“The best managers don't have a team where they're the best at everything. The best managers have a team where they have experts in a lot of different areas and they can delegate work to people who are really good at that. But there's also work that you want to delegate as a manager, because you're trying to help somebody grow.”
In this episode
Communication and transparency are crucial in teams. Uncertainty and lack of information can create anxiety, mistrust, and disengagement among employees.
In episode #137, Spencer shares how he communicated with his teams during an acquisition and how he structures his 1:1 meetings with intentionality.
Spencer Norman, the Vice President of Engineering at Privy, oversees the distributed engineering teams of the e-commerce marketing platform. Before joining Privy, Spencer held leadership positions at Mailchimp (acquired by Intuit) and Reaction Commerce.
Spencer provides guidance on creating a sense of safety within your team when delegating new responsibilities and explains the comfort, stretch, and panic framework.
Tune in to hear all about Spencer’s leadership journey and the lessons learned along the way!
Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the podcast with your colleagues.
Avoiding a management role
One-on-one meetings anatomy
Skip level one-on-ones
Managing through an acquisition
Delegation and psychological safety
Lean into your influence
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Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 00:54
Spencer, welcome to the show.
Spencer Norman (Privy) 04:24
Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 04:27
Yeah, very excited to have you on there’s there’s a lot that we’re gonna get to chat about today. But just to give the audience a little bit of a background, you’ve had a pretty extensive leadership career working at companies like MailChimp get outfitted today your VP of Engineering at privy which is an attentive company in the E commerce marketing platform world. And you know, before we get to a lot of the things that you and I were just talking about before we hit record, I did want to dial back to the very beginning and ask you Do you remember when you first started to manage or lead a team What were some of the early mistakes? The early learnings that you had?
Spencer Norman (Privy) 05:04
Yeah, I love this question because I think it’s, it’s so interesting. But for me, I actually actually tried to avoid getting into a management role for quite a while, I was trying to stay in icy roles, or at least not in the the highest leadership roles, and several different jobs that I took on. So for example, get outfitted. I was the first engineering hire, and was really just very excited to get in and build software, I didn’t see myself necessarily as the the manager or the leader. And I intentionally left some space at the top, when I was working with the CEO and the founder of the company, was really hoping we could go out and hire somebody who would be able to come in and show me the ropes and teach me how to do everything and, you know, manage me and all of that. And over time, it became clear that, you know, what we’ve actually needed was somebody who could come in and work with me, and that I could show how we built things and kind of teach the ropes myself. And so we ended up hiring a small team for me, and I guess I ended up in management more accidentally and that way, then, then intentionally.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 06:10
So that’s interesting. I mean, do you know why you were trying to avoid it was it vague, you didn’t know what it was all about?
Spencer Norman (Privy) 06:17
The way I’ve organized my career, like kind of the way I the way I approach different roles is almost like a learning mindset. Like I have this idea that I can always learn something and every role that I’m in, I think there’s almost always somebody that that is smarter than me, or has done things before that I can learn from. And so it wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t think I could do the job of managing. But more than I thought, I still had so much to learn about that particular role. And I thought, if we could find somebody who could come in and show me how to do it, it would greatly accelerate my learning, and also the company’s ability to execute.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 06:55
So you get into this role, you You thought you could learn faster if someone was brought in. I imagine you learned that you would learn pretty fast if you were thrown into a leadership role. Was there any particular learning at that time that stood out maybe way that you started to operate that, you know, later on you tweaked or changed?
Spencer Norman (Privy) 07:15
You’re certainly right. Like, I think one of the things that I have realized is that just kind of being thrown into the deep end and, you know, ended up in a position where you’re forced to make decisions and forced to operate because there isn’t anybody else who’s going to do that for you, is probably the fastest way to learn. In my experience, you don’t always make the right decisions. And certainly I didn’t, but they’re learning from that kind of constant feedback. And learning from mistakes was was a great way for me to learn. There were a lot of different things that we experienced. So get out there that we were actually building. Initially, on top of Shopify, it was a rental gear marketplace. So we would rent ski and snowboard equipment, and ship it directly to people’s resorts. Really cool business made a lot of money between November and March. And then we just really couldn’t figure out a business between the summer months. But as we started to grow to a point where Shopify wasn’t the right tool for us, and this was like in 2013 2014, pretty early Shopify days, there wasn’t as much you could do to customize the business logic for the platform, we started to look around and try to figure out, you know, what we could build on top of, you know, whether that was a Magento, or whether that was, you know, spree, it was kind of a hot thing in the Rails community at the time. And we ended up picking another company that I ended up working for later on reaction commerce. And we picked it because it was the stack that I was most comfortable with as a developer. And I think looking back, if we had somebody more experienced, leading us, we might have picked something that was more stable, we might have picked something that had a longer history. I don’t know, that was necessarily the wrong decision. And that certainly, I think, forced me to learn a lot in the role, but it was not necessarily the type of decision that a senior technology leader would have made identically.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 09:01
It’s one of those things, it’s difficult, it’s difficult to say, so sometimes you see very senior people with lots of experience making, you know, making decisions that seem maybe to the outside world or in hindsight like mistakes, but I’m sure that you know, under the circumstances you made the you made the decision that made the most sense with with the information that that was there. It’s really hard to look back on these things. But yeah, that’s that’s super interesting, like basically, you know, concluding that when you get thrown into something, you can actually learn pretty quickly. And in general, something that’s really guided you in your career has been just focusing on on this growth mindset, always trying to learn new things. When you think about your one on one meetings, how were those done? Did you have team meetings? What What was the collaboration like in general, like what would you say was the collaboration stack that you use?
Spencer Norman (Privy) 09:59
Oh, man, That’s a great question. So we were at the time, and GitHub was like the primary tool that we use. We didn’t have JIRA, which looking back, I didn’t think about how rare that was. But, you know, we use GitHub and GitHub issues is like our primary tool for, for tickets and for collaboration, that worked really well for us, because we did want to be able to open up our tickets to comments from our community and from open source contributors, in addition to the full time team members, and then we did have some tools that were not as open or that we struggle to open up more publicly, we use notion pretty early on. That’s kind of our primary document source.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 10:39
And Spencer, I guess, like I should probably clarified what I meant, you know, collaboration stack, I meant the series of activities that you would do to really get everybody on the same page. So for example, one on ones did you have town halls, did you have your just like rituals, retrospectives, you know, various things to to really get everybody aligned, given the, the time zones.
Spencer Norman (Privy) 11:06
For me, one on ones were the, I guess, probably the most important meeting, but most important tool that I had my tool belt, that was a way to check in with people who, you know, weren’t really around the world. While it’s tough to get everybody and a variety of time zones together for meeting, I think with enough intentionality, I was able to meet with everybody on my team at some point. And then people who were directly reporting to me, I made an intention to meet with every single week, and then we had, you know, I think one of the other things that we would do is, we tried to have a manager or somebody in a management capacity within plus or minus two or three hours of any kind of major hubs. So if we had folks in Europe, we wanted to have somebody who was able to operate in a management capacity in that part of the world. So that, you know, people on that timeline didn’t have to wait until the US was up or something like that, in order to have a connection to a manager. And the same thing with our southeast Asia team, we had somebody who was based in the Philippines who operated as the kind of the primary manager for the team in that part of the world. We had pretty regular all hands, I think we were doing them once a month that were run by the whole company, we did record those. And I think that was an important tool. And then we also tried to document anything that was going to come out in those meetings provide an agenda upfront so that people knew what to expect and whether or not it was critical for them to be part of that. We do retros on kind of a team by team basis, we didn’t do an entire company retro are an entire engineering team retro, we would allow each team to do that. And initially, we were really trying to focus so that kind of each build team, or each project team would have enough overlap in the time zone. So you know, we’d have a US based team, we’d have a kind of a Europe and Africa based team. And we’d have a Southeast Asia based team. And so that would allow those teams to have some of the more synchronous meetings, stand ups and retros and planning ceremonies and things like that in a way that worked best for their schedules.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 13:13
Yeah, so that makes sense. And it’s very clever to do that in the sense that, you know, recognizing if you’re going to have people in a certain country in a certain location to actually think about having a manager, you know, someone that is somewhat local, maybe similar timezone, and try and really get those folks to be able to collaborate in a more synchronous fashion. Let’s talk about the the one on ones themselves, though, I know you’ve talked about this a lot given talks on on the idea of one on ones, especially in a distributed team, I’m curious to maybe start with, you know, just describing what your one on ones look like.
Spencer Norman (Privy) 13:51
So for me, the I guess the default structure I have for one on ones is 30 minute meetings every single week. And I do that with anybody who directly reports to me. I also have skipped level one on ones that I have different cadences. I don’t try to force those to be every week. And I’d say that’s usually somewhere between once a month and once a quarter kind of depending on the size of my team at the time with those one on ones. And for some, some people, you know, usually managers, sometimes those will end up being one hour meetings once a week, and kind of just depends on the kind of the amount of work that we have going on. And you know, sometimes the propensity that people have to fill up that time, but I’ll scheduled or I’ll structure those in a way where we always start with a check in. And I think starting with a check in for me is one of the most important things to do. And really this is about checking in, not necessarily about the work that’s going on, but just about how people are doing. I think especially in a remote context. This is so important because you don’t necessarily have the same physical signals that you get being in an office with somebody you can’t assume To read body language in the same way, and then sometimes the, you know, the one on one may actually be the first time you’re interacting with somebody for the week, you know, even if you’re starting the one on one on Tuesday or Wednesday, maybe you haven’t run into that person and other meetings over the course of that week. And so, you know, they could be having a rough week, and you might not even know, and if you jumped straight into talking about status, or talking about work or talking about, you know, their career aspirations, but you know, they’ve just had a really tough week, they’re gonna be distracted, or you’re gonna, you know, get the wrong signal from that. And so I think it’s really important to start with that check in and to try to be honest about what else is going on, you know, what’s in the background of their mind. And I think for you to also lead the same way, you know, and so I try to be honest about, if there’s something that’s distracting for me, you know, as the manager coming in, you know, hey, I’ve been thinking a lot about some situation, you know, the fact that we went through some layoffs pretty not too long ago. So you know, the week after that, I’d go into the one on ones, you know, hey, I just want you to know, I’m still kind of processing last week, I’m gonna try to be present with you, I want us to work through this one on one. But I also want you to know that that’s something that’s on the back of my mind. And I think by being honest about that, and setting those expectations, that you’re, you’re hoping for your team to be able to do that, address that stuff, and then then move on to other conversations. And sometimes, and my manager at reaction commerce was really good about this. But sometimes the best thing to do with a one on one is to say, Hey, can I just give you 20 minutes back, you know, go for a walk, take that time. And I think in some cases, that’s actually a much better use of that time, than to try to drill directly into work topics.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 16:41
Interesting. Let’s dive into that a little bit more. So when you say give someone back 20 minutes versus going to work topics. So what I’m hearing is that if you don’t have a lot of other stuff to talk to, and you might default to say, project status checks or things like that, you think it’s actually potentially better to end early and give them their time back versus to talk about those things.
Spencer Norman (Privy) 17:08
I think it can be anything. I mean, there’s, there’s obviously times when you have a, you know, a project that’s really critical, and you’ve got you’ve got some time pressure, but I don’t think that’s most of the time. And I think if if there’s times when people have either not been able to get away from their desk for a while, or they’ve got, you know, something else going on, sometimes that scheduled one on one block is a great time to just step away from the computer, take a little mental refresh, break, and be able to come back with with fresh energy. And I think, you know, as, as the manager in that situation, you’re the one who can cancel the meeting. You know, it’s rare, I would say that, you know, somebody who reports to you is going to directly ask for you to just cancel that meeting, I do have some team members who will do that now, because we’ve established a bit of a rapport, that that’s something that we can do, you know, acknowledging that you’re the one who has the kind of the positional authority there. And, you know, having enough empathy to know what it is that your teammate needs is that you know, to get advice, or to talk to you about something that’s bothering them, or do they just need time to step away.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 18:12
So we’ve talked about the the check in section. So the check in is, is more about really showing the context, what is going on for you, in the back of your mind, if there’s anything relevant to say same thing with the person that you’re meeting with? What is the next section after that?
Spencer Norman (Privy) 18:29
So for me, the the next section after that is really, you know, kind of the meat of the meeting with all my one on ones, I set up a doc that we share, we take notes, and that Doc, generally will try to have an agenda in that Doc. So you know, if there’s something that I want to talk about, I’ll put it in the doc. And I’ll try to do that ahead of time. So that, you know, whoever I’m meeting with can read ahead of time, kind of know what I’m hoping to check in about. And I asked that they do the same thing. In practice, my experience is that some people are really good at this and you know, very organized and want to kind of invest in that way. And other people are going to show up and haven’t looked at the doc since the last week. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a reflection on the, you know, the quality or the engagement of the employees, just some people that fell, they think and other people, you know, or more in real time like to have those discussions. So, you know, I think having that shared dock where you can take notes in the meeting and where people can put agenda items ahead of time is a great way to see that discussion. But I’ll always start that discussion with one of two prompts. You know, the one I’ve used the most is where should we start today. And I really liked that one because it doesn’t presume that the thing that is most important to that person is something they’ve been willing to write down in the doc. There’s two reasons that I see that that happens. One is you know, maybe they’ve been busy and haven’t had a chance to really get to the document. I don’t want to say that whatever I’ve put in our shared Doc is the most important thing just because As they haven’t had the chance to get to it. And I think the other reason maybe even more importantly is there are certain types of things that you may want to talk about, that you don’t feel safe putting in writing, you know, even though it’s a shared doc, just between the two of you, there’s certain types of feedback, maybe you want to share about a co worker are certain types of feedback you want to share upward, where you just don’t really know how to write it. And so when you ask, you know, what’s on your mind, or where should we start today, like that, invite somebody to come and to share something that’s not necessarily something they’ve already written down.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 20:36
Yeah. And sometimes, you know, putting something down, depending on what it is may actually, I would say, get the other person to want to message you earlier and say, Hey, what’s this about? You know, so depending on the topic, there definitely is, there definitely are things that it’s almost, you know, we we like to think of it as like, there’s the shared agenda, and then there’s a private agenda. And those two are not necessarily always the same thing. But that makes a lot of sense. So the expectation, though, is most of the time or at least, what’s encouraged is that the person that you’re meeting with will bring in items to discuss and, and hopefully some of that is in this shared format, so that you can also view maybe a process have a chance to think about it, you know, beforehand. What happens if I assume you also get to add to this as well, what happens if there is a lot to discuss? It’s very tactical here. But you know, lots to discuss lots of items, either you have a lot of items, they have a lot of items, do you then turn around and extend the meeting? Do you? Like do you strategically, even though you only have half an hour book, always leave half an hour gap afterwards? How do you play that part?
Spencer Norman (Privy) 21:50
For me, it’s a case by case basis, I think there are, there are certainly people I’ve managed, who have a tendency to always go over. And there’s, there’s no amount of time you could put on the calendar, where you’re not gonna run up against the end of your time, you know, whether that’s a 30 minute meeting or an hour meeting. And for those, you know, I think it’s important to figure out which of these things are really critical for us to discuss, and which of these things, you know, can I say, Hey, can we, you know, put this on the agenda for next week. And so I think my default is, and the way I like to approach this is, as we get towards the end of that time, anything that we haven’t gotten to just goes, we just move it and we’ll both have that dock open, we’ll move that into the agenda for the next week. That being said, I think there are also times when something really is critical. And maybe there’s more to talk about, then, then you have time to talk about it. And in that case, I’ll do one of two things. The first thing I’ll do is suggest, hey, let’s schedule another meeting later that week. And I think by doing that, you’re kind of you’re putting enough of a break in the meeting, where if it actually doesn’t turn out to be that important. Somebody might say, well, you know, actually, let’s just talk about next week, it’s really not that critical. And then the other thing, and this is, I would say more rare, but sometimes we will just extend the meeting, I don’t have a schedule that’s open enough, where every one of my one on ones has, you know, a large gap after it that I can extend into, but I do occasionally have that. And in that case, you know, I’ll go over by 10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes if there’s something that is really important that we’re that we’re getting into.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 24:10
What I really liked about what you said is that I mean, this is one of the nice things right? So when you have stuff in writing, when there’s an agenda before and you can you can actually look at it. You can, you know, view those things and figure out what should be discussed first, hey, we only have 30 minutes, lots of stuff in here. What are the most important things that we need to talk about? And you’re right, maybe by this time next week, some of the things that the you know, needed to be talked about don’t need to be talked about, they kind of resolved themselves. And so I think the combination of a defined time plus something written where you can review all the things that need to be discussed. It’s a very powerful combo in conjunction with that reprioritization that you talked about. So I think that’s, that’s definitely one of the big value points here. So we’ve talked about The check in we’ve talked about the main discussion. And then you’ve also have, you also have a follow up session. So what are the follow ups about
Spencer Norman (Privy) 25:08
this is kind of how I organize my Doc’s as well, in addition to how I organize the one on ones, but at the top of all of our one on one dogs, we’ve got kind of like this ongoing items, or, you know, follow up items that are just perennially up there. And we’ll scratch them off, if we finish them, sometimes they turn into items. For engineers, sometimes they’ll turn into JIRA tickets or, or other work, or, you know, requests for comment, some kind of some kind of technical spec or technical doc. But sometimes it’s just, you know, an ongoing topic. Maybe it’s, you know, career check ins, or maybe it’s, you know, more goal related, maybe it’s something they’ve asked you to follow up on, but you have multiple layers of people to go through. And I think the thing that’s really important to me around follow up and around making sure that every one on one has at least some some aspect of following up is that I think when you’re, when you’re reporting upwards to somebody, it can be awkward to ask about the same thing every week, right? Like, might be on your mind, but the chances that you are actually going to say, hey, you know, that thing that we’ve been talking about the last three weeks, have you done that yet, as a manager, you can absolutely have that conversation, you know, as the manager, or the director report, you get to a point, you’re like, you know, what, they just don’t actually care about this, and I don’t want to be the, you know, the annoying person, so I’m just gonna, I’m gonna drop it. I think as soon as you get to that point, you’re maybe at risk of losing that employee, you’re kind of starting to indicate that either you don’t care, or that you’re not actually going to do what you say you’re going to do, which I think is a pretty critical part of building trust, and teams. And I think, you know, on a remote team, it’s, you know, extra challenging to build trust in some way. And I think, following up doing what you say you’re going to do is a really critical part of building trust with people. And so I think, as a manager, being the person who is going to bring that up, hey, I know, I told you, I was gonna do this, I’m still working on it. It’s not done yet. Here’s the situation. You know, I was working with a manager to get access to we had, you know, some reports that moved from one manager to another, I was working to get them access to some old reviews and things like that. And it was taking longer than I expected, we’re in the middle review of review season. So it was important. So I had to make sure, you know, I was actually coming back and said, Hey, I’m talking to HR, I’m working on getting you those those reviews. Don’t worry, I am still working on it. And I’m sorry, I don’t have it yet. And I think that activeness in terms of, you know, addressing things that are their concern, but aren’t necessarily on the agenda is a really important way to build trust. And I think intentionally following up on things. And I think that’s a great reason to have paper notes or to have, you know, written notes that you’re sharing, because it does prompt you to do that again. But that’s that, for me is the importance of that follow up. Yeah, I
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 28:01
really agree. Sometimes there are things that really, I would say, transcend the individual one on one. So it’s a multi week thing, it’s a multi month thing, it’s a big priority, maybe it’s something that, you know, it’s feedback that either person is working on addressing, and that takes time and takes effort. But to have something that’s a reminder, sometimes maybe discuss it actively, sometimes maybe you see it from the corner of your eye, and that’s a reinforcing function. But this makes sense. And I really liked that you called out that difference in that, you know, maybe the manager can hold the other person accountable and ask about things all they want, but it might not be possible or the other person may not do the same. So it really gives the manager that extra prompt. So I really liked that as well. This is pretty interesting. And would you say that for your skip levels that you do the same thing as well, as is very much the same format?
Spencer Norman (Privy) 29:00
I would say it’s it’s very similar. So I think the thing for skip levels, most of the time at least, is that they are infrequent enough, the type of conversation usually differs, I would say my check ins for skip levels, I do try to start with the same kinds of questions. But there’s less of a strong relationship and that relationship is separated a little more, at least in terms of the organizational hierarchy. So I don’t really expect people who are skipped levels to be bringing necessarily a lot of real world stuff over time. I think you can develop that that more personal relationship, but I think it’s it’s a little more rare. In terms of the discussion, I found skip levels to focus, at least the best ones to focus more on career goals, career aspirations, kind of longer arc goals and things like that, that the person has. So, you know, occasionally it’ll focus on you know, specific feedback or, you know, I think in some cases skip levels can turn into a kind of gripe session. You know, people feel like they finally have somebody’s ear who can make a change. And they want to make sure that they take advantage of that opportunity. But a lot of times, it’s more, you know, here’s where I’m trying to go with my career. How can you help me get there? Or do you have any advice? And I think that’s a really interesting question to engage in. And I found it to be much more macro rather than like the day to day and a lot of my skip levels.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 30:22
Spencer haven’t asked you another very tactical question here. So you know, one on ones, okay. Once a week, in the vast majority of cases, I assume recurring meeting on the calendar, skip out balls in frequent sounds like for some people, months, a month, some people once a quarter? How do you how do you end up scheduling those? Do you actually say, you know, recurring, scheduled meeting quarterly with this person? And is it all recurring? Or do you kind of wake up and say, who should I meet this week? Because some people do that some people really do do it a more on an ad hoc basis, because I assume your schedule varies too, right? You have some crazy release coming up some major projects going on, you probably maybe don’t have as much, or maybe you don’t skip the one on ones. But maybe you start to think about the skip levels. And in general, I find that people are a little less, I would say attentive to the, to the skip levels in general. So yeah, how do you how do you schedule your hours or make sure that those get done,
Spencer Norman (Privy) 31:24
this is something that I guess I’ve learned the hard way, if I don’t put it on my calendar, it is, by the time the week have rolls around, it is very hard to find a space. So I personally I scheduled them and I will put them as recurring meetings on my calendar. And you know, kind of the frequency or the cadence really depends on the size of my team. And kind of the number of those types of meetings that I’m having. For me, it’s also I would say highly, highly likely or very frequent that I will end up moving those skip levels. So the fact that something is on the calendar for six weeks from now or for two months from now, doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to meet at 230 On Tuesday, the March 23. But what it does do is by the time that comes around, I see that meeting on my calendar, and it’s an indicator that I haven’t met with that person in a while. And if I need to move that meeting to a different time that week, I can do that. And that happens to me frequently, although I think even having it on the calendar sometimes will allow all of the other meeting Tetris to happen kind of overwhelmed that which I think is also useful. But for me, I really, I really do have to have it on the calendar. And if I don’t have it on the calendar, there’s a couple engineers that I didn’t meet with for I think it was almost three months, because it just wasn’t on my calendar. And you know, went back and I was looking through some one on one docs, I think this was in January. And the last time I met with Dave was in September, okay, I need to fix that. And so at that point, I made sure to schedule it recurring. And and usually that’s because I’ve either forgotten to hit the recurring button or something slipped off and never got rescheduled.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 32:59
very tactical, but I think it’s it’s one of those things that it’s spoken less about in general. So there’s a lot of, you know, work on one on ones with your direct reports, when it comes to the skip levels, the guidance is a little bit more nuanced, right. And so it’s interesting that you apply a lot of the same sort of logic to those as well, but maybe focus on different sorts of discussion topics overall. So I know that a topic that you’re also very passionate about, and we should definitely talk about today is what it looks like when you get acquired what it may look like for your team things that need to be considered. You know, either you’re acquiring a company, you’re being acquired. You know, I think today, recently, you know, privy was acquired by attentive. I mean, that’s just one example. I feel like you’ve been through a few of those in your career. So maybe let’s talk about that. Maybe there’s, there’s a story or there’s, there’s an example we can talk about and some of the lessons learned in that process.
Spencer Norman (Privy) 34:02
Yeah, that’s, that’s definitely something I have a lot of experience with recently. I think it’s a very challenging situation to navigate. I mean, as an employee, I think it’s, you know, management on hardmode. You know, when you’re going through an acquisition, when I was at reaction commerce, we got acquired by MailChimp. And then about a little over two years later, MailChimp was acquired by into it. I’m now with privy and for the was it acquired by attentive shortly before I joined. So I was not with the acquisition here, but I’m joined in a team that has a lot of the same experiences that I’ve been through. And, you know, I think managing a team that’s been through an acquisition is its own, comes with its own unique challenges. Specifically, I think, you know, one of the one of the challenges is around just the communication around the acquisition when I was at reaction commerce, you know, as one of the leaders of the company I knew about kind of the possibility Have an acquisition far, far before we were able to tell most of the team, you know, probably two or three months before. And it’s one of those things where it’s not final until its final, you know, you could have an acquisition fall apart on the doorstep, and you don’t want a whole team of people expecting that an acquisition is going to go through for it to fall apart, I think it gets fairly distracting to be thinking about an acquisition, there’s just so many different things that absolutely will change. And so I think there’s this weird and kind of delicate balance between driving hard on all of the initiatives and all of the projects that feels really important at the time in order to kind of keep that normalcy for the team, and also kind of allowing some space. Because you know that as soon as that acquisition does go through, once it becomes final, everything will change all of the projects that you’ve been working on, you know, all of the things that feel just really critical to take a backseat to integrating and to know the job of actually merging with this, this new company. You know,
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 36:03
what’s really interesting about this is you’re absolutely right, acquisitions can fall apart last minute, sometimes they fall apart and start again, multiple times, sometimes it’s a matter of months, sometimes it’s 18 months, these things are very finicky. And the thing I find really interesting about this is a lot of companies, especially in tack, modern tech startups, a lot of us talk about transparency and being very transparent with the employees. And we share our numbers, and we share all the things and everybody can know about everything. But one of the big except ifs is this acquisition process. But for good reason, right? It’s the most distracting thing in the world. I mean, once you know, your company really starts getting larger and doing some cool things out there. I mean, people will be knocking on your doorstep, you know, every Tuesday. And so, and that’s not the sort of thing you want to email to your whole company base, hey, on Tuesday, we got to get another acquisition offer. And so it is very interesting, like the transparency thing is true. But some things are truly distracting, and they’re not, you know, they’re noise more than signal until they become signal.
Spencer Norman (Privy) 37:17
100% agree with that. And I think the delicate balance is, you know, between being made, I only say overly transparent. So I do you think transparency is a is a virtue and most companies but an a sharing information that, you know, is more noise than signal, as you said, or, you know, it has a low likelihood of becoming reality, because I think it’s so easy to be distracted by the what ifs and then the impact, there’s so many things that change for you, when you do have that acquisition become final your career ladder changes, the people that you’re working with change, you might have, you know, new or different health care, or, you know, kind of different benefits, because you’ve joined a different company, and the best case scenario, those things are all improving, but it’s still changing. And that change can be really challenging. And so I think, you know, just kind of, it’s so distracting to be looking ahead, you know that this makes it very difficult to focus on on the task in front of you. And I think the the flip side of that, though, is is equally challenging, where, you know, I think one of the things that that I ran into as a manager at reaction commerce is I felt like I was really trying to encourage people to continue to work on something that I knew if this acquisition went through, was unlikely to be terribly important. And so you’re really encouraging people to still, you know, work hard and focus on, you know, projects that maybe you don’t actually believe are going to be critical. But if the acquisition doesn’t falling apart, then that work still important. And so it’s it’s this really delicate balance, I think between continuing to kind of keep that normal pace and that normal approach to work and the urgency that comes with some of these startups that are in that that state, and also being transparent about, you know, what’s actually going on.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 39:04
I mean, that’s very interesting, right? Like, you almost have to have this dual mindset, you can’t put all your eggs in that acquisition basket, as you said, These things are finicky. So it makes sense. It’s to obviously get the team to continue to work on those projects. What other advice would you have to company leaders? Maybe as the acquisition happens, so now say it’s been announced, it’s real? What are some things that you’ve learned, maybe some mistakes that are worth sharing in this process or things that you learned about afterwards?
Spencer Norman (Privy) 39:38
One of the most challenging things is to be really clear about you know, why the acquisition was happening. So one of the acquisitions that I went through, it wasn’t super clear why that company was acquired. That you know, I think there’s a lot of different reasons that the companies are acquired, but in this case, it was is this an aqua hire are we are we bringing this company and to essentially put more people on on a project that they haven’t been working on were, you know, really trying to hire or to acquire for talent? Or are we hiring or acquiring for this product. And those are very different sets of assumptions to join a new company with. And in one of those acquisitions, the the team that we ended up joining, really believed strongly that this was kind of an aqua hire. And you know, there was this strong belief that we were bringing, I don’t know, say 20 engineers into a project that was on track was was likely to, you know, to be the right product to build. And they just really needed more, more bodies, more and more people to help execute. I think the story that a lot of the team that had been acquired was told is, hey, we don’t really know what we’re doing. We’re trying to build this new software, but we’re not sure we’ve done it right. And, you know, we’re going to bring y’all in, you have this product you’ve built. And that clash, or that that acquisition lead to kind of clash in understanding where I think if we just been really clear about with both sets of teams with the team that was kind of absorbing the company and the company that was being acquired, would have been much less contentious when we joined. I think there’s probably a wide variety of different kinds of expectations like that, that you can set, but just making sure that people both on the acquiring side, as well as on the existing companies side, are on the same page and understand, you know, what the what the goals are, is, is really important.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 41:37
Yeah. And, you know, to the listeners, who have been through one of these, maybe they will totally relate. But, you know, for everybody else who’s wondering how could they not know why they were acquiring the company? That’s a lot more common as well. And so, oftentimes, and you know, the reason is, these discussions start, maybe there’s an initial reason, but as you talk with the other company, then other reasons form and then, and then the brainstorming happens, and then there might be other reasons. And so, and different parties, even in the acquiring company might have different motivations. So depending on who you talk to, there might be slight variations to that. But yeah, it is a very complex organization. And I do agree with you that just clarity as much as possible, you know, is going to make all the difference there. I know, when we started the discussion, there were three major topics that we said that we would talk about today. So we did talk about our one on ones, we just talked about the acquisitions. And, you know, fun fact, we’ve been talking a lot about delegation in the last few episodes. So and I know you have a thing or two to say about delegating as well. This is arguably one of those things that managers they do and and they keep doing, and you hopefully keep getting better at this. This is one of those things. It’s really hard, hard to master, you know, in a couple of years. And I feel like you learn it more deeply over time. But I’m curious, what are some of the the main things that you’ve learned about delegating, and things that you would share with the audience today?
Spencer Norman (Privy) 43:15
Yeah, so I really love kind of focusing on delegation. I think there’s there’s a few things that we could talk about here with delegation. But but one of the things that I think I like to focus on is you know how to make sure that your team feels safe to take on new responsibilities. When you’re delegating. And there’s a there’s a model I really like called the comfort stretch panic model. And it describes three different zones. So in the comfort zone, this is where you’re, you’re really comfortable, you’ve probably executed in that zone before it’s you know, tasks that you’re very comfortable doing. The stretch zone is, you know, things that are really at the boundary of your ability level, maybe it’s something that you’ve never done before, but you think you might be able to do, maybe it’s something you’ve done before you struggled with, but it’s something that you’re not necessarily super confident that you’re going to you’re going to be able to do. And then beyond that stretch zone is the panic zone. And this is where you’re not only uncomfortable, but you’re so uncomfortable that that you’re likely to freeze up and either to do a poor job or to you know, kind of freeze and not even necessarily get the task completed. And one of the things that I found, you know, when delegating is that there’s kind of two different types of delegation, you may even delegate a task because there’s really somebody on your team who’s better suited for it. And I think if you build a team, effectively, you’re going to be hiring people who are better than you at a lot of different things. I think the you know, the best managers don’t have a team where they’re the best at everything. The best managers have a team where they have experts in a lot of different areas and they can kind of farm out work to people who are really good at that. So you may have, you know, work that comes in where it’s just, you know, you’re the router you take some tasks Can you find the best person on your team to do it. But there’s also work that you want to delegate as a manager, because you’re trying to help somebody grow. And I think that’s the other type of delegation that I look at is when you’re, you’re trying to take something that might be in somebody’s stretched on, and you want to help them learn, and you want to help them have an experience that they haven’t been able to have yet. And I think in order to do that, you have to have enough psychological safety on your team, where somebody feels safe failing, you know, if you can’t fail, you can’t stretch, the more safety there is to fail on your team or in your organization, the larger that that stretched on it’s going to be, and if you have a team where its failure is routinely criticized or punished, then people are going to have a comfort zone, and they’re going to have a panic zone, and there’s not going to be much of a layer of stress on you’re going to end up with people who just really stick to the work that they already know how to do. So I think you know, psychological safety in a lot of ways, I think, is a really a dependency of effective delegation. And until you have that psychological safety, you’re not going to be able to delegate things beyond people’s comfort zones.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 46:06
I really love the way you put that, which is if there’s no psychological safety, you kind of lose the stretch zone, and then you’re in between comfort and panic. So super interesting to put it that way. Spencer, I know we’re coming up against time here. We’ve talked about so many different concepts, managing across time zones, one on one meetings, delegating, talking about acquisitions. And so the final question that we always like to ask everybody who comes on the show is for all the managers and leaders constantly looking to get better at their craft. Are there any final tips, tricks or words of wisdom that you would leave them with?
Spencer Norman (Privy) 46:44
I guess the last thing I love that question to end up with, but the last thing that I would leave people with is, you know, trying to lean into your influence rather than your authority. It’s not to say that there is no time when you necessarily have to have a mandate for something. But if you find yourself needing to put out an edict or put out a mandate for why something has to be a certain way, I think it’s worth asking one, why is that so important to you? And to Why don’t people align with your approach? Now, consensus is really difficult that you know, under no illusion that you can get consensus on everything. But if you do find yourself leaning into that authority more than leaning into influence, I think there’s some really fundamental questions that’s important to ask about, you know why you’re having to do that so much. I found that leaning into writing and really trying to explain the reasoning and the the context around decisions, has allowed people even if they may disagree with me about the exact approach to understand why I’m choosing that approach, and you know, not necessarily to fundamentally disagree with the ultimate decision, even if they would personally choose something different.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 47:55
That’s great advice and a great place to end it. Spencer, thanks so much for doing this.
Spencer Norman (Privy) 48:00
Yeah. Thank you, Aydin.