In a basic chemical reaction, when conditions change (like the addition of a compound or an increase in temperature and/or pressure), the system adapts accordingly. It might not be the same as before, but the system has a new equilibrium. Don’t worry, this is not a science lesson. Instead, it’s an analogy about rapid growth and change in a start-up. As conditions change, so do the people, processes, and perspectives. Some things may stay the same – like company values – but others need to change.
With rapid growth comes the balancing of decisions, challenges, and dichotomies.
It’s a complicated issue – one that few have a definitive answer for, and this is not a definitive guide. But, this article is about how one manager successfully balanced some of these conflicting factors, while practicing Servant Leadership.
Meet Brandon Roche: Customer Support Manager at Webflow
Just by talking with Brandon for a few minutes, it’s clear how passionate he is about his work. His first interaction with Webflow came as a customer who used Webflow to build websites for clients. He joined as a Customer Support Specialist in 2017, and grew rapidly into a management position – becoming a Customer Support Manager (with 7 direct reports) in less than two years.
In our conversation, Brandon shared many important lessons about Servant Leadership and the importance of adapting to a rapidly growing environment.
Here are some of our top takeaways:
1 Lessons about Servant Leadership
One of Webflow’s Core Behaviours is to lead by serving others. Webflow is not alone in embracing a servant-leader model of leadership. Whole Foods, UPS, and Ritz Carlton have all embraced the main principles of servant leadership – empathy, awareness, community, persuasion, conceptualization, and growth.
In practice, Brandon summarizes this model as “supporting and serving instead of dictating and managing”.
It’s a great philosophy, but how does this work in practice?
Prioritize employee growth (and fulfilment) over efficiency
As much fun as it is to pretend that we live in a Sci-Fi reality, fundamentally, humans are not robots – and the most efficient option isn’t always the most human-friendly.
In the early days of Brandon’s role on the Support team at Webflow, the team was divided into two sections – frontline and backline. The frontline would deal with more account-specific issues like accounts, billing, and customer conversations while the backline focused on addressing the bugs in the software. It was efficient and made employee onboarding easier – you’d only have to teach half the information.
But there was a flaw in the plan. There are only so many bugs and billing issues that you can solve before it feels like you’re having the same conversation over and over. Brandon commented that the process lacked intrinsic value. The work was being done, but the team was lacking meaningful fulfillment.
“We found that it worked for a while in terms of efficiency but it also made our support team enjoy their work less. They weren’t getting as much intrinsic value out of it. And that sort of comes back down to our core behaviours and what we are trying to do here as a company. Are we trying to just crank out work and get the most work out of people or are we trying to build a successful company while also leading impactful, meaningful lives, inside and outside of work? So, once we put this problem through the lens of our missions and core behaviours, we realized this is efficient but also kind of detrimental to our team’s mental state, and we had to change.”
Support employees through regular 1-on-1s
Brandon notes that unlike other departments where there are tangible things to discuss, the 1-on-1s for the support team are focused more on approaches, strategies, and a personal check-in. As anyone who has worked in customer support/service knows, it can be easy for someone to get overwhelmed and worn down by customer issues, complaints, and feedback.
To help his direct reports, Brandon uses his 1-on-1 meetings as opportunities for him to check-in and lend his help and support. Instead of leading the meeting in a targeted direction, Brandon instead takes the path of asking how he can support them, and how he can help them make work better. These conversations are more high-level with an emphasis on soft skills.
He’s found that a good way to check-in with how your team is doing is by asking questions – about the work environment, things that are controllable, and what the manager can do to help.
Brandon values having both a private note space where he can note specific issues and remember them for the next 1-on-1, and a collaborative space like Fellow, where his direct reports can tell that he is taking notes and actively listening.”
“Taking time learning how each person likes to work. Really building on that empathy piece — more so than just listening and understanding where they are coming from, but also tweaking and adapting my management style to help fit their needs. It’s definitely been a learning curve.“
This wasn’t always easy for Brandon. As a new manager, he found himself struggling to guide complex conversations. To overcome this, he found that using some of Fellow’s 200 one-on-one meeting questions was a good place to start.
One of the biggest things he’s learned as a manager so far is the value of listening and supporting his team as opposed to intervening and problem-solving. It’s not always the most natural reaction. Brandon describes the process as “just holding the lemons” in which you give the person a space to vent without trying to make “lemonade” out of the problem.
“One of the ways we put into practice ‘Lead by serving others’ is to hold somebody’s lemons. So, you know, if someone on your team is clearly carrying around a bunch of stress or anxiety and they’re just like, ‘I just need to get this off my chest.’ Just hold it, don’t try and make lemonade out of it, just hold their lemons — let them get it out and then that’s it, don’t do anything else. Just be there to listen and offer support. That was an incredibly valuable lesson for me to learn — both in and outside of work.”
Empower direct reports to lead your team meetings
Brandon is part of the Global Support team at Webflow, which meets weekly for a hefty 2-hour “manager-only meeting”.
It’s set-up as a structured round table where every team member (in alphabetical order) shares updates on projects and support operations. It’s a standard template that they use every time and one that you can save and apply to the next instance of that meeting.
Any questions that arise are noted and left until the end for potential further discussions. One interesting thing is that the last person to share is the Director of Support. He answers questions that came up about hiring, goals, training, and whatever else needs to be addressed.
This way, instead of dictating how the meeting goes and taking up a lot of time, the director lets the team go first, addresses any issues that the team is facing, and learns how to best serve the team as a whole.
2 Lessons about adaptability and rapid growth
Working in a start-up is often described as wearing different hats. People help where they are needed, regardless of their specific job title. It’s a rapidly changing and dynamic environment, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Since Brandon started at Webflow 3 years ago, the company has grown from 30 to 160 people and is still growing.
Here are two lessons he has learned in the process:
Understand your decisions’ ripple effect
When he started working at Webflow, Brandon embraced the chaos of the start-up world, learning quickly by embracing the trial-and-error and the “Move fast – Break Stuff” philosophy.
While this process works for a small team, Brandon comments that, on a scaling team, each change made has “massive ripple effects that are going to take 10x longer to incorporate and 10x longer to recover from”.
“We also learned that trial-by-error works on a small, agile team. But as we scale and grow, any change we make is going to have massive ripple effects that it’s going to take 10x longer to incorporate, 10x longer to learn from and recover from. We kind of had to stop the trial-by-error… which we learned through trial-by-error.”
So, what can one do about that?
For Brandon, he realized that each decision will have a greater and greater effect as the company grows. He now stops to think about how the decision will impact his team as well as the next 100 people who the company hires.
He comments that he is now working on intentionally solving systemic issues instead of quick fixes. He believes it is his responsibility to make the process more future-proof as opposed to just putting a band-aid on the issue.
Embrace change and personal growth
Brandon himself has experienced a lot of change in his role. He started out as a support representative helping out on forums and answering customer tickets and then moved into more of a product management style role working with engineers on software issues, before shifting into a more strategic role, a role more focused on building internal frameworks to support customers and what the future of Customer Success and Enterprise Sales looks like.
While this department is in the process of being defined, Brandon finds himself in a bit of a hybrid role, maintaining some customer support duties and some higher-level strategy. With a lot to juggle, Brandon’s current routine is a morning packed full of meetings with the time in between spent trying to “knock out the rest of the todos”. As the company grows and more people join the team, Brandon has also come to realize that he no longer has to do everything by himself. Instead, the support team has more resources around them. There are recruiters, leadership development, and a massive people team to provide support on the management side of things.
. . .
It’s easy to get lost in the technical nature of software companies. There are bugs to be fixed, billing issues that need to be resolved, new features to be built.
However, for Brandon, these issues aren’t the most important part of his job. He is big on being able to get intrinsic value from the work he does, and, through meaningful 1-on-1s he is helping others on his support team to do the same.