Envato CEO Collis Ta’eed: “I’d love to see a movement for corporations to use values more prevalently in decision making”

I would personally love to see corporations take values more seriously and use them more prevalently in decision making. It’s a big part…

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I would personally love to see corporations take values more seriously and use them more prevalently in decision making. It’s a big part of the reason we’ve set up Envato to be a values-driven organisation; they are front and centre in recruitment and onboarding, and have helped drive an extremely positive company culture that is very much in line with how we wish to do business.

I had the pleasure of this week interviewing Collis Ta’eed, co-founder and CEO of Envato, a five hundred person company based in Australia. Envato runs an online marketplace for creative projects that has seen millions of customers get the assets they need for websites, videos and design. In the process, Envato has helped its community of sellers earn more than $650 million.

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

I never started out intending to create the company I now lead. I was working as a freelance web designer together with my wife and best friend. When we worked on projects, we often ended up with reusable components. I briefly tried some websites where you could sell assets and decided no-one was doing a very good job of this. So I decided to try making a marketplace focused on helping creatives like me sell their website templates and components. I was 26 at the time, newly married and as green as you can imagine for a startup founder.

At first starting a company and making a new website were basically the same thing. It was both fun and a little scary, but well within my skillset. But then things started going well, and all of a sudden we needed staff. And then an office. And then team meetings. And then, all of a sudden I started feeling like a major imposter.

I was no longer the maths-graduate-turned-web designer, working on fun product ideas, I was heading into areas where I really had no formal training to draw on. Once you become a leader, a CEO of company that’s growing really rapidly, that’s quite daunting, especially for someone like myself who hadn’t had any previous management experience, and little exposure to working with teams.

When you don’t know these things, you enter a situation with a whole range of assumptions about what you should do as a leader, for better or worse. It takes a long time to get a balanced view of yourself.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the most interesting things that’s happened over the years is the realization that people really connect to you when you’re being authentic. 
 A few years ago we were making a big push on diversity and inclusion. We had an All Hands meeting coming up, and I needed to give an intro about it. I decided I should speak about why I personally cared about this topic. For that presentation, I spoke about being an introvert, needing to see a psychologist for social anxiety, and why inclusion matters not just in any one particular form, but across all kinds of demographics and views. 
 It was pretty awkward explaining why I wasn’t very good at some things I have always felt I was supposed to be good at. But to this day, that presentation has gotten some of the most positive feedback I’ve ever had — certainly a heck a lot more than any strategy slide deck I’ve ever presented. 
 We sometimes imagine that people want to see leaders who have it all together, all the time. But real people have stuff going on. Being OK with this, and being prepared to be vulnerable makes you more relatable and authentic.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

What we try and do at Envato is give all of our teams lots and lots of context, and while this is awesome, all the context in the world can’t prevent the frustration that sets in because of dependencies. So the most important thing we can do is allow each one of our teams the resources and clarity — and boundaries — that make sense and support them in properly managing their own work destiny, without constantly needing other teams. Collaboration is certainly good, it’s something we strive for, but you also want your teams to have a reasonable amount of autonomy. 
 So, in short: minimise dependencies and cleverly allocate workloads so teams are not constantly getting ‘stuck’.

What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?

Time zones, 100%. It just sucks trying to juggle staff in multiple locations around the world and there’s really nothing you can do to change it. Sure, you can get people to timeshift and work weird hours, but that’s the worst part about being remote, stuck up against the laws of nature! If you have teams in locations as far apart as, say Mexico and Australia, and then also need to collaborate with a team in Israel, someone is always going to lose. We had a working group at one point that would alternate who was the “loser”, the person who had to join the meeting at 1am their time. It was workable, but it kind of sucks!

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

Be clear with how you want people to work. If you can provide a set of values, broken up into explicit expectations about daily behaviors, then your staff should have a very clear understanding of what’s important to you and the company when it comes to getting things done.
 But also, as a leader, being ‘strong’ does not mean ruling with an iron-fist. Being confident, sometimes means being open to vulnerability. You don’t want to be hapless but also, you don’t want to be someone who can’t (or won’t) be helped. You definitely want your team to be able to help you and give you the answers, not to mention the fact that people thrive not just when they’re needed but when they’re lead by leaders who value their input. So find the balance!

Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?

Investing into leaders is important, because for the vast majority of staff, the leadership they deal with and managers they report to create their experience of a business. As your organization grows, investing into leaders is also just a more effective investment spot. There are, by definition, fewer leaders than people in the organization. But their impact is outsized. If you can have your leads be awesome then, generally speaking, everyone else will be impacted.

Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”.

ONE For people who are moving from being a ‘doer’ to being a manager, understand and appreciate that you’ll now be doing things you didn’t use to think of as work. For example: I used to be a designer, and I didn’t see emails and meetings as ‘productive’. In my mind, if I wasn’t actually creating things, then I was wasting time. However as a manager, your job is communication and managing collaboration, and gradually over time I came to realize that meetings and emails often are the most productive thing you can do. 
 TWO In a large organisation, to be a successful manager, there’s a good version of ‘politics’ that you need to be skilled in. You need to know how to help your team navigate the organization, identify blockers, help them collaborate with other groups, gather information for them, and so on. I liken it to the role of a ‘sweeper’ in the sport of curling — as a manager, that’s your job, you’re no longer the thing that’s sliding, you’re out front trying to help your team. Your job is protecting, facilitating and guiding, and you need to make that mental leap accordingly.
 THREE Prioritise learning. You need to be someone who is constantly trying to be a better manager. If you’re not improving yourself, you can’t expect your team to. Plus, the better of a leader you are, the more effective your team will in turn be. The good news is, there’s so much material out there, be it reading the HBR or doing an online course. 
Be humble. Leadership is a paradox of service and power. You are both in charge of a group of people, but you are also in charge of them to help them accomplish what they need to do. While some aspects of leadership like making decisions or having tough conversations are about exercising power in some form, there are others which are completely reliant on being humble in your manner. You won’t win over a team unless you’re willing to put their needs above yours.
 FIVE: Care about people! It doesn’t always mean being super nice, because sometimes the best thing to do is deliver critical feedback in a polite and actionable 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. 🙂

I would personally love to see corporations take values more seriously and use them more prevalently in decision making. It’s a big part of the reason we’ve set up Envato to be a values-driven organisation; they are front and centre in recruitment and onboarding, and have helped drive an extremely positive company culture that is very much in line with how we wish to do business.

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

That long miss-attributed Ghandi quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is, misattribution notwithstanding, something that’s been a guiding light for how we’ve setup Envato, and we’ve absolutely tried to bake the essence of this quote into the DNA of the business from day one.

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