How do you say goodbye to your coworkers of 3.5 years when you’re scattered all over the globe and none of you is in the same physical location? Last week, I sent a text to my husband, “My co-leads are going to have going away happy hour (via video) in the evening on Wednesday March 14. I imagine it could go for a while. Will that work for you?”
He replied, “Of course that’s fine. Weird… But fine 😉”
It’s times like these that being distributed is hard. We can’t get together in a pub, with the ambient sounds of end-of-workday chatter, mugs thunking on a bartop, chairs scraping across the floor, laughter at the other end of the table. We can’t sit next to each other and clink glasses as we raise a toast. We can’t hug each other when it’s all over.
I’ve worked with Automattic, makers of WordPress.com, for three and a half amazing years. The company, and its faith in me, have transformed me. A leadership coach recently encouraged me to start a learning journal to jot down all the things I’ve learned the past few years. I was astonished by the list, which included successfully leading a distributed team that spans hemispheres, speaking in front of large audiences, organizing events, and, along with 14 of my co-leads, helping scale the processes and operations of a globally distributed support team of more than 120 Happiness Engineers.
An opportunity fell into my lap a few weeks ago: an opportunity to join Support Driven, a small company that exists to serve a growing community of Customer Support professionals. At first I didn’t consider it. I had everything I wanted at Automattic: smart and funny coworkers, freedom to learn and grow…
Moving into a new role is a time of both excitement and terror. Omg, so much is new 😀!
Omg, so much is new 😫.
One element I found challenging when moving into a lead role is that success is measured differently from how it was measured when I was an individual contributor. As an individual contributor in customer support, my success was measured largely in terms of customer satisfaction or the number of interactions I had with customers: how many emails was I able to answer and resolve? How many live chats did I handle, and how many can I handle simultaneously? How happy were the customers I helped? At the end of each day, it was very clear how I had performed on those fronts.
When I became a lead, though, I wondered, now what are my metrics for success? Much of my work happens in invisible conversations with team members. How do I know if I’m doing a good job at the end of each day? At the end of the week? In my annual review? What do I measure, and how do I know if I’m succeeding?
If you have those questions as well, the answers to them will depend largely on how your organization is already set up. For example, if your company has clear expectations for your role, or has an official job description for the role, those will be key in defining the results expected of you. The expectations and job description will provide direction for what success looks like.
However, if your company does not provide clearly defined expectations, or if it does but they’re not granular enough to help define what a successful day or week looks like, it’s up to us (or our manager, if we have one) to outline our own expectations that we can review at the end of the quarter and say, “Did I succeed? Am I meeting expectations?”
I am motivated by goals and checklists, so I knew I would need to incorporate both to help me measure my own success. From there, I followed this progression:
Ask: what impact do I want to make? What results do I want to see from my team?
What are milestones on the path to those results? What action can I take to achieve them?
Create goals for the milestones and set timeframes to achieve them.
Log my time each day and where I spend it. Each week, compare my time expenditures to my goals progress: am I prioritizing the right work to achieve the results I want to achieve?
At the end of the time period, evaluate my performance. Did I meet my goals — did I succeed? If not, why not? Were the goals unreasonable, or were they reasonable but there are areas I can improve in order to achieve them?
Iterate in the next quarter.
The impact I want to make
The first step in becoming a lead and figuring out how to measure my own performance was to define what I thought success looked like. What results did I want to see?
After reading a lot about leadership, and after studying our new lead expectations within our support division, I decided that I would feel successful in my role if the team was performing its expected function while also feeling productive, engaged, empowered, psychologically safe, and supported. Those are the results I wanted to see for my teammates.
Milestones on that path
Engagement, empowerment, feeling productive and supported — these are not small results, and the first step in defining success was to accept that I wouldn’t achieve them all immediately. Psychological safety, for example, requires trust, and trust requires time and demonstration of trustworthiness.
Each quarter, I think about what’s next in our journey to these results, then break everything down into smaller pieces can allocate to specific time frames. After breaking the journey into milestones, I ask, “What’s my first step to get to this milestone? What action do I need to take?”
Defining goals to achieve the results I want to see
Once I have the milestones and first steps, I’m ready to define goals. I loosely use the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) format, meaning I set an objective, then define some key results that, when achieved, will contribute to the objective being achieved. So for example, when I was a new lead, one of my objectives for the quarter was, “Level up the team,” with the following key results:
Complete in-depth ticket and chat reviews for each team member (reviews will help team members learn and improve, and therefore level up)
Know the career aspirations for each team member (this helps me look for strengths and opportunities, provide feedback in the context of the team members’ aspirations, and look for opportunities where that team member can grow and shine)
Empower the team to become self-leading in 6 areas (I believe that a team will feel productive, engaged, psychologically safe, and supported when the team is empowered to lead itself)
Tracking time and progress
Knowing where your time goes is a key element to measuring success in any role, as is looking at outcomes. Time spent in meetings and 1:1s isn’t productive if there are no results from those meetings and 1:1s. So measuring success, especially in a role that doesn’t have obvious metrics, will likely include some level of tracking both time and outcome.
I use a time tracker to help me understand where I spend my time, but many of my colleagues simply use pen and paper to log their work each day: “Unexpected ping from Danielle about staffing an event,” “Chatted with John about weekend expectations.”
I use Trello to track my goals. I love being able to incorporate checklists and to move cards to the in-progress and done columns for a quick visual of how I’m doing.
How do I put time tracking and goal tracking together? On a weekly basis, I usually have tasks for each result I want to see. So maybe this week one task is to review 3 team members’ interactions. At the end of the week, if I’ve only reviewed one team member, I need to ask myself why. Where did my time go? What did I prioritize over this task and was it the right thing to prioritize?
Longer range, of I’m mid quarter and I’ve got most of my key results in the In Progress column, with maybe something in the Done column and something in the TODO column, I’m probably on track. If we’re mid-quarter and everything is still in the TODO column, it’s time to check my time tracking and see where I’m spending my time, because I’m clearly not prioritizing correctly.
Self-Evaluating at the end of the goal period
At the end of my time period, which is a quarter, I check my Trello board to see how I did on my goals. It’s not always clear-cut that everything in the “Done” column equals success or several things still “In Progress” equals failure. If I completed everything, maybe my goals weren’t ambitious enough. If I completed nothing, was it because I failed, or were the goals unrealistic?
The more important question is: how is the team now compared to the beginning of the quarter? This question, along with reflection on both goals and results, helps me evaluate my own performance and whether I am providing what my team needs to succeed.
I am often naive and overly ambitious. In the quarter goals outline above, I didn’t realize how much I was trying to take on in one quarter. But that’s okay! Part of this process includes understanding how to set goals to begin with.
When I’m setting goals, I often know going in that some are going to be harder than others, and some higher priority than others, but I didn’t always explicitly state that when setting the goals. Over time, recognizing these distinctions helped me define goals better. Now, if I know a goal is high priority, I define it as such. If I know a goal is a stretch, I acknowledge that as well. Then at the end of the quarter I can assess: I completed the high priority goal but missed the stretch goal, I’m okay with that. I’ve also started being more realistic about what I can accomplish in a quarter, as well.
And finally, inspired by our Automattic Creed, I give myself permission that whatever I didn’t finish this quarter, if it’s still important, I can carry it over to the next:
I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.
Tl;dr: I share a private Google doc with each team member, add an individualized agenda each week that includes questions specific to that team member plus information I want to share with all the team, keep notes in the shared doc, and mark action-items in red so I can scan the doc easily to find those follow-ups the next week.
In June of 2016, about a year and a half ago, I began leading a team of seven Happiness Engineers at Automattic, the maker of WordPress.com. I am based in Virginia in the US, and my teammates are based in various cities in North and South America. In the beginning, I could mostly remember everything I needed to discuss with each team member when we chatted one-on-one each week. By keeping the 1:1s relatively informal and asking open-ended questions like, “What’s on your mind?” we were able to cover a lot of ground, have great conversations, and build relationships and trust.
A perennial topic in the customer support industry is “What does a career in support look like?” As support professionals, we want to see a path before us and want to know how to develop along that path, especially if our interest does not lie in managing people and climbing a leadership ladder.
There are many ways of looking at a support career, from traditional ladders, to support as a theme park, to a choose-your-own-adventure model as described in the recent Career in Support episode of the Support Ops podcast. These are high-level views of support as a career, and they lead to more granular questions about support careers: what are the rungs, theme park lands, and adventures available to us,? Continue reading “Customer Support Skills Tree”→
After reading recent posts about my daily and weekly routines as lead of a distributed support team at Automattic, Arun Sathiya reached out to ask me more about WordPress.com support for the Freshdesk blog’s “Secret Sauce to Customer Support” series. I was happy to spend a Saturday afternoon chatting with him via Slack. On top of reminding me that operating as a 100% distributed workforce is still somewhat novel, the interview process and the questions Arun asked made me really proud of our Happiness team. I work with some amazing people.
Earlier this week, I wrote about my daily routines as the lead of a distributed customer support team. While I do have rituals and routines in my daily work, as a lead I’ve found it is the weekly routines that empower me to be productive and make sure I follow through on expectations and commitments.
With weeks that have more than a dozen one-on-ones (1:1s), multiple video calls, team and division tracking, and anywhere from two to ten P2 (internal blog) drafts to review, edit, and write, the week rather than the day is the time frame I most identify with for planning and containing my work.