Rustam Ahverdiev: “Learn how to forgive”

Learn how to forgive. Yeah, it’s as basic as it sounds. Be ready to go easy on people. Everybody makes mistakes, that’s the reality — you make mistakes too! (Unless you’re the T800 or T1000, or any other Terminator models out there, which I hope we will never see in any of our lifetimes.) So, don’t be […]

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Learn how to forgive. Yeah, it’s as basic as it sounds. Be ready to go easy on people. Everybody makes mistakes, that’s the reality — you make mistakes too! (Unless you’re the T800 or T1000, or any other Terminator models out there, which I hope we will never see in any of our lifetimes.) So, don’t be too hard on people when they make mistakes. Learn from mistakes, and always remember that no matter how many mistakes employees make, you always gotta ask yourself as a manager: what was your mistake in this situation?

If you, as a manager, don’t see your employee’s mistakes or failures as a result of your leadership, you’re doing something wrong. And you will be floored when you see how much your employee’s trust in the company culture improves when people actually feel they’re allowed to make mistakes. That’s one of the most important things to do: accepting mistakes and being kind about them.

As a part of our series about “How business leaders can create a fantastic work environment”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rustam Ahverdiev, VP of Operations at DistantJob.

Prior to joining DistantJob 8 years ago as one of the first employees, he was a business development lead at Freeje — a telecom start-up.

Rustam covered almost every single role in the company and knows it like a palm of his hand. He has been leading remote teams for over 6 years and he’s in charge of development and design for all internal IT projects.

He is also a passionate traveler who never feels better than on the road; an avid scuba diver, motorcyclist, Opera lover and landscape photographer.

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

Well, I guess in a way, this is what I was always doing.

From as early as I can remember — starting in my early childhood — I was into organizing processes and activities, like suggesting and directing an activity in the playground with the other kids. Quite often, I enjoyed the process of putting things together way more than I enjoyed participating in the actual activity. I have always had an intuition for people and what they are best at. It came naturally to me, like a sense of the force to a Jedi.

I remember the day I realized this: when I finished watching the original Star Wars trilogy. On that day, I definitely felt that the force is real, and how it connects everything with everyone. Unfortunately, I couldn’t lift my X-Wing while standing on my arms and meditating in the Dagobah system, nor I could tell my teachers that C is not the grade they are looking for to assign me for my home test, But still, the Force is real!

And I never met Yoda, but what he would tell me and you is that I didn’t choose this career path; this career path has chosen me.

I started early in Telecom as Biz Dev because people are my biggest passion; networking and connecting with them, and finding how we can help out each other. I worked for a bunch of local companies through a VoIP B2B provider where I was buying 100k a week in traffic from Afghanistan to resell it to the local market. I never imagined that so many people called Afghanistan from Ukraine — this was before the Whatsapp and Telegram era, obviously.

After that experience, I tried working in the IT Outsourcing industry, but I couldn’t stand Waterfall processes, so I quit and never looked back.

For the past eight years, I’ve been with DistantJob, a remote-born Remote Recruitment Agency. I’m the VP of operations there, and I’ve worked remotely since day one. I was never super active in social media about remote work up until now, but I’m an early adopter.

Remote is the way to go in this century, and hopefully in ones that come after, as long as we don’t destroy our beautiful planet in the process. There are several reasons why: from the basic reduction in carbon footprint that comes via eliminating the need to travel to and from work; to being happier, having a greater sense of wellbeing and mindfulness, and increased mental and emotional capacity.

Just getting to know people from lots of other places rather than being locked in your office cubicle, (or on those terrible open space offices that nobody enjoys and that have been proven many times as being less productive — they’re only still in because they’re a cheaper solution) is enough to make you a much happier and productive professional.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading this company?

Well, there isn’t just one story. I mean I can genuinely say that it’s been a rollercoaster since my Day 1 at DistantJob. Every day there’s something new; a new challenge to solve, new mountains to climb.

We’re in the people business; there are many more moving parts than in the software business. There are always interpersonal things you need to solve. The HR side of the business; candidates we need to headhunt for our clients; unblocking processes and operations inside the company; etc. — all of this keeps me on my toes.

COVID definitely threw a wrench into the machine, and at the same time, it’s actually helping like crazy in making remote work a reality rather than a cool thing some of us read about. It definitely introduced challenges for everyone in the world, but in the long run, it’s one of the most beneficial things that has happened to remote work in years.

Lots of companies needed to become remote overnight to survive, and that’s actually great since they can overcome fears of remote work faster and start to see that remote work is just regular work done from different places, by the same people who they used to see in the office.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Well, there are two things I can mention.

First, a short setup to provide context: I can genuinely say that we are the only (or at least the original, maybe there are some copycats around) remote recruitment agency. We’ve been finding full-time remote people for our clients from day zero. And we excel at this by knowing how to headhunt the most brilliant people around the world that are the right cultural fit for each client.

Because I do believe that cultural fit is equally as important as hard skills, but you can’t shorthand culture as just common interests in Marvel or DC, nuclear physics, etc. Cultural fit is about finding the right chemistry, like making a cocktail: you need a perfect mix of ingredients, perfectly balanced, in order to get the right taste. That’s how it should work when adding people to a company. You have to find the right person who has the right chemistry with the team. Even genius-level people need to have that chemistry in order to shine. You can’t just brute force it with hard skills. We tried, but it didn’t work; not for us nor for our clients.

That brings us to the big factor right now: diversity. The diversity part of the equation has become equally as important for companies as hard and soft skills. The drive to create a more diverse workforce comes with new, amazing challenges and opportunities. And when you have the world to choose from, it definitely opens up some doors.

So, what we’re doing right now at DistantJob, is… We’re trying to, not just diversify hiring for our own clients, we actually have the goal of further diversifying our company, and we just realized that since last year, we’ve already had a 60% female and LGBTQ+ workforce. We’re definitely very passionate and supportive when it comes to companies that want to hire a diversified workforce.

But I promised two projects. So here is the next: we are constantly improving our “Awesome HR” service. Because our work doesn’t end with just placing candidates, taking our commission, and moving on, as regular recruitment agencies do. We check up regularly both with candidates and clients to receive two-way feedback and take action to ensure optimal productivity, retention, and job satisfaction.

We get up close and personal with everyone. Our Account Executive Mercedes R. Sanday is a natural people’s person and the Hermione of DistantJob. Her ability to connect with people is just unbelievable, and together with her sidekick Jessica Ochoa, they make up a perfect tag team. Their dedication drastically improved retention and overall happiness across all our clients.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Well, I’m not going to introduce the pink elephant in the room by saying that work, in general, can be stressful. And then you need to commute, which is two hours on average, sometimes even up to three hours in some US locations. A lot of people are throwing this time out of the window every day. And every day, more evidence and studies show that people have less time for their lives, and this “life-debt” adds up quickly. I believe this problem was always there, at least since the second part of the 20th century, but it was growing slowly and out of sight. Then the age of the internet happened, and it became much more visible — but at the same time, with the internet, now we actually have a path to solving it.

Remote is the answer since most jobs can and should be done remotely. You don’t have to deal with commuting, you don’t need to worry about coming to work sick; also, lots of other problems (think carbon emissions, in-office distractions, etc) are solved by just transitioning to remote work.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Remote employees are not guaranteed to be 100% happy employees, but they are way happier than any average Joe going into the office, and it creates more opportunities for them to be happier. Obviously, if you have happy, healthy, mentally relaxed employees, your company is going to produce better products. Profitability is the sum of several different equations, so we can’t really offset it just by subtracting the unhappy workforce, but it definitely weighs a lot.

Another thing to consider: I don’t believe that in the 21st century you can 100% fully separate your work from your personal life. We spend most of our time at work, at least most of us. So it does make sense to work with like-minded people. I’m a huge believer in making friends at work. It’s hard to find the right workplace but you should definitely keep trying to find the one that fits your particular kind of crazy. Working with people who share your values is a big contributor to success for any company. At DistantJob, we’re pretty much all nerds about different stuff. And when we hire somebody internally, what we care about is finding somebody who fits into our degree of craziness.

When you can be yourself at work, see that others appreciate your uniqueness, and feel the same appreciation for the people you work with — that unleashes your potential to its maximum capacity! That’s how you get your work wings. And this is the philosophy we try to bring when we look for people for our clients: we want to get our clients people who “get them” and will love working there. This helps people develop a very long-lasting relationship with their workplace, and that commitment compounds over the years into productivity and profitability.

Can you share five things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story example for each?

First of all, you got to figure out what kind of humor is actually working in your workplace. Because different crowds appreciate different things. Not everyone in any single workplace is the same, but there’s usually a certain pattern of things that people who work together like to joke about. As a personal example: at DistantJob, we’re big on nerd culture, and a lot of humor circulates around this.

Second: Have Zoom parties. For example, when we have a birthday, we schedule a time to hang out for an hour or so (if the birthday person is cool with it, of course!) It’s not mandatory to come; nobody’s ever going to hold it against you if you’re just not comfortable and being around too many people is not something you enjoy. With so many time zones, it can be tricky, but we try to make it at a time where it is like 4:00 pm somewhere, so people can come with drinks if they feel like it. Having this “no tie” communication makes a really big difference because people get to know each other more, and it’s amazing how it helps to break the ice further and to bond better.

Number three: It’s essential for everyone in the company to eventually have a chance to talk to everyone else, especially if they work in different departments and have different managers. So for this, we are using a Slack extension called Donut. This extension randomly pairs people every Tuesday for a one-on-one call. It’s especially exciting and interesting whenever we have a new hire. Yes, you can obviously opt-out of this if you prefer to have little to no interaction with other people, but we haven’t had this happen with anyone we’ve hired so far.

Number four: playing games together. OK, this might not work for everyone but it works great for the DistantJob team. We play board games online via Tabletop Simulator. Almost everyone in the company loves board games. And when I say board games I don’t mean Monopoly, but games like Gloomhaven, Root, Twilight Imperium. There is no better way to connect with people than playing something together, and this is how you get your childish side go crazy without jeopardizing anything. This is a perfect opportunity to team up against your boss if you want; or to pit different departments against each other. It’s so much fun.

Number five: learn how to forgive. Yeah, it’s as basic as it sounds. Be ready to go easy on people. Everybody makes mistakes, that’s the reality — you make mistakes too! (Unless you’re the T800 or T1000, or any other Terminator models out there, which I hope we will never see in any of our lifetimes.) So, don’t be too hard on people when they make mistakes. Learn from mistakes, and always remember that no matter how many mistakes employees make, you always gotta ask yourself as a manager: what was your mistake in this situation?

If you, as a manager, don’t see your employee’s mistakes or failures as a result of your leadership, you’re doing something wrong. And you will be floored when you see how much your employee’s trust in the company culture improves when people actually feel they’re allowed to make mistakes. That’s one of the most important things to do: accepting mistakes and being kind about them.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I’m not from the US (I’m from Ukraine and currently living in Kyiv) so I can’t fully speak of this, even though I’ve been working with the United States and Canada for the past nine years. So let me comment on this as an outside observer, rather than a direct participant.

Without a doubt, the 9 to 5 culture is bloated and outdated. This pandemic laid bare all its weak points, not only in the US but everywhere. What current office culture lacks the most are two things: flexibility and adaptability.

Work is not just the hours you put in, but the results you get. They say “get a lazy person to get it done right” for a reason. Culture is not only about doing the work and having fun; it’s also about your commitment to the work you do and when you do it. And when you can be committed while staying happy, that is the way to do it.

Remote enables flexibility and adaptability while at the same time lowering stress and reducing distractions, but all of this doesn’t happen by default, just by flipping the “work from home” switch. That just creates chaos. Both management and employees need to be committed to a process, in order for it to work.

Management should invest in culture and help it grow organically. You can’t create culture artificially, by planning it out on paper and enforcing it. I mean, you can, but it’s not going to last. Look into your team, identify and figure out the main values that form your culture; it’s already there, your job is to help it grow. Remove the toxic weeds, if there are any, and cherish what grows. This is your company’s real identity, not what you write on your website or on social media.

At this point, DistantJob’s culture is almost self-sustainable, but only because we have been investing in it like crazy for a very long time, and we will keep doing so until the end of time. The only thing I do right now to show my genuine support here and there. Make sure your employees know that you have their back and that they are never alone — in the fun times and in the bad times.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I don’t really have a special name for it, nor can I say that I do anything “by the book”. I was just recently thinking about what management is all about, and I believe that if I could put it in one single word, that word would be: control.

Let me elaborate: if you exert too much control, you’re a micromanager and nobody likes that. If you don’t exert enough control, that’s a mess and things will go off the rails with even the most brilliant people. Propper management is about applying exactly the right amount of control for every decision, situation, and task.

Speaking of actual methodologies, I’m a big fan of Scrum and Agile, and we pretty much run sprints in every department of the company, with meetings cut down to as little as possible. When discussing a task with someone in the company I try to exert just enough control so as to not kill creativity. And I think this is the way to go.

My management style revolves around these principles. I’m constantly trying to understand the people I work with and get up “close and personal” (without breaking any personal boundaries — it’s important to keep the distance that people are comfortable with because everybody’s different and my job is to be flexible about it).

During the recruitment process, we heavily filter people out for cultural fit, and that really helps. I try to be transparent: anyone can reach out to me about anything, at any time, and everybody knows that I’m going to go out of my way to help them with anything that I’m good at. This pays off immensely.

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

Yeah, but not just one person because success comes from the sum of all the people I have met and worked with in the past, and I tried to learn from everyone. Even when I didn’t have a positive working environment in the past, I was always — and still am, to this day — grateful for every experience I had. Experience is just an experience; your reaction to it, that is the only thing you can control.

I can’t skip Sharon Koifman, the president of DistantJob and my dear friend. His kindness and ability to tolerate mistakes, and the way he provides feedback is simply out of this world. I learned a lot from him, and am still learning to this day.

One of the most insightful pieces of advice that he gave me is to never start a meeting by busting someone’s chops. They will be useless for the rest of the meeting. Negative feedback always has to be delivered on a separate call, and always one on one. “Praise in public; criticize in private.”

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

Well, that’s a bit of an unspecific question. What’s goodness? What’s poison for one is Ambrosia, for another. I think goodness starts with yourself. If you’re good to yourself, you’re going to be good to the other people around you. So, I guess my contribution is to try to be kind and understandable to people and accept them as they are.

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

Well, I think my favorite quote is by Master Yoda: “Do or do not, there is no try”.

As a highly intuitive person, and someone who also has a pretty strong degree of logical thinking, I find that every time I overthink, things only get worse. So, I can safely say that the best way to achieve something is actually just to start doing it, rather than planning a perfect way to do it.

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. 🙂

Well, the Bible, Quran, and Bhagavad Gita are all already written, as well as other holy books, so I guess that’s off the menu.

So regarding being a person of great influence… I think I’m perfectly happy where I am in my life. I’m lucky to have this genuine passion for people and my work revolves around that. When I travel, what I draw real value from is meeting people. Meeting new people is one of the best parts of travel. When I meet a new person, somebody I resonate with and who aligns with my values, I always try to think and see what I can do for that person; maybe I know somebody who they would be interested to meet, or maybe we can work on something interesting together.

So, I guess the most amazing thing for me would be to keep doing this at a bigger scale, introducing and bringing positive people together. Right now we can’t travel, obviously, but I would encourage people to connect more and to help others connect more. Cultivate the ability to find an interest in everyone you meet. I want people to tell me about whatever makes them tick — from nail polish to Greek philosophy. Cultivating this interest in others has done wonders for me and my personal and professional growth, and it will for you, too.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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