the social enterprises we’ve worked with.

When Village Capital surveyed its portfolio of over 400 entrepreneurs in 2012, they cited talent acquisition and retention as their number one barrier to growth, easily surpassing financing. In 2015, a survey of C-suite executives by Bain & Company for Accion Venture Lab identified human resources as the biggest organisational need across 21 enterprises.

The challenge exists throughout the talent life cycle — from initial recruiting to training, ongoing development and retention — across hierarchies, from junior unskilled workers to senior executives. Unfortunately, it’s not a challenge that can be magically solved with more money.

Why are human capital challenges tougher for social enterprises?

Let’s be honest. Hiring and talent management is a challenge at all companies, but here’s why talent recruitment is far harder for social enterprises:

Mission, not just skills: Beyond finding skills and experience, most social enterprises also need to see a demonstrated passion for the organisation’s mission. For many, this shrinks a small talent pool into a puddle, making it even harder to find a fit.

Unknown brands: Most social enterprises are relatively young, small and little known beyond specialised circles. With less inbound interest in the company, it becomes more of a sales job than an HR one to convince candidates and, sometimes, their families, who might prefer they join more established organisations.

Talent doesn’t come cheap: As revealed by a 2012 Intellecap report, early-stage social enterprises cite low salaries as a key constraint to hiring and retention. Personally, we don’t believe there should be an inherent trade-off in compensation when choosing a career of meaning and impact, and it is encouraging to see this slowly changing. But, for now, social enterprises often pay a fraction of what talented people could be earning elsewhere.

It’s not an easy life: To top it all off, many social enterprises operate in remote areas with few creature comforts. Five-star hotels are traded in for village cots. Express trains and Uber make way for motorbikes and rickety rickshaws. High-speed internet and stable electricity are swapped for molasses-slow Wi-Fi and off-grid living. This is obviously not always the case (and for many this experience can be a draw), but some companies find it challenging to convince senior talent to take the plunge.

So, what do we do about talent recruitment?

Yes, talent recruitment at social enterprises is hard. The good news is there are many ways to make it better:

At a system level

  • Enmesh impact with education: We need more secondary and tertiary schools and institutions of higher education that present opportunities for students to learn about social enterprise and encourage the pursuit of careers of meaning and impact. This is happening increasingly, particularly at business schools globally, but classes and clubs on these topics at undergraduate universities are just emerging.
  • Create access to real experience: We must make it easier for students to get access to internships or projects to help ignite a career passion. This could be promoted by colleges, governments, investors or the companies themselves. Global impact investor Acumen Fund, for example, runs a programme to recruit fresh graduates into an apprentice scheme, giving exposure to grads while also reducing the cost and effort of recruiting and training new talent.
  • Make mid-career transitions possible: Support more programmes that help talented mid-career professionals transition from mainstream to impact, like Impact Business Leaders.

At a social enterprise level

  • Start early: Even when you’re not actively hiring, be on the lookout for great talent, particularly inbound inquiries from people acutely drawn to your mission and impact. Keep your talent recruitment pipeline of candidates warm and engaged so that when the time comes to bring on new folks, you already have a pool to start from.
  • Invest in employee referrals: Actively engage your existing team to probe their networks and bring in great people. Having employees who are brand ambassadors can be particularly effective for lower-level jobs that require community and local language knowledge.
  • Build a strong brand: Not only does having a strong employer brand increase the visibility of the social enterprise, it aids in employee retention. By strategically building strong credibility in the health sector, Aravind Eye Hospital routinely receives job applications from all over the world, despite the organisation’s strict policy of not advertising for job placements.
  • Mentorship and training: Your employees are your future leaders. Create effective training and mentorship programmes that can target specific skill development. A RippleWorks survey found that entrepreneurs as well as employees reported higher degrees of satisfaction with increased and frequent engagement with mentors.

So where does this leave us? While money will always be a concern, human capital is often more important. Luckily, we believe there’s something to be done at all levels to drive talent recruitment and help bring that talent to the social enterprise space while supporting job seekers in finding dream jobs at impact businesses.

Perhaps social enterprises have the most to gain or lose in solving this, and we hope to see more social enterprises recognise the importance of getting their team and talent equation right.

We’ve seen many times at companies globally that to create something persuasive and extraordinary in the marketplace, one must often first create something persuasive and extraordinary in the workplace. This principle may hold even more strongly for social enterprises, who must create a unique kind of mission-driven soil to attract and grow a talent foundation for scale and impact. If we get this right, the chain reaction of impact will extend beyond the enterprise to customers, employees, and the world at large.

This article was originally published on India Development Review on September 20, 2017. You can access it here.

Co-author Shloka Nath is Director, Development and Publishing, Jnanapravaha Mumbai, India’s premier Cultural Institute for the Arts. Prior to this, Shloka co-founded and was Managing Partner, Sankhya Women Impact Funds.


Related Article: Talent acquisition trends 2019: Top seven in Kenya


4 Hiring challenges and opportunities facing Indian companies today

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At Shortlist, I’ve had the chance to get to know dozens of fast-growing companies in India spanning sector and stage — from 6-person startups to a multinational advisory firms — and learn what’s working for them, what’s not, and what hiring challenges they are facing on a day to day basis.

The sheer scale of India’s market is overwhelming. Not only is there a staggering one million people coming into the job market every month, but there is also a lot of turnover — according to LinkedIn, India has the highest percentage of the workforce that is “actively seeking a new job”. Clearly this is an extremely liquid, massive market — but one that also has many frustrating inefficiencies.

These are the top four challenges that I’ve seen companies face when it comes to hiring. If these issues go unaddressed, they could seriously impact economic growth in India. But with every challenge comes an opportunity for improvement, so I’ve also included some potential ways that we can shift our thinking and practices to address these challenges head on.

Challenge #1: Separating serious candidates from the pack

In April, with the new financial year, professional across India gear up for the bonus and increment. Many professionals apply for as many jobs as possible leading up to their review, hoping to get an offer with even a marginally higher salary that they can leverage during negotiations with their current employer. It’s not hard to take this “spray and pray” approach, given that applying to a job typically entails nothing more than uploading your CV to a job board post, hoping that some employer somewhere will see it.

This system is detrimental to hiring practices in India for two reasons. First, it makes it nearly impossible for hiring managers to discern which applicants are genuinely interested in the role, and which have no intention of accepting an offer. It ultimately slows down the entire hiring process and leads to a whole lot of frustration for growing companies.

It also changes the mindset of recruiters. With the assumption that a candidate may not even interested in the job, recruiters find it hard to invest the time in reviewing each application thoroughly, let alone give a thoughtful response to each applicant. This perpetuates a vicious cycle: Candidates are used to employers not responding, so they do the only rational thing and apply everywhere they possibly can.

The opportunity: To separate serious candidates from the pack (or in this case, stack — of CVs), use applications that force candidates to have skin in the game. If a candidate is genuinely interested, they will invest the time to write a cover letter or complete a case study. Assessments like this not only weed out the applicants who aren’t truly interested, but are also much better indicators of ability and fit than a CV alone.

Many top corporates have built their own application portals with a structured system of qualification rounds. Companies like BelongShortlist, and Entelo (in the US) are using social media and other data streams to identify and engage “passive” candidates. Those who engage back consistently and proactively, particularly through multiple rounds of assessments, are most likely to convert into employees.

Challenge #2: Making sense of candidate CVs

There is no standard CV in India. Instead, when reviewing CVs for one job you’ll see everything from a Western-style, one page, achievement-based resume to 20 to 30 pages of everything a candidate has ever done — including primary school achievements! Partly as a consequence of the high volumes of applicants for any opening, candidates will often stuff their CV with as many keywords and buzzwords as possible in hopes of being picked out of a database or catching the eye of a recruiter.

What’s more, many people don’t even write their own CV — there’s a whole business for this here in India! You can walk into any internet cafe in Bombay, give someone your qualifications and target sector and they’ll whip a CV for you. This practice makes it really hard for any differentiating details or personality to shine through on the page.

The opportunity: It’s no wonder that we think the CV is dead! Unfortunately, asking a workforce of 100 million professionals to reformat their CVs will be really tough. But what companies can do is stop relying on CVs in their own hiring processes. Instead, decide on the mandatory qualifications and core competencies that are absolutely necessary for success on the job, and use a standardized method to screen based on these factors.

Challenge #3: Knowing that candidates can do the job before you hire them

Most of the hiring happening in India is experience-based recruiting (“Does the candidate have at least two years’ experience in solar industry?”) rather than competency-based recruitment (“Can the candidate perform the tasks that the job entails?”). Sure, sometimes past experience indicates that you’d be great at a job, but you might be surprised to learn how often it doesn’t match up.

We saw this firsthand during a partnership with an international management consulting company. They were working with a number of recruiters, and as expected, some of the candidates that went through the Shortlist process were also brought to the client by other recruiters. Many of the candidates who had impressive experience were being advanced by the other recruiters, but when they took the Shortlist assessments they didn’t perform as well as others did. Ultimately, we were able to recommend a number of candidates who were hired — but on the basis of how they performed on our suite of assessments that measure demonstrated skill, not just where they went to school or worked.

The opportunity: Lazlo Bock, former Head of People Operation at Google, uses research to show that the single biggest predictor of an employee’s performance in the workplace is the “work sample.” This is to say — the best way to see if someone will be good at the job, is to see them actually do the job!

Sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how often an unstructured 30 minute “chat” with a candidate substitutes for a rigorous technical and capability assessment. Don’t you want your PR Manager to be able to write a good press release? Shouldn’t your Category Manager know how to create a demand forecast? Should you be waiting until the interview to find out?

Competency assessments including case studies or work simulations will increase the likelihood of hiring talent who will be high performers on the job. At my previous role as an Investment Officer at a financial technology venture fund of Accion International, we gave every single applicant a case study before the interview. If they couldn’t write an intelligent analysis comparing a handful of investment opportunities, there was no point in an interview. Today, companies like Mettl and Jombay are helping companies add more objective assessments to the hiring process to increase their hiring efficiency and success rate.

Challenge #4: Willingness to invest in talent and finding the right recruitment partners

This last challenge will be the hardest to tackle, but I think will result in the greatest change for Indian companies in the long run. Across the board, there is a mindset that talent is an afterthought, that hiring is a mere necessity of running a business, not the core of what makes its successful.

One way this manifests itself in outsourcing to any external recruiter who can fill an empty seat as quickly as possible. There are over 20,000 “mom and pop” recruitment agencies in Mumbai alone. The cut-throat commission-based model these agencies work on — one months’ salary if you successfully place someone — creates terrible incentives. Recruiters tend to send their clients the highest priced candidates for a role, not necessarily the ones who are the best fit for a role.

The opportunity: As with any fragmented market, technology and business model innovation will play a big role in consolidating the long-tail of sub-scale recruiters.

In the meantime, we hope that all companies will take a thoughtful approach to their hiring. Carefully consider the mix of processes you build in-house, the human resources you deploy, and the technology and trusted recruiters you bring on. Your in-house team shouldn’t be manually reviewing thousands of resumes — it’s 2017! Plan your hiring in advance — don’t start searching today for someone you needed yesterday. Think about how to incorporate assessments, work samples, and on-site interviews into your process.

And always remember — the lowest cost solution is often not the best choice. Shortlist estimates that closing a mid-level hire can take as many as 70 hours and cost as much as 2.5 lakhs (USD 3,700) in time and fees — and if you make a rushed or sub-optimal choice — you might find yourself having to start over.

We’ve had the privilege of working with dozens of clients who truly value talent. And you can see how it pays off — not just in their awesome team culture and employee retention rates, but also for their bottom line. I hope that more companies in India will turn these hiring challenges into opportunities and enjoy the same benefits for their growing businesses.