BetterManager CEO Stephane Panier: “Find a mentor whose experience is similar to what you are going through; Their experience will help you avoid making the mistakes first founders often make”

Get a mentor and a coach. Find a mentor whose experience is similar to what you are going through. Their experience will help you avoid making the mistakes first founders often make. You can save a ton of energy, time and capital by getting the right advice. As part of my series about the leadership lessons […]

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Get a mentor and a coach. Find a mentor whose experience is similar to what you are going through. Their experience will help you avoid making the mistakes first founders often make. You can save a ton of energy, time and capital by getting the right advice.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephane Panier. Stephane is the Founder and CEO of BetterManager, a start-up with a mission to help managers have a positive impact on the people and organizations they work with. Started in 2016, BetterManager offers executive coaching to all people managers, and helps organizations develop a coaching culture. Prior to BetterManager, Stephane was an executive at Inkling, GoodData and Bebo, all VC backed Tech organizations. Stephane joined Google in 2002 where he built three finance teams in six years, in the USA and Europe. Prior to Google, Stephane was a management consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton. Stephane started his career as a nuclear power plant engineer for Framatome in the USA, France and China. Stephane holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, and an MME from Arts et Métiers Paris-Tech.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I always wanted to start a company. My grandfather was an entrepreneur, and my mother had her own medical practice. I moved from France in 1998 with the intent of starting a company at some point. That point came in 2016, when after six years of working in VC backed start-ups as CFO, I felt ready to give it a shot. I didn’t have a precise project. I only knew that I wanted to have a social impact and work on a project that played to my strengths. I asked my teammates what my strengths were, and they told me I was a better people manager than financier. I looked into the state of management and saw that three out of four Americans say that their manager is a major source of stress, and that at some point in their careers nearly half of Americans leave a job because of a bad boss. You probably heard the phrase: people don’t leave a company, they leave a manager.

At the same time, it struck me that it would be very hard to be happy in life for anyone who doesn’t have a good, trust-based relationship with their manager.

The idea for BetterManager was born, and it met my criteria.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

CEOs often state that the essence of their companies and the real reason for their success comes from their people. And this is probably more true today than ever. For the past 17 months, job offers have exceeded job demands in the US. Unfortunately they don’t put their money where their mouth is. While the influence of the CHRO is increasing, it often still is considered second tier compared to CRO or CFO. Consequently, real investment in people development is still a tough sell.

I reached out to my network to get introductions to CHROs of companies we wanted to work with. We were able to create several valuable partnerships, but the rate at which we were able to grow our customer base was lower than I had expected, and it forced me to reach into my personal savings to make payroll several times.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Whenever a participant in our program provides feedback, I receive it in an email. 83% of the time, the rating we get is either a nine or a ten out of ten, and the written comments demonstrate how our work deeply impacts people’s lives as managers at work and even outside of work. People learn about themselves, develop self awareness, confidence, and become better managers, and better people, in front of our eyes. Knowing that we can have this type of impact makes it all worth it.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

As we grew our customer base and our community of coaches, we were able to maintain the same level of client satisfaction of 9.3 out of 10, and expand our relationships with all our partners. We have grown over 100% year on year without building a sales team. Our growth came from customer expansion and word of mouth. We decided to start investing in marketing earlier this year, to further accelerate our growth, but without this investment, we would be cash flow positive this year — our third year in business.

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?

My co-founders Wendy Hanson and Will Corley are both coaches with over 20 years of experience, nine of which were spent at Google. They were our first coaches, but as we signed up more customers, we had to bring in new coaches. I think we underestimated the value of their experience and their expertise. The new coaches we brought onboard were talented, but they didn’t have Wendy and Will’s secret sauce, so we were surprised when we received the first client feedbacks on our new coaches. We got nines and tens, but also a 7, and a few 8s, and we freaked out. We had only had nines and tens thus far. I called our HR partner at the client company and apologized and offered do-overs.

Our relationship with this customer continued to expand over the following years, but we learned not to take Wendy and Will’s brand of coaching for granted. We developed a training program for new coaches and went so far as having it certified by ICF (International Coach Federation).

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our goal is to do well and to do good at the same time. Everyone who is involved, from the leadership team to the new coaches who join the team, are driven by the power of our mission and the impact we have on the organizations and the lives of the people we work with. We are motivated by the opportunity to give.

As part of our coach recruiting, we ask candidates to give four coaching sessions to a leader at a non-for-profit. We record the sessions. It is a way for us to see the candidates in action while helping a non-for-profit. The vast majority of our candidates are happy to give their time, but every now and then a candidate will complain that we ask that they coach for free. These candidates self select themselves out of our process. We look for people who welcome the opportunity to help others.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Get a mentor and a coach. Find a mentor whose experience is similar to what you are going through. Their experience will help you avoid making the mistakes first founders often make. You can save a ton of energy, time and capital by getting the right advice.

The coach will help you grow as a person, and step back from the roller coaster that is your start-up. Avoiding the emotional lows that come from the uncertainty of the venture will help preserve your energy.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am grateful to my co-founders and team members, and the fifty or so coaches who make the community of coaches who help our clients every day. Instead of singling out one person, I would like to express my gratitude to this community of exceptional people who after successful careers as business leaders have decided to give back, help others, become certified coaches, and practice coaching as a second and sometimes third career. They are givers who contribute to our community, by helping each other, sharing advice, and delivering value to our clients. Their work is recognized by the rating they receive, averaging a 9.4 rating out of ten from the leaders they coach.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have been very fortunate in my life so far. The biggest fortune came in 2002, when I was running the risk of losing my work visa, I got a job offer from a small start-up with a funky name, based in Mountain View… I joined Google when it had a few hundred employees, and worked there for six years as it grew to about 15,000 employees at the end of 2008.

I started BetterManager as a way to give back. By improving the skills and behaviors of people managers across the globe we aim to improve the lives of millions. It came from a simple realization: It’s hard to be happy in life if you don’t have a good relationship with your manager.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why?

1- Have realistic expectations. “Million dollar opportunities” rarely are what they seem.

In our third year in business we ran into several opportunities that seemed could turn into multi-million dollar per year deals…. While it’s exciting to envision the upside of such opportunities, their reality rarely lives up to expectations. I learned to take these opportunities one step at a time, drive them as far as they would go, and not be disappointed if they didn’t reach the million dollar mark. We had this customer who wanted us to coach every single people manager in the company. The company had over 5,000 employees, and thus hundreds of managers. It looked like they were going to spend over $1M in the upcoming twelve months. The only thing was that they were not willing to commit to an overall number. They wanted their employees to volunteer, and when we had coached a critical percentage of the managers, they would make the program compulsory for every manager. We played along, and got some early successes, but realized after a few months that not every team had put aside budget to coach their managers. It was still a great success, and nice roll out, but it didn’t reach the million dollars, at least not this year.

2- The best strategy is to focus on your strengths. Unfortunately we don’t always realize our strengths, because they are part of who we are. For example my co-founder, Will Corley pointed out something that seemed completely normal to me, but apparently it’s not. That is my ability to connect with people and build long lasting relationships. To illustrate his point he observed that we had reached our first million dollars in revenue 18 months after we started commercialization, and almost all of our customers, at that point had come from my network of friends and former colleagues.

3- Be inclusive to move fast, keep everyone aligned and informed. Poor strategic alignment isn’t only a large company issue, it can happen to the smallest organizations. At the early stages, strategy can change so fast that even a small team can feel disconnected. Our general approach to building the company was always to listen to customers and figure out what job they hired us to do. The two or three team members who spoke to customers on a regular basis were therefore learning and moving faster than the rest. The engineers who were building the platform at times would find themselves a couple iterations behind despite the team regrouping once or twice a week. As we learned and grew, the pace of change slowed down, and it became easier to keep everyone aligned with one product review meeting per week.

4- Starting a new venture is risky because it relies on a number of assumptions that nobody has verified. So the goal is to validate those assumptions as quickly and economically as possible. You have to be clear about what assumptions need validation, and as methodical as you would be if you were conducting a science experiment. The clearer you are, the narrower the experimentation, and the simpler the experiment, the more you can rely on 80/20 rules. You know what shortcut you can take that won’t diminish the value of the experiment, and will save you time and money. In our case, we set up to verify the following assumptions: 1) executive coaching is valuable to middle managers, 2) there is a price point where coaching is affordable enough for companies to roll it out at scale to their middle managers, coaches get compensated fairly, and we make enough of a margin to sustain and grow the business, 3) we can source and train coaches to keep the same level of client satisfaction, so scaling won’t be an issue, 4) we can train sales professionals to sell coaching for middle managers. This is what we have achieved so far. Next step is to prove that we can build an economical lead engine to scale sales and marketing.

5- Bring external expertise, trust so you can scale. At an early stage our founding team did not have all the expertise required, and we couldn’t hire full time experts. We had to rely on contractors, and we had to trust them. Over the past three years we have worked with three marketing teams, each year we got a better understanding of our needs, and became better at guiding external consultants. At the end of the day, marketing has become so technical that we had to trust, and take a risk.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

Actually, this is what we intend to do with BetterManager. Poor management skills cost the world economy about 10% in lost productivity, and cause a lot of pain to employees and their families across the globe.

We want to change what it means to be a manager or a boss. From our point of view the role of a manager is to ensure the well being and success of their team members, not to boss them around. And as Clayton Christensen writes in his book “How will you measure your life?”, “Management is one of the most noble of professions, if it’s practiced well”.

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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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