Kenya

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!

4 Tips for Being a Lifelong Learner

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In order to become a sought-after professional in today’s job market, it’s more important than ever to be adaptable and a lifelong learner willing to gain insights and expertise throughout a career. Companies are increasingly looking for individuals with a broad set of skills who are comfortable moving across functions and teams.

How can you gain diverse skill sets and continue to develop yourself professionally, both on-the-job and in your personal life? We asked Wambui Kuria, formerly a Talent & Development Officer at Momentum Credit, a microfinance company providing structured working capital solutions to individuals, and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and now a Management Consultant at KPMG. Wambui has had quite a diverse career that has included financial auditing, entrepreneurship, recruiting and software. She describes her current role at Momentum Credit as “fifty percent human resources and fifty percent business development.”

Here are four tips from Wambui on how you can be a lifelong learner and become a more versatile employee:

1. Be comfortable outside your comfort zone to grow in your career

While she began her career as a financial auditor, Wambui quickly realized that she preferred interacting with people day-to-day in her work life. However, it was challenging to shift careers in a job market where you typically get a job based on what you studied for. In order to make a career shift, she first started scouting for jobs in sales where she could highlight transferable skills, eventually landing a role as a salesperson at a training company. “This anchored my passion for training, particularly when I would see the feedback from our clients saying how much the training changed their mindset.”

Her curiosity once again led her to move into a new role, this time in recruiting. There she found herself in meetings with software developers. She credits this experience with learning how to communicate with the tech team, in order to work effectively with the department to meet her timelines. Wambui used these experiences to push herself out of her comfort zone in order to chart a path of personal growth. “I often dare myself in different ways and praise myself when I learn something new.”

2. A lifelong learner loves and embraces technology

You don’t need to be an engineer or an IT professional to use technology to your advantage. Combining a desire to learn new things with technology can have added benefits. “I like to learn new things and I love technology. I’ve really enjoyed learning new software, creating beautiful designs on online tools such as Canva, and learning as much as I can on Google.” Being comfortable in Google Drive has paid dividends for Wambui, particularly when working with outside clients. “If you’re working across companies, everything is often shared online on Drive. This really makes it easier to work with my suppliers. I might have big files and need a lot of people to view them, so online tools are crucial.”

Being current with technology as a lifelong learner can be vital for just about any role within a company. “We all require these skills; When I started working I realized everyone needs to understand IT, as well as know how to operate smartphones. See, you might be a great lawyer, but if you don’t know how to sign contracts online, that’s dangerous to your business.”

 

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The team at Momentum learning from each other.

3. Share what you’ve learned at work!

Your learning can be significantly enhanced by collaborating with your peers in the office. If done effectively it can even positively affect the culture in your workplace. Encouraging others to share their knowledge can make room for a more interactive environment where everyone is utilizing their colleagues to actively share their learning across departments and functions. Treat this like a form of on-the-job training that everyone can participate in.

Consider starting a book club or a small library in your office to create a culture of reading for professional development. While at Momentum, Wambui implemented a system to reward high-performing team members by giving them books to read. “We reward people monthly depending on their performance, and one of the ways we’re trying to do that is by reducing on other incentives and give them books to read instead.” Putting growth and development first can pay huge dividends for everyone to meet their professional potential.

4. Build your online learning presence

According to Wambui, using your online presence to show your propensity for learning can improve your professional brand. “My LinkedIn has articles, things I’ve read, and it really shows that I am more than my educational background. I would say that’s a major thing that’s worked for me.” This shows employers and your network that you are passionate about your interest areas and serious about continuing to develop yourself as a lifelong learner.

If you’re like Wambui and YouTube is your “school of life”, consider posting videos to your social media channels to spark a discussion amongst your friends. A good habit to get into is to comment on articles and other resources that thought leaders in your field post to their pages. This can increase your visibility to ensure that high-level professionals know you are actively engaging in your professional development.

Becoming a lifelong learner requires commitment, energy, and curiosity. It takes a willingness to take ownership and expose yourself to new situations and environments. The above tips are just a few of many ways you can apply yourself to professionally grow and show your professional value is more than what’s on your CV.

Thanks so much to Wambui for sharing her wisdom with us! We’re proud to partner with Momentum Credit and help them build happy high-performing teams. Interested to work with MCL? they’re currently hiring for an Operations ManagerCustomer Relationship Officer, and Telesales Agents!

Related: Moving laterally to move upwards

Finance Leaders Share 3 Insider Tips to Succeed

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What we learned from local experts about their career paths, mentorship and how they got where they are today.

We recently held the first of our monthly series of networking events for young professionals in Nairobi. Shortlist’s “Top Finance Talent Meetup” brought together a select group of finance professionals to hear from three experts within the field of finance. Ariane Fisher, Shortlist East Africa’s Managing Director, was joined on the panel by Peace Osangir, COO of Kopo Kopo; Sharon Olende, Lendable’s Director of East Africa; and Job Muriuki, CEO of Momentum Credit. This highly informative discussion contained a wealth of insights on topics such as their career journeys, future trends in the field and the importance of cultivating mentorship. In addition, our guests shared their lessons on professional development and lifelong learning.


Here are “3 Tips to Succeed Professionally in Kenya” by our panel of finance experts

1. Education Doesn’t Always Equal Results

Peace Osangir shared that, in her experience, many young people are more focused on accumulating credentials and degrees than on how those experiences will enhance their learning. “Someone can have two Master’s, but the output doesn’t tally. How do you make sure that the type of information you’re getting is going to create a difference in terms of your output? Sometimes someone can come in without any background in finance and is able to excel. And that’s because the level of execution really differs. It’s not about how many credentials you accumulate but how your output changes as a result of your learning.”

Sharon noted similar observations from her previous experience of two decades in the banking sector. She spoke about the value of having the right mindset in your professional life, adding that “it’s not about what you know, it’s about your attitude and what we can teach you. A lot of things can be taught to you. Accumulating degrees with no work experience doesn’t help you. We’re recruiting for people we think can learn. We just want to see your thought process, how you think about a problem. I can tell you that we have put out job adverts looking for someone with five years experience, but we hired someone with two.”

Job lamented the tendency for youth in the workforce to be close-minded when they view their career paths. “I believe to be successful you have to have fun. Too many young people decide to put themselves in a box. If you’re in your 20’s, you’re gonna work for another 40 years or so. So why put yourself in a box when life has so many experiences before you decide what you’re going to do? Think outside the box.” He went on to share that there are plenty of ways to continue your learning outside of the classroom: “The best education I have received in my life has been reading a lot of books. It’s good to enrich your mind with non-conventional thinking, push the envelope, read interesting things. Try not to conform to what people expect you to be.”

 

Engaged participants listening to our speakers reflect on their career journeys

2. Be reliable and always execute

Throughout the conversation between the panelists, the topic of execution came up frequently. The added benefits of being reliable in your professional life reach far beyond excelling in your current role. As Sharon remarked, “execution is the best thing ever. If you can execute, and people know they can rely on your work, you’ll go far. We’ve all sat in jobs we didn’t like, but you keep performing, because that will open your next opportunity for you.

It might appear easy for a panel of highly experienced and respected professionals to share this advice when they are at a point in their careers where they can be highly selective. However, as Peace shared, they got to this point through having a track record of excellence: “To have the luxury of selection, you have to have the execution and stand out from the crowd. Having that ability to select and question decisions comes from understanding your capability and ability to execute.”


3. Learn the tough lessons from early on in your career

Each of our panelists shared harsh truths they gained from past decisions they had made in their professional lives. Peace expressed the uneasiness she encountered when she switched from a role in finance to one in transfer pricing. Since she had no previous work in doing so, she had to apply herself to get up to speed with her colleagues. In turn, she acquired valuable life skills from that opportunity. “That was a moment of challenge. With time, I made sure I understood transfer pricing rules and guidelines. To make sure I could execute the cycle better than I could have. This took a bit of time, being able to start writing 200-page reports, but I needed to make sure I learned it so next time I could execute. My brand shouldn’t be impacted by the decisions I make. Despite setbacks, I make sure I know where my gaps are so everything is good the next time around.”

Sharon provided an anecdote about the importance of managing people, based on an unfortunate situation she found herself in at a previous position. She explained that it’s not just about managing those beneath you in the organizational structure, but “how you manage people above you is equally important.” She went on to say that “in large corporations, there’s a lot of politics. Unfortunately, to some extent, you have to learn some politicking. Particularly more senior people.”

Job shared a particularly difficult moment when he decided to make a decision without consulting with his supervisors. While the decision he made was the wrong one, he learned immensely from the experience. “Since that day it’s fundamentally changed the way I do everything. Even now as a CEO, I can make any decision I want, but I don’t. It’s not the right way to do things. It was a painful lesson to learn. That was a tough lesson for me because you can be really smart, but it’s important to work as a team.”

 

Attendees stayed afterwards to network among their peers and gain further insight from the panelists.

After the panel, participants had the opportunity to make peer connections as well as discuss finance and their career with our guests. It was a wonderful opportunity to see so many high-caliber professionals take ownership over their career and professional journey. We want to give out a special thanks to our panelists, and be on the lookout for future candidate events offered by Shortlist! And as always, if you’re looking for a new position, check out our open jobs!

 

Announcing Our Merger with Spire

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Teaming up to help companies reach new heights

Today I am thrilled to share that Shortlist has acquired Spire Education in a unique merger that we expect to unlock the potential of both companies. Spire, founded in 2013, has been a pioneer in the East African talent development space, working with dozens of companies to equip employees with the skills needed to succeed in diverse workplaces. Shortlist, launched in 2016, helps growing businesses source and screen junior and mid-level talent for a range of role types, and has worked with over 100 companies across India and Kenya.

Now, our combined enterprise can more seamlessly support talent-forward organizations across the spectrum, from recruiting to onboarding to on-the-job training.

We will also, for the first time, be able to engage job-seekers directly with training, job search support, and access to awesome careers. With this acquisition, Spire CEO Jenn Cotter will become Managing Director of Africa for Shortlist/Spire, teaming with Shortlist’s current Kenya Country Director Ariane Fisher and the rest of the Shortlist team, who will continue delivering our core services to our terrific clients.

To put it simply, this is a match made in heaven. Why? Let’s start with what’s most important to us: team and culture. Our teams have been collaborating for months, hosting a series of events for talent-minded executives in Nairobi. From the beginning, we’ve been struck by the similarities of our teams and values. We share a commitment to personal responsibility, openness, adventure, curiosity, and unlocking potential. To put it simply, we wouldn’t have gone forward with this if we didn’t share a cultural foundation and core “why” to our work.

We’re also excited by the possibilities on a strategic level. We are already working with many of the same companies, and this allows us to seamlessly combine our services into a unified offer. Shortlist can help companies build their teams, and Spire can help make sure those teams are equipped with the skills needed to succeed.

Over time, we intend to go even bigger.

Spire brings world-class curriculum and an experienced team of content creators and trainers. We bring technology and a data-driven approach to vetting talent, as well as relationships with over 50,000 local professionals we’ve screened so far. With these assets, we occupy a privileged position to reach professionals directly and help build their skills, discover great opportunities, and access the careers of their dreams. This will enhance our ability to find great hires for our employer clients, and in turn, as we facilitate more hires and track what makes them successful on-the-job, our ability to train and advise professionals on critical skills will get even more focused and effective. We will build a truly exceptional talent flywheel that gets better and better with each hire and each training.

So what happens now?

We will bring our Nairobi-based teams together to work with and learn from each other under the same roof at Daykio Plaza. We‘ll immediately look for ways our combined offers can create value for our existing and prospective customers. Shortlist and Spire will maintain separate brands for now, and Shortlist India will continue business as usual. Over time, we will co-create the bigger vision for how “1+1=3.”

It’s an exciting time for us. We’d like to thank Blue Haven Initiative for their investment and belief in our joint vision and the Mayer Brown team for their generous ongoing legal support.

Shortlist is so grateful to the entire Spire team for joining us on this swashbuckling adventure — Shortlisters unite! And I’m particularly eager to work more closely with Jenn, a truly amazing leader, teacher, and friend. Here’s to the future!

Happy hiring (& now training),
Paul

Hiring in Kenya

Hiring in Kenya: Three takeaways from our new report

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“How much time are growing companies spending on hiring?”

“What is most challenging and time-consuming about the hiring process?”

“Can we quantify the benefits of making a great hire?”

As we help growing companies built high performing teams, these are a few of the questions that we keep being asked. Despite how basic these questions may seem, there’s actually very little reliable data out there to answer them, at least in an emerging market context. To begin to change that, we partnered with FSD Kenya and Open Capital Advisors to learn more about how small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) in Kenya are hiring. We’re excited to release the report and share its findings with you. In case you don’t have time to read it in full, here are three takeaways:

1. Hiring is extremely time-consuming

During the decade we spent — before and after we created Shortlist — helping SMEs source and screen talent, we have become acutely aware that hiring is massively time consuming. From figuring out what to put in a job description, to sourcing candidates through multiple channels, to sifting through hundreds of applications, to organising and managing interviews, to all the follow-up needed to negotiate a final offer — the hours add up. But most companies that we’ve observed, including the ones we interviewed for this research, aren’t actually recording or analysing the time it takes them to hire, and consequently don’t know what it’s really costing them.

We found that for a single mid-level hire, companies are spending around 18 hours screening CVs, and then 19 additional hours interviewing candidates. Unfortunately, many hiring managers report feeling that much of the time spent before the interview stage is being wasted.

How can organisations screen and interview candidates more efficiently and effectively? A few solutions:

  • Rather than filtering candidates based on CV data, implement a competency-based screening approach to objectively filter out candidates who don’t possess the core requirements needed perform on the job. Much of this process can now be done online.
  • Generate discipline around what you will screen before an interview and how you’ll spend valuable interview time. Many assessments are more effectively administered remotely and scored by machine, equipping hiring managers to interview candidates who have already been pre-vetted in ways that can be tough to do in an interview setting. Cognitive ability, for example, is highly correlated to job performance across job categories, but is often harder than we might imagine to assess quickly in a short face-to-face setting.
  • Use a structured interview method to significantly increase the chances that your interview will actually predict on-the-job performance.

2. Too many high-level staff and non-HR employees are involved in hiring

When companies consider their hiring costs, they often only consider direct expenses, such as job board posting fees. In fact, we found that the key cost driver is time, and 85 percent of hiring time is spent by non-HR staff.

In practice, this means that non-HR staff are involved with screening CVs, because functional knowledge is needed for identifying the right skill sets and experience, though CV screening can be a futile task. Business managers often lead the interview process as well, and up to 3 interviews are often conducted.

We’re sometimes asked how business managers can spend less time on the hiring process, and we often provide the following guidance:

  • Define the “must have” requirements that will drive high performance (and by “must have”, we mean a maximum of 3 requirements, not 20).
  • Collaborate on designing an assessment that mimics a key task that a candidate would need to excel at if you hired them (not a theoretical exercise).
  • Agree in advance what will constitute a “good answer” to your interview questions, such that business managers don’t need to be present in each interview round.

3. A high-performing hire is exponentially more valuable than a low performer.

We all know what it feels like when we make an amazing new addition to our team. As soon as they join, we’re often instinctively aware they will have a net positive impact on the company. We wanted to back up that instinct by quantifying the difference high-performing employees make. We found that top-performing employees have a an exponential — not linear — effect on their organisation’s bottom-line, especially in sales or credit roles:

  • A high-performing sales agent can generate around two and a half times the margin of a low performer in the same organisation.
  • For one of the companies consulted, the difference between a high and low performer amounted to a difference of approximately US $30,000 in revenue per agent per year (in a business with sub-$1,000 transaction sizes).
  • High-performing loan officers can generate up to seven times the annual margin of low performers.

These figures show that for growing SMEs, hiring high-performers should be prioritised with great urgency. If this sounds obvious, you may be surprised to know that the vast majority of HR departments are measured based on cost-per-hire or speed-per-hire rather than quality-per-hire.

We recognise that this research isn’t exhaustive, but we hope it will at least begin to point to ways that you can help your organisation hire more effectively, and we would welcome your questions and input.

Download the full report here — Hiring in Kenya: Current Methods, Hidden Costs and the Value of Top Performers — and check out our Business Daily op-ed on the research findings. Want to spread the word? Share your favourite fact from the report on Twitter using #HiringinKenya, and tag us @Shortlisthires!