Interview with Nearsoft’s People Developer on Self-Management Culture

May 2, 2017 - 15 minute read - Posted by

“Positive deviant” and “delightfully unusual” is how Harvard Business Review described the Morning Star Company, a Californian agribusiness due to their adoption of self-management in 2011.

By the time known companies like Zappos’ and Google’s self-managing teams became public knowledge, the press was more kind, dubbing them “the world’s most creatively managed companies.”

6 years, and despite the rise in popularity and famous adoption of self-management by companies like Zappos’, there were no definitive answers, HR leaders on the fence are still asking the same questions about self-management. Can the self-management model work? Doesn’t it break down at scale? How do you start?

We spoke to Anabel Montiel, People Developer at Nearsoft, to get a better sense of what it’s really like to be part of a self-managing company.

Skepticism.

“When I first heard about the company’s self-management culture from Nearsoft’s CEO, Roberto Martinez, at an event—I thought it was a scam,” Montiel says.

Nearsoft, with 3 offices across Mexico, is a 200 strong company of primarily software developers that doesn’t follow one of the famous frameworks. No Holacracy, and no self-management manifesto. They use a model they are continually adapting.

“Most companies in Mexico are very traditional, especially in non-tech industries, which was where I was working before,” Montiel says.

“So it’s very different to have a company with no managers”.

What is self-management?

As a manager that doesn’t have the final say, what really changes for your team?

“Several months into my new job as People Developer, I received my first big opportunity to take charge on a project,” Montiel tells us. “But this meant experimenting with something I wasn’t sure would work—this is when I decided to approach our CEO to ask whether I could give it a try.”

To her surprise, CEO, Roberto Martinez asked her, “Are you asking me for permission, or feedback right now?”

This is a perfect example for how teams should be operating in a self-managing workplace where no one is required to ask for permission. As an individual, you can ask for feedback from your team on whether you should move forward with a decision. If a team consensus is reached, there is no need to obtain permission because the whole team has agreed to take on the responsibility of the outcome of this decision, just as the CEO trusts each team to propose strong ideas.

A team member’s primary role is to coach and advise to the others members.

While the idea of self-management in a company means a manager might not have the same number of direct reports, it also means that there is more trust founded through more working relationships. For instance, the operations team might be assigned to a client that is having communication issues with the product. This is where the support team can potentially step in.

“People think that self-management means no accountability because everybody is a manager.” But that’s not how it is; they’re self-managing teams. You are accountable as a team and as an individual, accountable to everyone on your team”.

Relativity small and close-knit teams are incredibly effective when it comes to using a self-managing framework. It means that the team has the final say instead of just the manager. Team members can propose ideas to their teams as they wish and the rest of the team offers feedback. The end decision is reached by the majority, if not an entire team consensus. When decisions are made together as a team, consequences are also shared and overcome together.

Developing accountability.

One of the biggest challenges of staying a self-management company is not trusting employees or team to have self-accountability.

Nearsoft has been able to alleviate this by implementing an OKR system (specifically, OKRs the technique preferred by Google, Intel, Zappos, etc). Each team has it’s own objectives as decided by the team itself. These link directly to the organization’s own objectives. Each employee has a goal that connects directly to the team’s goals.

In terms of organization structure, it’s very flat.

Everyone manages their own OKRs which keeps them accountable at all times and can also look up what everyone else has been up to.

Today, Nearsoft is able to trust each employee’s objectives aligns with company-wide core values that the leadership team set years ago. This was done by in the form of a participative activity with all Nearsoft employees at the time. Every individual was asked what they valued most when envisioning the community they wanted to contribute to building in the future.

Self-management is the opposite of micro-managing. Instead, we have everyone hold themselves accountable by allowing them to keep track of their own progress using an objectives map and prioritizing time to achieve their OKRs each quarter. This self-accountability shows just the right amount of trust needed to thrive in a self-management culture.

Because of how self-management is meant to operate within a company, this is why there’s heavy emphasis on trust—employees are, for the most part, on their own when it comes to fulfilling their roles. Self-management provides a distinct ownership where employees are able to feel trusted, appreciated and invested in without amplifying direct guidance.

The art of feedback.

In order to propel new employees—perhaps some that are nervous about feeling directionless—into the self-managing culture, Nearsoft suggests identifying priorities and what’s less important. At Nearsoft, ‘The Art of Feedback’ Workshop is specifically designed to meet this need.

This makes Nearsoft’s onboarding process not only inclusive, as everyone starts building their own growth roadmap in a self-managing environment from the first day, but strategically facilitated.

“An onboarding process loses its meaning when the company is not addressing the needs of new employees with a long-term working relationship in mind,” says Montiel.

“We want ‘The Art of Feedback’ to teach our employees how to be more comfortable with uncomfortable emotions—realizing that not everyone will be giving you positive feedback and that’s okay.”

“We call them self-managing teams—and in order to work well, they need to have two things: Trust and Feedback.”

A self-managing culture is defined by high levels of individual policing, a lack of hands-on management and collective decision-making. When an everyone is working under the same philosophy and completely understands how the company operates within their respective external environments, this is reflected in the way they overcome challenges.

“Always listen to your employees and be open to feedback.”

This is one of the most important lessons Montiel has taken away from Nearsoft’s leadership team—everyone has their permission to make decisions on their own as long as they address potential consequences. Having this default trust in all your employees helps you achieve more in less time because it cuts the decision-making time.

Nearsoft encourages the freedom of decision making through frequent open conversations. Not only is Nearsoft connected to other organizations with similar self-management cultures to share knowledge, this translates to Martinez’s open conversations with his employees.

“As a self-managed team, everyone can grow into whatever role they want but this also means there is no clear path,” Montiel says. “When people think about growth, they tend to think of vertical growth; in a self-managing team, we facilitate growth through identifying weaknesses and communicating culture fit starting with the onboarding process. This also means those that seek to advance skills rather than status are great fits for self-managed teams.”

One of the best parts of giving teams the freedom to make their own decisions and succeed is you’re essentially evolving the traditional HR department into something more because each team recruits their own people.

Not only do you see better culture fit but also stronger teams that produce higher quality work at a faster pace. Everyone is welcome to be involved in the recruiting process and automatically qualified to give feedback. For instance, if you had a suggestion for how to engage potential hires or reach customers, you can feel free to share right away.  

Nearsoft makes it a point to extend the valuable characteristics of self-managing teams, feedback, and trust, to customers. They are able to cascade their company core values outwards by improving customer profile fit for their products and services as well. True employee trust and satisfaction builds customer satisfaction.

Is self-management for you?

Does Nearsoft believe that a self-management culture is for everyone? Definitely not.

One crucial thing to remember is that you won’t always feel comfortable in a self-managing team. While feedback can be positive, it can also be constructive and impactful. Whether you’re in a self-managing team of 50 or 1,000, being receptive to all types of feedback is necessary to succeed when full trust is dealt to all employees.

That being said, Montiel herself, doesn’t believe in generalizations. Nearsoft started as a small self-managing team with no intention of reverting back to standard bureaucratic management practices as they grew.

For Nearsoft’s leadership, giving valuable feedback and moving forward with trust is one of the many perks of a self-sufficient team.

“I think we’ll always have a strong preference for a self-managing culture because of how much trust and ownership it gives us as we move forward.”

Experimenting as a self-managing team will teach leadership whether there is a strong existing feedback loop and to what degree they should trust employees.

Understanding this will allow your company to make changes optimal on a day to day basis regardless of whether they incorporate variations of self-management.

In many ways, this encourages everyone to give peers their feedback. Montiel says, “Nearsoft urges all employees to be open to new ideas, experimenting and taking an agile approach to decision making. This goes without saying that everyone can suggest feedback openly without feeling leadership has the last say.”

Taking on a self-managing culture has helped Nearsoft lower many barriers of entry to having the tough conversations. Employees have found it more comfortable to hold 1-on-1 meetings with just about everyone in the company to discuss feedback. Each conversation is another opportunity to bring up topics like performance and challenges whereas an otherwise more bureaucratic culture would require a longer time lapse between scheduling a meeting and taking action.

It starts with Nearsoft’s onboarding process that includes the “Art of Feedback” workshop and ends with an exit interview for any employee that resigns from the company.

“Exit interviews are a great way for us to speak frankly about each employee’s experience while they were here and take away lessons for similar scenarios to increase employee retention. So far, our turnover rate has been half of similar tech companies in Mexico and we aim to continue to lower this number,” Montiel notes.

The Leader’s Guide to Employee Feedback


Also published on Medium.

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