Rob Collie: “Hope isn’t a strategy”

In my experience, the first thing to do is just to accept that the differences go much deeper than just replacing face-to-face with video calls. It’s just a structurally different way to operate, and if your plan is just to take your in-person methodologies and translate them to remote, I think you’re asking for trouble. […]

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In my experience, the first thing to do is just to accept that the differences go much deeper than just replacing face-to-face with video calls. It’s just a structurally different way to operate, and if your plan is just to take your in-person methodologies and translate them to remote, I think you’re asking for trouble. It’s kinda like that “hope isn’t a strategy” thing — if you’re just hoping it will work out, you’re just waiting to find out that it doesn’t.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Collie the founder and CEO of business intelligence consulting firm P3. During his 13 years at Microsoft, Rob led the BI-focused capabilities in Excel and was subsequently one of the founding engineers on Power BI. Through that insider’s perspective and experience with Microsoft, Rob developed successful and groundbreaking strategies that can be utilized across almost any industry. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team are relentlessly committed to “the new way forward,” making P3 a leading consulting firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology that bucks the traditional BI company model.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I was a product leader at Microsoft for 13 years, primarily building software for the analytics and BI (business intelligence) markets. In the early 2010’s, I recognized that the new generation of BI software was going to trigger mass disruptions in the BI industry:

The duration (and therefore price tag) of the average BI implementation was going to decrease dramatically.

Demand for BI was going to skyrocket in turn. Previously only affordable at the upper levels of the world’s largest companies, industrial-strength BI was now going to be within reach of the small and mid-markets, as well as at the departmental level of the Enterprise.

The existing breed of BI professional services firms was ill-equipped to move at this pace, and would struggle to adapt, leaving a massive void of unmet demand.

This advance perspective on led me to start my own professional services (consulting) firm from scratch, with the mission of filling that gap.

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

From the Microsoft days: I was coincidentally in a meeting with the VP’s of the entire Windows and Office divisions on the exact day that the US Government sued to stop the release of Windows 98 (at the beginning of the landmark antitrust case). The meeting had been tensely anticipated and was the bitter culmination of two rival initiatives (and factions) within the company, each of us trying to get the other canceled. The VP’s constantly leaving the room to take phone calls with the attorneys was quite anticlimactic, and the two factions who’d been fighting for a year were left to once again make their arguments to each other, without any sustained attention from the executives who we’d been expecting to bring closure. It was absurdly silly.

From the P3 days: In the early days of P3 (2013), a Fortune 500 company had identified, at the C-suite level, a crucial strategic BI project need. Their traditionally oriented internal IT team estimated it was going to take three years to execute. Due to a chance internet encounter with one of their executives, we were given a crack at it instead. We completed that project in three months of part-time effort, and the resulting scorecards drove 25M dollars in additional profit per year once they were deployed.

That was a validating moment for us — that our approach could scale all the way to the highest levels of the Enterprise, as well as the mid-market and departmental level. We weren’t exactly surprised of course, because we already knew it could, but to see it happen gave us that extra confidence to double down on our bet and ignore the skeptical voices from the traditional corners of the industry.

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

In the early P3 days, even though I knew it was the central challenge ahead of us, I still managed to underestimate the operational complexity of running a consulting firm that feeds itself on a diet of smaller projects. In parallel, I also overestimated my own aptitude for solving those problems. The company really took off once I accepted that the idea guy slash CEO (me) needed an equally strong COO to drive the creation of software and processes to manage such a high-velocity environment with so many moving parts.

Today, those internal operational processes/systems are so robust and crucial that I consider them to be a form of intellectual property. We simply couldn’t exist at our current scale without them, and they were non-trivial to discover and develop.

It reflects a theme I’ve encountered many times: valuable innovation often requires the marriage of strong ideas with strong execution. Just having one or the other won’t cut it.

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

I personally believe that burnout is much more of a problem with elite teams than average teams, so in that sense, worrying about burnout is a good problem to have! Not all businesses require an elite team, of course, but our business model absolutely relies on hiring the very best, so burnout is a concern for us.

So, assuming you have an elite team, my advice would be as follows:

It’s a cliché, but even when you’re doing the most MBA-style things, you must continually view your employees as people rather than simply as nodes in an org chart. Whether you’re developing a quarterly business plan or reacting to a crisis, it’s tempting to model the employees as two-dimensional pieces on the board and focus your attention solely on the overall nervous system of the business. You have to resist that and remember that there’s as much (or more) complexity at the individual level as there is in the overall whole.

You might develop a great plan that absolutely works as a business model, but if that model ends up burning out your employees, well, then it actually WASN’T a good business model, and that’s on you as CEO. It’s much harder to try to compensate for such things after the fact, and elite teams tend to see through cheap attempts at improving morale.

So, you have to do the extra work. You have to “wargame” every operational change through the eyes of your team, and what impact it’s going to have on them. That’s just as important an input as what it’s going to do to the P&L. If you develop a track record of leading this way, it has the added benefit of building trust with your team. Inevitably, you will still slip up from time to time, and it’s a lot easier to fix a problem when everyone believes you sincerely want to fix it.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

We’ve been 100% remote since our inception. We knew we needed elite talent, and we weren’t going to find enough in a single geography. So, we deliberately chose to ignore location, and instead, we cast a nationwide net. It turns out we make offers to less than 2% of our applicants, so the largest possible candidate pool has been a must.

We’ve never had a central office, and we now have employees in 14 states. Even though we’ve been around for longer, we started seriously hiring at scale in 2015, so let’s call it five years.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the main challenges are regarding managing a remote team?

In my experience, the first thing to do is just to accept that the differences go much deeper than just replacing face-to-face with video calls. It’s just a structurally different way to operate, and if your plan is just to take your in-person methodologies and translate them to remote, I think you’re asking for trouble. It’s kinda like that “hope isn’t a strategy” thing — if you’re just hoping it will work out, you’re just waiting to find out that it doesn’t.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress those challenges?

We’re a bit of an outlier in that for us, remote management is even harder than it is on average. Our consultants need to be highly autonomous, because big teams and heavy oversight aren’t compatible with the high-velocity, zero-waste approach that is our key differentiator. But with such a large percentage of the work taking place between individual consultants and their client(s), the majority of our business “happens” in places the management team cannot see. That’s highly unusual!

That said, I think that it’s been a blessing for us, because we were never tempted to just think the usual methods would work. We were forced, from the beginning, to approach our business in non-traditional ways. Years ago, I read an essay by Charlie Munger (of Berskshire Hathaway) in which he talked about the power of incentives, and it stuck with me. We’ve leaned very aggressively into the idea of variable compensation, and closely aligning employee incentives with the success of the company. It’s taken a lot of thoughtful effort and iteration, but it’s been worth it many times over.

Our employees have access to dashboards which give them real-time feedback on what their bonus is going to look like each month. Big bonus checks only go out when the company is winning as a result of employee efforts, so even as managers, we’re hoping to pay more. This goes back to my point about cheap morale tricks — it’s one thing to say “we’re all in this together,” but so much more impactful when you actually are.

I like to say that the incentive dashboards are like virtual managers. I sincerely believe that the dashboards (and the incentive plans behind them) provide half of our oversight and are equally as important as our interpersonal management touches, and I think we’re more successful, as a company, because we were forced to lean into this. We grow faster and retain people better than we would if we were in-person and using traditional management techniques.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

I would suggest not using email for this. If you wouldn’t use email for this purpose in an in-person environment, it’s probably not a good choice for remote, either.

There are definitely ways to do it well over email, but the risks of getting it wrong are too high — for every time you get it right, you’re likely to get it wrong at least once as well, and it’s too important to take that risk. This is even more important when you take this to scale — if you have a management culture that regularly delivers feedback over email, you’re going to have some real trouble spots in a hurry. Even if 90% of your org is exceptionally talented at it, the 10% who fail will cost you dearly.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Wow, what a thoughtful and unexpected question!

I would love to see US politics and government take on precisely that theme: “how do we get the most good for the most people?” We’re fundamentally just so much stronger together than divided. The evidence for this is everywhere. A 50-pound bobcat views a lone human as easy prey, but twenty humans with pointy sticks were such a force that the wooly mammoth went extinct.

I look at posters produced by the US government in the first half of the 20th century and I see an understanding of this. The “propaganda” of the day was often things like “make sure to get your children’s vision checked.” We used to get it. We used to at least partially understand that a country is nothing more than the sum of its people working together. Now it’s more like a sport, with teams that we root for, red and blue, without any critical thought or discussion of pragmatic policy.

Fundamentally, your neighbor might root for the other team, but your actual interests are 99% aligned as human beings. And if your neighbor is not doing well — health-wise, jobwise, whatever — that absolutely comes back to cost you in some subtle but important ways.

I could actually write quite a bit more about this, but by default I’ll stop now. If I wrote more, it would tie in themes I’ve mentioned elsewhere — even when thinking like an MBA, you need to remember the people. Incentives (which are ALL broken in our country right now). How an attitude of “we win when you win” doesn’t just work for companies, but for countries as well.

If I weren’t so focused on my work right now, I would be writing about precisely this, and doing my small part to shift mindset, on a daily basis.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson/quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve stolen lessons and wisdom from so many people, and it’s hard to choose a single favorite. I’ve mentioned the Charlie Munger incentives thing already, so let’s go with the only valuable thing I learned in college, which is the fundamental attribution error:

“the tendency people have to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behavior. Because of the fundamental attribution error, we tend to believe that others do bad things because they are bad people. We’re inclined to ignore situational factors that might have played a role.”

Once you understand this and learn to start resisting it, it actually gives you a lot of flexibility. More room to operate. More options to deal with problems. When you’re not locked into a rigid, binary view of people as good or bad, you have more potential pathways to get them to cooperate, which is another way of saying “getting what you want.” What could be more valuable than increasing the chances of getting what you want? And that applies to your personal and professional life.

Thank you for these great insights!

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