"As a leader, it’s your responsibility to communicate to your team and build trust. If you don’t get them to trust you, and vice versa, then they won’t be able to do the work or make the team a better team.”
In this episode
In episode #4, Eran Aloni (COO of Gong.io) shares his insights on how to get your team aligned and why accountability is critical to leading teams.
We also talked about how Gong.io uses operating principles to guide their team and what signals you can watch for to know you’re ready to implement them in your company.
Eran has over 20 years of experience building and scaling enterprise solutions. Previously, he was COO and VP of Product at Adobe EchoSign, VP of Product at Influitive, and VP of Product Marketing at Clarizen.
Tune in to hear all about Eran’s leadership journey and lessons learned along the way!
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Eran’s experience in the Israeli military.
Eran’s definition of leadership = Empowering your team to go in the right direction.
Pushing decision-making down to the lowest levels.
The importance of mission, strategy, and coaching.
Managing older/more experienced people.
How Eran’s leadership approach has evolved over time.
“Companies have DNA and it’s one of the toughest things to change.”
Gong’s operating principles and the thought process behind them.
How Gong puts operating principles into practice.
Creating an amazing recruitment experience.
How operating principles differ from company values.
When is the right time to implement operating principles?
When did Gong create its operating principles?
How to build trust as a leader and learn to trust your teammates.
Symptoms that there is a lack of trust in your team and what you can do to fix it.
Eran’s definition of accountability.
Why leaders should avoid the “command and control” approach.
- Team of Teams by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell.
Aydin Mirzaee 1:58
Eran, welcome to the show. I’m really excited to have you on the show today. I mean, you know, just looking at your background, you’ve had over 20 years of building and scaling product teams, managing teams from all walks of life, I’m curious to see When was the first time that you actually became a manager or started to lead a team?
Eran Aloni 2:10
So actually fairly early. Like most people in Israel, I joined the military at a young age and you get that experience in the military, I think I was probably 19 or 20 at the time. So getting that leadership experience at a young age obviously was an interesting experience and a great one. So you get to do things that later when you’re in software industry or startups, it takes a while to get to that level of leadership of large groups and very complex things that you need to achieve. So that was a great experience.
Aydin Mirzaee 2:49
You know, it’s funny that you mentioned that because my co-founder at my last company -his name was Ellie, and he was also part of the Israeli military. I mean, obviously growing up, and he says the same exact thing. He’s like, I learned so many leadership lessons from that. But I’m curious. I mean, when you’re 19 they don’t throw you into a leadership position on day one, right? You have to kind of like work your way up or show that you’re good at it or how does that work?
Eran Aloni 3:19
Yeah, you know, in most cases, if you’re good at what you do, and you show some leadership skills, there’s like a training program for officers and that’s how you get to become an officer and it includes both like basic army or military stuff, but then usually get back to your core, your unit and there’s like additional layers of training or leadership that you go through there. And I think at that young age, I think you’re very receptive to new things you can learn fast, right? And you immerse yourself into this, and it’s really a very strong experience.
Aydin Mirzaee 4:05
Yeah. And so… Would you say then your first-ever manager (experience) was also in the army?
Eran Aloni 4:13
Probably. We didn’t think of ourselves as managers. But yeah, in terms of leadership, for sure.
Aydin Mirzaee 4:21
And so what is one of the first things that you learn as part of that leadership experience, like if you were to kind of summarize the definition of leadership, as you learned in that first experience, how would you summarize it?
Eran Aloni 4:39
I think a lot of times, it’s being a role model and charting the direction and giving the Northstar for people that are working with you. It’s not about making decisions for them. Sometimes that’s part of your role, but it’s definitely not what the goal is. So If you can, empower your team, but to make the right decisions, you need to give them the direction, they need to understand the why, they need to understand what are we trying to achieve? Why are we doing things in a certain way, and just give them that direction. And help them get there. I think in many cases, that’s what leadership is about.
Aydin Mirzaee 5:25
And so, one of the interesting- I don’t know if you have read this book called Team of Teams? It’s basically military kind of related, but it talks about many things, including the concept of pushing decision making down to the lowest levels where they actually know what’s going on in the ground. Was there that concept too?
Eran Aloni 5:49
For sure, I think as a young leader, sometimes it takes you a while to kind of loosen the reins, right. And I think I was, like many young leaders, probably too central in the way I was making decisions. But very quickly, you realize, and especially when you’re running bigger and bigger teams that you do not have all of the information, you’re definitely not smarter than most people working with you.
Aydin Mirzaee 6:19
Or if you are then you’re doing it wrong, right.
Eran Aloni 6:22
And so really, again, your main role is to help them be successful and help them get the principles and the ultimate goal so they can actually make the right decisions, but make those decisions to really align with the bigger goal that you’re trying to drive.
Aydin Mirzaee 6:42
Right. So if you’re basically doing this correctly, you’re setting the overall mission and strategy so that even if smaller decisions are made by the teams that they still kind of align together.
Eran Aloni 6:53
I think it is mission, strategy, guidance and coaching, right? You know, we all make mistakes. And you need to allow people in your team or a group to make mistakes. But you need to help them. How do you not make that mistake going forward? Or sometimes those mistakes become huge successes, right? Something may look like a mistake. But it actually opens the door to maybe something that no one else tried before. And it could be a…So sometimes you actually need to give things time. It may not look like it’s working out at the beginning, but it would work out in the long run.
Aydin Mirzaee 7:29
Did you have an experience, especially as a young leader back then, managing people that were say, or being the authority for people that were more experienced or that were older than you?
Eran Aloni 7:46
Yeah, for sure. And I think both at a young age and definitely later on in my career you have people who have been either doing their roles or have had experience in other places for many, many years and they’re amazing craftsperson, craftsmen or craftswomen. And in most cases, it works pretty well. If you trust them and you value their knowledge, and you find ways to learn from them and get their feedback and get their buy-in into what you’re trying to do, usually it works really well.
Aydin Mirzaee 8:22
Okay, got it. So switching topics for a second. You’ve obviously been a VP of product at Clarize, at Adobe EchoSign, at Influitive. How would you say that your leadership strategy has evolved going from each one of these companies and obviously now at Gong.io? Have you always been running the same leadership playbook? Or are there nuances to it? How do you think it’s actually changed through these different companies?
Eran Aloni 8:49
I definitely feel a change and in some ways I would be disappointed if it didn’t, because I think you learn throughout your career. So I definitely feel like things I have learned in one company, I try to apply in a different role. And second, every company is different, right? So the industry is moving very quickly, the business that you’re operating within or your business goals are very different. So running the same playbook will just not work, both from a leadership perspective, as well as like the product strategy or any other type of strategy. It has to evolve and it has to change. When you shift roles or even within the same company, especially if you’re in a high-growth company, things that you did six months ago probably would not work six months from now or even today.
Aydin Mirzaee 9:43
And do you think that a lot of the management ways and methodologies at companies are highly influenced by the culture that company already has?
Eran Aloni 9:58
Probably. I am a firm believer companies have DNA. And you notice that very quickly after you walk in or start working there, it’s one of the toughest things to change, actually, I mean, there’s some famous examples now, right? If you think about some of the companies like Uber, WeWork, etc. And it starts when a company is really, really small, from the founders from the really core group that started the company. And I think a lot of things go from there, because you tend to hire people that are working well within that environment that strengthens that DNA. So the way that you expect your managers to behave, how you coach them to behave, how you value them, and compensate them, a lot of it comes from the same core.
Aydin Mirzaee 10:50
So I guess you had the privilege, was it employee number 40 at Gong.io that you joined? or how big was Gong.io when you first joined?
Eran Aloni 11:01
We were probably six or seven people when I joined.
Aydin Mirzaee 11:04
Wow, seven! I had that completely wrong. Cool. Well, what a great place to get in so that you can actually influence the culture and also the management routines and everything else. So was that the earliest company that you had joined before or early on in the other companies as well?
Eran Aloni 11:23
Probably the earliest or very close to, yes.
Aydin Mirzaee 11:27
Okay. That’s awesome. And so one of the things that we were talking about before were these concepts of operating principles that you do have a Gong.io, maybe you can walk me through and our audience- like why did you decide that you should create them? When did it happen? You know, how are they different from values, just for the thought processes?
Eran Aloni 11:51
Yeah. So I think one of the reasons I joined Gong is, I felt that this is not just a special problem or a big industry or a big opportunity that we’re pursuing, but I did feel talking to the founders and the small group of people that were part of that team, that there’s something special that I wanted to be part of.
And as we grew, we felt that we do have something special. The way we operate, the way we make decisions, the way we communicate, those intrinsic priorities that we all share. And that was really important for us to preserve and strengthen as we grow. I think we were around 50 people or so globally. So we at the time had a large group of people in Israel and a lot of people here in San Francisco. And we really wanted to make sure that as we grow, we preserve those.
So we have some guiding principles on how to go about this. One: We didn’t want this to be like a top down process. It’s not about the founder or the CEO saying like “these are our values. And here’s how I expect people to work.” We really wanted this to be a collaborative effort where the team shares what they feel is unique about the company, what they feel is something that we should preserve and we should kind of codify, so that was one.
The second was, we wanted this to be something that people can actually make decisions with. So not something that is very aspirational or a nice slogan on the wall but something that would actually help you make decisions on your day to day.
And, the third one, which is related to the other two, it’s not something that we want to become, it’s something that we are, right? And if we will become something else in the future, maybe that would become a principal too, but it was really we wanted everyone to feel that this is something stronger that we already have versus something that might be again, an empty slogan on the wall that no one really uses on a day to day.
So we run a really interesting process, both in Israel and here, where we took a group of 15 to 20 people. And we basically had a guided brainstorm session where people would, you know, basically take sticky notes and write down the things that they feel that are special about Gong or things that they want to maintain. And then we group them together into clusters, and we started working on trying to get the essence out of it. Then we had similar sessions in Israel and here – and there was not our surprise, but to our delight, it was actually almost identical. Phrased differently, people are different, etc.. But the essence of both was really the same.
Then we create the operating principles, which are basically two or three words accompanied by two or three sentences that give them a little bit of more color.
And it’s not part of every onboarding class. It’s part of how we operate, right? So people quote those operating principles all the time, when they make a decision, when they talk to a peer, even when they try to justify to themselves “why would I make?” “Why would I choose route A versus route B?” Here’s why. Right? So it could be something like where is a team, or creating raving fans or, favor the long term, whatever that may be, right?
Those are actually guiding principles that every “Gongster” uses on a day to day basis. People are very proud of them. They quote them all the time. And one of the most amazing things about them is that different teams kind of made them their own and sometimes gave them a new meaning, right. So for example, when we talked about creating raving fans, we were mainly talking about our customers. But for example, our recruiting team for them raving fans are the candidates that come in. And they wanted to make sure that we have an amazing candidate experience, even if at the end of the day someone is not hired, they need to have an amazing experience with Gong and have the best of memories and become fans of the company even though they’re not working here. And that’s really a testament to how strong that is in the company. And it’s not because we have it on the walls. And it’s not because we have a nice slideshow that we show people, it’s because people really use it on a day to day basis to make decisions.
Aydin Mirzaee 16:53
So how would you see these are different than company values and would you, do you distinguish them? Or is this just how you refer to them?
Eran Aloni 17:05
I think company values could be very powerful. We chose to call them operating principles, because we wanted to make sure that they’re very grounded in decision making, right? So the difference between saying that we’re, you know, a customer-centric company and saying that our operating principle is to create raving fans, is that one is very high level and could be interpreted in a lot of different ways versus the other it is a very specific thing that we want to achieve. And I think it’s much more concrete and it really helps people decide how they’re going to take the next step. Like you can say that we’re a customer-centric company, but different people could have completely different interpretations of what that means.
Aydin Mirzaee 17:51
Yeah, that makes sense. I think, what are some problems that you think people can watch out for, that may kind of signify that now is the time for us to also create operating principles in our own companies? Like how do you know when it’s the time and we should do this?
Eran Aloni 18:12
I think if you notice people starting to make decisions that you would not even think of making your own, it means that there’s something there that did not transition, or was not really as common ground within the team as you’d like it to be. It could be an interaction with a customer, it could be an interaction with a peer. It could be just the way people interact with each other, whatever that may be. If as a leader you’re starting to notice that people that are working with you are not aligned on how you’d like them to make decisions or driving towards an outcome then it’s probably time. It might be a little bit too late, right? You probably want to do it a little bit earlier as the team grows, and you don’t have direct contact with everyone all the time. But I think setting that common foundation is super important as you scale.
Aydin Mirzaee 19:15
So it sounds like you, the company was obviously operating for a while. And then you guys put these principles into place. And that meant that there was the ability for there to be some organic, I guess origination for these principles. If you had done this, say, when you were six or seven people, is that a bad idea? So if you’re only six or seven people or 10 people, should you avoid doing that?
Eran Aloni 19:44
I think it might be but every company is a bit different. I think for us, we felt I think we had 25 to 35 people in each office. So we had enough people that were not from the very small core of like founding team members, so we were able to see what are the things that are already strong within that group of people. And frankly, we wanted to have a more diverse set of opinions, right?
Sometimes when you’re, you know, in a company from a very early stage or a founder, you may not notice some of the things that are unique, or some of the things that people care deeply about. And I think, for us, that was the right time, not just because of the right number of people, but because we knew the company’s going to grow very quickly. So we wanted to make sure that we’re prepared to that growth with those operating principles. And with that, again, that shared common ground as we start hiring faster and faster.
Aydin Mirzaee 20:52
You are now COO at Gong, and one of the things that we’ve heard you say is “Trust is the key to any functioning team”. And I was curious if you could elaborate on what that means and why trust is so important.
Eran Aloni 21:11
Yeah, I think trust needs to work both ways, right? I think that as a leader you need to trust your team and your team needs to trust you. If you don’t have that, then I think there aren’t many options for this to work unless you’re in a very hierarchical top-down organization – as we talked about earlier – that probably doesn’t scale and it’s very problematic.
I think if you’re not trusted by your team, as a leader, they would not necessarily align with your vision and your guidance. We all operate in environments where we don’t have all the information. As a leader, you don’t know everything your team is doing and what really they’re experiencing every day and sometimes they may not have a full understanding of everything that you’re exposed to, your vision, etc. So it’s your responsibility to communicate that to them. But if you don’t get them to trust you, they would not operate or align with you, despite the fact that they don’t know everything -not because you’re hiding it from them just because they don’t share all of your experiences or maybe have the same crystal clear vision that you have.
And the same thing the other way around, if you don’t trust someone from your team, and you don’t trust the way they experience their role or their experience, their interactions with a customer or with a peer, then they would not be able to do their work, they would not be able to make you a better leader and make the team a better team. So, you know, without trust, I think a lot of things just start breaking and it’s not a way that you can really scale organization or develop your team or become better at what you do.
Aydin Mirzaee 23:00
So, if I were to diagnose a team…let’s say there’s a team and you’re obviously a manager of managers of managers even but, how do you know that? You know, the key- like that’s the problem in the team? How do you diagnose or what are some of the symptoms that may arise? And you may say “okay, that’s actually the issue at hand.”
Eran Aloni 23:24
I think you can kind of spot warning signs, right? So if you have a leader and you just see that the team is completely misaligned. So either the team’s performance is not good, or the leader, they know what they want to do, but the team is just not following them. Or that their style of management is becoming more and more command and control, then you know that the trust is breaking. But really, I think the number one thing that you can do as a leader is just go and talk to people and try to get down to the bottom of it and see if it is indeed a trust issue. But you can see the warning sign if you can see leadership and the teams go separate ways or that people are just not bought into the path and the goals that leadership is trying to charge and then you know that there’s a trust problem.
Aydin Mirzaee 24:27
Yeah, I really like the way that you put it, which is like if the leader’s starting to do more command and control, then that’s like a very obvious sign. And I think that’s super instructed not just you know, say you are trying to diagnose another team, but “hey, if you’re running a team right now, and you feel like it’s a lot of commanding draw, you may have an issue with trust.” So no, I really like the way that that’s put.
Do you have another quote from you where you say that “accountability is not about blame, it’s about ownership. If you have a strong culture of accountability, you’ll never hear excuses, your team will recover much faster and more effectively from failure.”
Curious, from an accountability standpoint, you know, how do you define accountability?
How do you make sure that your teams have accountability?
Eran Aloni 25:20
I think accountability is you know, if your role or you signed up to do something you know, that it’s yours to win or lose, right. And a lot of times, people work collaboratively on a certain task, but they all need to be accountable for it. There may be one that leads the way but they all share the same goal and they’re all part of the same kind of circle of accountability.
And I think a big part of accountability is also accepting that sometimes failure will happen. And being accountable doesn’t mean necessarily, that something wrong will happen to you, right? You’re accountable for that failure. But it doesn’t mean that you’re bad at what you do, it doesn’t mean that you would not be successful next time around. It just means that you accept the fact that this was something that you’re accountable for and failed. And then you know, you’ll learn and you’ll do better next time.
If people don’t feel accountable, they can’t learn, right? Because if it’s not my responsibility, and it’s not my fault, or it’s not something that I have done that caused this to fail, then I would not drive myself to try and do better next time because it’s not my problem. It was not something that I was accountable for.
So I think creating that, and again, it goes back to trust, right? It’s very difficult to have someone be accountable for something if they don’t trust you. Because then it feels like I only have something to lose when I’m accountable. And then there’s no trust, right? Because if I fail, and there’s no trust, then how am I? What is the end outcome for me? Right? Am I going to be blamed for that? Or am I going to grow and learn from that?
Aydin Mirzaee 27:15
Yeah, that makes sense. And do you think that a lot of this accountability is about also making sure that there is ownership on the other side? I feel like, you know, if people don’t, I mean, if you’re doing a lot of commanding control, it’s also hard, I guess, to hold someone accountable for something because they don’t own it fully. You’re basically telling them what to do.
Eran Aloni 27:39
Yeah. And that’s, again, another facet of trust, right? If you don’t trust someone and your relationship with them is command and control, then essentially, you’re the one. They can own it really, because you’re the one just telling them what to do. So they’re now just executing what you told them. So what is the level of ownership and accountability do you expect from them if they had nothing to say, in no way to impact, you know, how they go about doing their work, right. So they become machines that someone else operates. So they can’t be accountable for it.
Aydin Mirzaee 28:15
Yeah. And I think that obviously like if they’re not accountable, it’s hard to be motivated. And I guess like there’s less growth because you’re not in control.
Eran Aloni 28:29
For sure. Again, we all make mistakes, right? And if we’re accountable, but we have that level of trust and ownership, then you know, we will learn and then we will, you know, we will feel better and we will improve our performance and we’ll find other things that we would like to take ownership and accountability for.
Aydin Mirzaee 28:49
That makes a lot of sense. And I think that’s a great place to end it. You’ve heard it here first, trust is that core element for building great teams. And one of the most important elements of leadership overall,
Eran. Thanks so much for being on the show.
Eran Aloni 29:06
Thank you for having me.
Aydin Mirzaee 29:08
And that’s it for today. Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of the Supermanagers podcast. You can find the show notes and transcripts at www.fellow.app/supermanagers. If you liked the content, be sure to rate, review and subscribe so you can get notified when we post the next episode. And please tell your friends and fellow managers about it. It’d be awesome if you can help us spread the word about the show. See you next time!