“Every day gives you a chance to try compassionate empathy”. With Diego von Sohsten

“Every day gives you a chance to try compassionate empathy”. We are all wrong, we have perspective gaps, and ironically that’s what unites us. Being curious, while putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes to learn more about their perspectives, can help us make better decisions and live a healthier life. Aspart of my series about […]

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“Every day gives you a chance to try compassionate empathy”. We are all wrong, we have perspective gaps, and ironically that’s what unites us. Being curious, while putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes to learn more about their perspectives, can help us make better decisions and live a healthier life.

Aspart of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Diego von Sohsten.

Diego von Sohsten is the Co-Founder and CEO of Teamworki, an AI-powered employee engagement tool for agile companies. Diego is on a mission to help managers build alignment and a culture of feedback at work. He has managed teams and strategic projects in large tech companies over 11 years in the industry.

Diego believes in the power of bringing people together and rallying around shared goals to achieve powerful outcomes. Born in Brazil, since 2017 he lives in the Canadian city of Saskatoon, or “the coldest place on Earth” as he claims.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Ialways wanted to work in tech, but it wasn’t clear to me — as a young adult — what role would make me fulfilled. In Brazil, having a day job while pursuing a university degree is a matter of financial survival, unless you come from a wealthy family. Due to that reason, I kicked off my career at 18 as a Software Developer after passing a competitive interview process in a consulting company.

It wasn’t long until I realized that while I enjoyed working with Developers to solve problems, I didn’t want to be one of them. I could play to my strengths and provide more meaningful contributions from a business standpoint. I took the plunge and wore Project Manager and Product Manager hats since then.

Having managed many people and initiatives for about a decade, I visualized common traits in the highest-performing workplaces, where people rally around common goals while fostering a culture of feedback. After feeling inspired by former managers and coworkers who adopted that mindset, I brought that to my own teams and, more recently, took the entrepreneurial path: my startup is building a product that equips managers with a structured toolkit to unleash employee engagement and performance.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Having started a career so young, oftentimes I wasn’t taken seriously by our customers. I tried to make up for my inexperience by sacrificing my social life and reading as many books as I could. I even grew a beard to look older!

In retrospect, while learning new skills is crucial (can’t say the same about trying to look older), that goal could have taken a healthy direction rather than becoming an obsession. Making my career the only thing that mattered backfired, impacting my mental health and pushing my life goals a bit farther. I was only able to find a better balance years later.

In a nutshell, don’t be ashamed of your inexperience and learn to enjoy the journey. Negative self-talk feeds impostor syndrome and leads you to bad decisions in life.

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 had the privilege of reporting to two amazing female executives in my career. The first was working very hard to grow the regional branch of a well-known consulting business in Brazil. She gave me the chance to formally work as a Project Manager, leaving my Software Developer days behind, which was a hard transition given the scarcity of opportunities in the area I wanted to pursue. She also disrupted many stereotypes at the time: first of all, by being a woman in a C-level position, in a misogynist country. In addition to that, she genuinely cared about her staff, hearing me on my worst days, cheering me up and challenging me to face my fears.

The second was also a C-suite leader, this time in Canada. She represented a unique mix of people skills and servant leadership. Being the only female in the boardroom must have been tough, but her leadership inspired people and made her division the number 1 in revenue in the company. She had a brilliant ability to understand where her direct reports were coming from, empathize, and find solutions together without telling anyone what to do.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

We took part in many projects throughout our careers and we noticed that the concept of psychological safety was present in the most successful initiatives we were involved in. Psychological safety means that a coworker will feel empowered to give feedback and speak their minds without the fear of judgment. Research indicates a strong correlation between that and high performance.

We started Teamworki as a way to empower Team Leads to build a culture of feedback and transparency at work. We understood that tools like surveys were restricted to HR most of the time. We hypothesized that, by having Team Leads running more focused surveys instead, they could be involved early on and help address any issues in the office. Our experience indicated that when something is reported to HR, it can be too late: people are about to leave their jobs, conflict is already taking place, etc.

Over time, we learned a lot from early adopters and found better words to what we were driving: “tracking and boosting employee engagement”. Another learning: just relying on data from Surveys isn’t enough. Other avenues, such as Team Retrospectives and One-on-One Meetings, are being utilized by teams nowadays to bring suggestions and that data often gets lost. Our product started looking at all that input, leveraging machine learning to analyze the data and suggest engagement scores for a team and a member based on the sentiment of those insights. We also learned that Managers are more willing to drive the adoption of a tool like ours than Team Leads, adjusting our messaging accordingly.

In a nutshell, we always wanted to solve the problem around the lack of “employee engagement” at work. Time and proper research equipped us with more information to be more effective in that mission.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

When times are tough, there is a tendency to lose track of the big picture. The most important thing a leader should do, in my opinion, is to set clear expectations about what outcome the business is trying to drive. Frameworks like OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) can help set measurable goals based on those outcomes, bringing people together and making them ask: “am I working on something that will move the needle for my organization?”.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I noticed that my team at the time struggled with the number of strategic initiatives they had in their backlogs. I leveraged our recurring One on Ones to remind them of the main outcome we were chasing, helping them connect the dots and prioritize the most impactful projects.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Giving up crossed my mind multiple times. Being surrounded by passionate people and structured decision-making frameworks, however, kept the fire burning. If you are unable to explain your mission or your “north star” in one sentence, it may be a sign of over-commitment and not fully understanding the problem you are attempting to solve.

Chatting with others to get different perspectives on a challenging situation can change the game as well. We are not alone. Being an entrepreneur can be such a lonely experience sometimes, but founders can benefit from coming together and sharing lessons learned.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

The ability to focus. The most successful endeavors chased one problem at a time. Not being able to prioritize one will send a signal to your team that everything is crucial, leading to frustration and employee turnover.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

First of all, alignment on clear business objectives can help people map their individual contributions to the overarching strategy. Second, leaders should make it as easy as possible for people to provide feedback — either via Surveys, One on Ones, or even Team Meetings. By taking action on it, they can build trust, fostering more engagement, and leading to higher performance.

Just asking how someone is feeling every day won’t work if there is no trust. Employee morale leads to employee engagement and performance, so it should be a priority, but it needs a structured framework to produce results.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

The simpler, the better. If you have been fostering a culture of feedback and transparency, just being straight-forward and presenting the facts, in addition to an action plan, should be more than enough. When there is psychological safety, people will value how open and frank you are even in hard times.

In addition to that, the way you frame your narrative is key. Having a growth mindset allows you to look at challenges in a positive light and convey the learnings and benefits that come with facing them. It is contagious.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Ultimately, a forecast is already inaccurate on day one. We can’t predict the future. Every plan we make is a shot at being less wrong. That’s why learning is so important.

I love the concept of experimentation: you come up with a hypothesis, back that up with the data you have, define what success would look like, how to measure progress, and start. Running cheap experiments can help uncover tremendous opportunities while mitigating risk.

Decisions can’t be data-driven all the time. There will be moments where gut feeling will be the way you support a hypothesis, and that’s fine: market conditions, timing, limited resources. As long as the experiment can be measured and generate the data you didn’t have.

That’s why I love the concept of seeking to be less wrong: it will feed curiosity and innovation.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

It’s mind-blowing to realize how many successful companies were founded in the middle of the 2008 economic crisis. Business can be built — or entirely disrupted — in a matter of weeks. Human nature tends to be risk-averse, but embracing change pays off. Being dynamic and flexible, open to pivoting, is more important than ever.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Not setting clear expectations for the outcome the business wants to drive, leading to over-commitment and frustration. Fostering micro-management rather than adjusting/implementing decision-making frameworks. Not taking action on feedback from employees, causing loss of trust.

It all comes down to building a culture of alignment and transparency.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

I’d start by assessing the revenue streams available, identifying opportunities and potential for expansion, and categorizing the stage they are in. You may be in charge of a product or service that is experiencing a decline in demand and expanding to an adjacent market may not be worth its cost. In that case, you want to get the most out of that offering while there is still an audience for it.

In other cases, you may have this stream with high-growth potential you started before the economy went downhill. Is the impact on the market still the same? Is the timing right? During a disruption, you may have to question all the things you thought you knew and double down on cheaper experiments instead. They may uncover new revenue streams or strategies for existing offerings.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Set clear expectations: what is the business outcome you are trying to drive? It may be aligned with the company mission or, during a disruptive economy, while you are trying to figure things out, it may be a metric that you need to impact. Measure What Matters, a book by John Doerr, explains how people like Andy Grove successfully implemented that culture in large organizations.

Foster bias for action on employee feedback. Work with other leaders to create an environment where ideas are welcome, giving employees transparency on what happens after the feedback is given. That can help you, as a manager, build trust. Another workplace I’ve been part of always revisited previous “action items” or “feedback items” at the beginning of a One on One or a Team Meeting. Amy Edmondson has a fantastic book about that topic called The Fearless Organization.

Experimentation: set a framework for people to submit hypotheses, alongside a plan that includes defining success and how to measure it. The most impactful strategies you could develop may come from anyone in your team who has been on the frontline, working closely with customers, having a unique perspective. High-growth tech businesses such as HubSpot and Slack experienced success when adopting frameworks along those lines.

Gauge employee morale: ask, either via One on Ones or automated surveys, how people are feeling that day and why, what their workload looks like, and analyze the data to understand if the same blockers continue to hold your teams down. Being proactive and taking action on removing those blockers can be powerful when it comes to building trust and unleashing high performance, backed up by recent research.

Make it fun. Try to alleviate the stress of the unknown by applying gamification principles at work. In my previous job, we had a spiff that formed cross-functional teams around goals we were trying to drive. Employees were given weekly challenges and had enough freedom with regard to creating tactics towards those. It was one of the factors that led to an all-time-high number of bookings amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

“Every day gives you a chance to try compassionate empathy”. We are all wrong, we have perspective gaps, and ironically that’s what unites us. Being curious, while putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes to learn more about their perspectives, can help us make better decisions and live a healthier life.

How can our readers further follow your work?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/diegovonsohsten

Twitter: https://twitter.com/diegovonsohsten
Email: diego@teamworki.com

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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