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Alex Kvamme: “Ships in harbor are safe, but that’s not why ships are built”

Craft your team. Approach team building like a general manager would build a professional sports team. Look for teammates that complement each other; that work well together but also challenge each other to succeed; that offer different viewpoints and cover blindspots; and that share a sense of purpose. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t […]

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Craft your team. Approach team building like a general manager would build a professional sports team. Look for teammates that complement each other; that work well together but also challenge each other to succeed; that offer different viewpoints and cover blindspots; and that share a sense of purpose. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t strive for excellence. You should always be shooting to hire the best possible people. But you should also carefully consider how each candidate would affect and augment the existing team.


As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Kvamme.

Alex Kvamme is the CEO of Pathlight, the only team management platform that brings data and people together to power team performance. Pathlight empowers large, customer-facing teams to achieve their goals by bringing performance intelligence, coaching, and communications tools together in one place, thereby increasing transparency and creating accountability at all levels.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

My pleasure– and thankyou for the opportunity. I grew up in Silicon Valley and have always thought of technology as one of humanity’s greatest levers for change. I started my career at LinkedIn when it was still a fledgling startup. There, I learned that it was possible for a small group of people to have an impact on millions. Soon after, I started my first company SeatMe — a cloud-based restaurant management system. Like every other founder, I learned a ton (about business and myself) and made millions of mistakes. After two and a half brief years, we sold the company to Yelp, where we quickly grew the business and expanded the product lines. After a few years at Yelp and some time off, my co-founder and I decided to take a big swing and build a new software platform to transform management. We founded Pathlight in 2017 and released the product earlier this year.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I was starting SeatMe, I was pretty certain that building the product, selling the product, raising money, etc. would be difficult. I was prepared to work through those challenges. What totally surprised me was the challenge of management. Up until that point, I had just not thought of management as a job, let alone one that was critically important to your success. Suddenly, I was managing people from all walks of life, some who were 30 years older than me. I think this is interesting not because it’s unique, but because it is so common and yet rarely discussed. Every single new manager is surprised by how hard the job is. This experience actually inspired us to first look to management as a job that could be drastically improved by technology.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we started SeatMe, I remember being convinced that we didn’t need business cards. They represented the old, stodgy companies we were trying to disrupt. Well, I quickly learned my lesson. At our first big trade conference, the owner of a very large restaurant chain came up to me, said that he was interested in exploring a partnership, and asked for a business card so that he could schedule some time to chat. I proudly told him, “we don’t have business cards,” as is if it was some sort of accomplishment. I still remember the look on his face as he quickly turned around and walked away. You can bet I printed a whole crate of business cards the next day. That was an early and painful lesson to always think of the customer.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

The majority of employee churn can be prevented through good management. When someone quits their job, it’s usually because they aren’t getting something that they want. What they want varies — it could be stability, feedback, compensation, growth, community — but great managers always find a way to identify that goal and help them achieve it. The first step in retaining great talent is understanding what they truly want.

By the time someone gives notice, it’s usually too late. In this regard (and many others), the best managers are never surprised, because they strive to truly understand their team. My co-founder loves asking his team, “if you were to quit in the next six months, what would be the reason?” If you’re asking direct questions like that, you’ll have plenty of time to identify and rectify issues before they snowball.

One unique challenge for today’s remote workforce is the severe lack of human connection. It’s much easier to leave a company and team that you feel disconnected from. Strong bonds are hard to sever, but they’re also hard to develop in a remote world. We tell our customers that one-on-ones have never been more important. That is your guaranteed time for a meaningful face-to-face conversation.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

This might be the most common question we get from customers. As any leader can attest, getting hundreds or thousands of people pointed in the same direction is a herculean task. And now that we are all remote, it’s gotten even harder. In the office, everyone shared similar working hours and benefitted from “alignment through osmosis.” It’s easier to get a team synchronized when they are all sitting next to each other, seeing and hearing what their colleagues are doing.

Now, childcare and other obligations have blown up the standard working day, and every employee is in their own isolated bubble. Alignment can only happen when every employee independently knows how they are doing and what they need to focus on. To enable that, leaders need to first set objective, data-driven goals. It should be incredibly easy for anyone to understand how they are doing, no dashboards or tea-leaves required. A frontline employee should be able to wake up in the morning and answer the question, “How am I doing at work?” as easily as they could answer, “Is it going to rain today?” Second, managers need to communicate early and often, not only what success looks like but also ways that their teams can improve.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

Craft your team. Approach team building like a general manager would build a professional sports team. Look for teammates that complement each other; that work well together but also challenge each other to succeed; that offer different viewpoints and cover blindspots; and that share a sense of purpose. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t strive for excellence. You should always be shooting to hire the best possible people. But you should also carefully consider how each candidate would affect and augment the existing team. I’ve seen many teams be transformed, not just by landing the big-ticket candidate that everyone was gunning for, but also by landing the right junior teammate that brought a new skillset or mindset to the team.

Create a cult. Excuse the hyperbole, but in my experience the best performing teams and companies each have crafted a distinct identity that makes teammates feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. There is a cultural gravity that keeps everyone locked in and stable. These teams have their own languages — their own inside jokes, their own coined terms. They fervently believe in their stated purpose and their cultural values. As a result, every employee acts like an owner and puts the group ahead of their individual interests. Most importantly, they feel closer to their colleagues and they feel more fulfilled. I’ve lost count of the inside jokes and internal idioms that we have at Pathlight, but one of my favorites is that we call new deals “Turkeys.” Now, whenever we bring on a new customer, you can hear employees around the world make turkey calls. It’s silly and makes little sense, but it brings us together.

Start with the “why.” We all want to know that our work matters, and that the work we put in makes a difference. It’s a manager’s job to communicate the “why” behind the work. As I mentioned earlier, every top-performing team I know has a strong, shared sense of purpose. When leaders and managers meet to discuss new strategies, goals, and upcoming changes, the best managers are always trying to understand the “why” so that they can weave it into the stories they tell their teams.

Manage outcomes, not hours. Put another way: “trust but verify.” As your team develops and matures, you shouldn’t need to micromanage inputs. You should be able to set aggressive goals and trust that your team will do the work needed to get there. That’s not to say that managers should be completely laissez-faire. They need to set clear, objective goals and make sure their teams have what they need to hit them (e.g. resources, instruction, training, or even air cover from leadership). The most important resource is information: everyone should be able to understand how they are doing, without waiting for their manager to tell them.

Communicate. Now more than ever, managers need to be expert communicators. When it comes to performance, they need to be able to deliver data-driven, actionable instructions as early as possible. But they also need to be able to be empathetic and connect with their teammates on a very personal level. As I said earlier, we tell our customers that one-on-ones have never been more important. It’s your opportunity to deliver data-driven coaching, retell the story of “why,” and deepen your connection with your reports.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

My advice to CEOs and founders is to think of yourselves as the Chief Focus Officers. Your teams will naturally get distracted with the natural ebb and flow of daily operations. Your job — which you are uniquely suited for — is to help refocus your teams on their top priorities whenever they start to lose their bearings. A company, or team, or person can often only do one thing extremely well, and your job is to keep everyone focused on exactly that. Help them make hard prioritization decisions and help them say “no.” Obviously, this requires you to keep close tabs on your team’s priorities. Many times I’ve dropped the ball here, and let a few weeks pass before checking in, only to realize that the team had veered off course. As a founder or CEO, you know the path to success. Your job is to light the way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We spend a large portion of our life at work. We ascribe a large portion of our self-worth to our careers. No one impacts our careers more than the managers we have along the way. And yet managers are the unsung heroes of every organization. They have an incredibly hard job, for which they are poorly prepared and rarely recognized. If I could inspire a movement, it would be to elevate and concretize the skill of “management.” Management should be considered a technical skill, just like software engineering, enterprise sales, or performance marketing. As a result, managers should be able to choose from dozens of tools, training practices, and methodologies that are battle-tested to help them lead their teams to success. Managers should be recognized and rewarded for the role they play in each employee’s life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A quote that has deeply affected my career is, “Ships in harbor are safe, but that’s not why ships are built.” This is a modernized version of Shakespeare’s original quote, “when the sea was calm all boats alike showed mastership in floating,” and it has helped me many times to take big swings and make big bets. Taking a leap of faith is a regular occurrence for founders. You are constantly taking (calculated) risks, and very often the stakes couldn’t be higher. Betting your company or your career on an idea and belief is never easy. This quote reminds me that we have one life to live, and that progress is never made by always playing it safe.

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