“To create a fantastic work culture it’s very important to combine empathy and accountability” with Andrew Filev and Chaya Weiner

For me it’s very important to combine empathy and accountability. I care about every single employee and want everyone to succeed. At the same time, because we are all dependent on each other, it’s very important for everyone to carry their share of the weight. It’s a tough balance for a manager. When people start […]

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For me it’s very important to combine empathy and accountability. I care about every single employee and want everyone to succeed. At the same time, because we are all dependent on each other, it’s very important for everyone to carry their share of the weight. It’s a tough balance for a manager. When people start as leaders, they tend to either resist making tough decisions, or make them too easily, without respect to the people they affect. If you’re early in the leadership journey: spend more time setting the expectations by clearly defining important and measurable goals and communicating them well; find a mentor; and prioritize what’s best for the team as a whole over a single individual — including yourself.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Filev. Andrew is CEO of Wrike, a collaborative work management pioneer.

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

I have always had a hunger to do something big with my life and a work ethic to make it happen. By my second year in college, I had a full-time job and was building a start-up at night. As a result of this heavy workload, I became obsessed with productivity and I studied, practiced, and polished to perfection the art of getting things done. Later, that obsession with productivity and my strong distaste for wasted time, resources, and energy fueled my desired to develop software that would help companies be more efficient, effective, and drive results.

As I learned more about management principles and methodologies, I noticed that teams can be highly effective or completely broken. My ideas were reinforced when I read a study that found that individual productivity might differ 10x from person to person, but a team’s productivity can differ 100x. I was determined to build a culture of excellence and wasn’t shy about experimenting with different methodologies, taking the best of each and creating our unique company DNA.

It seems to be working out well. Wrike has been named one of the fastest growing companies in North America four years in a row by Deloitte, and was named a Top Workplace by the Bay Area News Group in the same four years. I personally believe that a great workplace and high growth rates are very connected.

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

It’s been a period of enormous change in my life, so it’s hard to pick just one. The business grew from a small skeleton crew where I answered support emails myself, and into a global organization with about 700 employees and more than two million users. My wife and I became parents during this time. Outside of work, I got a chance to program some cool robots and I won bronze medal at an international jiu-jitsu tournament.

I think our customer stories are always some of the most interesting. I have had the good fortune to wear sneakers made by our customers, play video games made by our customers, and watch our customers win their playoff games in front of a national audience. Helping our users achieve their goals is what Wrike is all about.

It’s also cool to run into customers when I’m out and about. I knew we were onto something when I was attending a trade show a few years back and got stopped in the hallways a couple of times by customers who recognized my Wrike t-shirt and wanted to talk shop. I also remember dropping my wife’s car off at a service center and the person there recognized the Wrike logo asked me to pass kudos along to an amazing rep who had helped them out the week before.

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

I’ve been working on Wrike for over twelve years and it continues to be the most exciting project I have ever worked on (outside of raising my two sons). I do have a few other ideas and hobbies that run the gamut from robots to futuristic tech and borderline science fiction, but time for exploring those is a bit limited right now.

I have seen a lot of innovative ideas succeed while others have failed in my lifetime and I’ve always been obsessed with trying to understand the difference between the two. More often than not, its comes down to execution. The fact that Wrike helps teams better plan, manage, and execute their work makes it exciting and fulfilling for me.

We are just getting started at Wrike. There isn’t a company out there that wouldn’t benefit from a work management platform today. It’s always about making technology more accessible, more integrated into the user’s environment, and building a stronger, more direct connection to the value. I’m excited every day about how we can bring more value to our customers.

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?

I would like to see the demographics for that study. An independent survey Wrike commissioned found the opposite: 88 percent of employees shared that they are either elated or mostly happy with their jobs. That said, our survey included only full-time employees at companies with 200 or more people so I can imagine you’d see a disparity if you surveyed all workers across all sectors.

If it’s true that over 50 percent of workers are unhappy, I think there’s probably a combination of reasons. Many of which may fall under the category of “barriers to work,” meaning there are outside forces preventing people from doing work they’re passionate about and it’s causing unhappiness.

In our research, the most common barrier to work identified by workers was “getting other teams to do the work I need done,” and the second most common was “too many distractions from other teams, projects or systems.” The third most common was “I’m over capacity.”

These three are all symptoms of the digitalization of work. Work is accelerating and most teams still rely upon tools like email and spreadsheets that were developed in a time when work was simpler, predictable, and more linear. Today, everyone has more work than they can reasonably handle and it’s difficult to prioritize. The result is that people feel like they aren’t able to get anything done or they’re always playing catch up, and it leads to long hours, disengagement, and eventually burnout.

The reason I’m so passionate about what we do at Wrike is that our platform is built for the way work moves today — not two decades ago. It brings order to that mountain of digital work and helps teams collaborate, prioritize, and ultimately execute tasks before they cause stress and unhappiness. We bring a level of operational excellence to teams that antiquated legacy tools simply can’t.

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?

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between happiness and productivity, because in my mind it’s a “chicken or egg” puzzle. Is a productive workforce happy? Or is it a happy workforce that’s productive? According to research we conducted on operational excellence, 38 percent of workers in the US and UK said they’ve searched for a new job because they were frustrated by operational efficiency at their workplace, and in that case the lack of productivity was the cause of the unhappiness — not the other way around.

I think that falls into a category that our research refers to as “doing meaningful work,” which is consistently one of the most important factors for happiness across men and women in any generation. All companies should strive to hire people who are passionate about their work, but if you create obstacles to getting work done in front of passionate people, now you’ve got a two-pronged problem where work is happening slower than it should, and your best employees may jump ship.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

First, building a culture of promotion is a critical piece of our expansion strategy at Wrike, and it’s something all companies should strive for. When we open a new office, we always give a few high-performing employees the opportunity to move there and take the next step in their career. It also helps transplant our culture from one office to another. It’s really a beautiful thing to see how we’ve become one giant team, all around the world. When you promote from within, you’re not just creating career paths for your talent, you also have the opportunity to build a culture around the best traits of your workforce.

Second, it helps that we also have a strong digital culture. If you scrolled through our Wrike feeds and projects, you’d see what I mean. Wrike was a virtual team long before we ever had physical offices, so talking, joking, and bonding through digital means is a part of our DNA. A great digital culture makes your collaboration feel more human and your team members can have positive interactions when they work together, even if they’ve never met in person. I encourage leaders to embrace their digital channels for culture as well as work, because social conversations online are a part of life. In fact, they’re as intuitive for digital-natives as breathing.

Third, I think leaders need to be proactive about celebrating wins with their teams, because digital work doesn’t always have the sense of finality that other types of work has. A construction crew can crack open some cold ones to celebrate when they finish building a house, but if your job is to run social marketing campaigns, you’re never going to finish. There will always be ten more jobs coming down the pike. Leaders should take time to celebrate milestones with their teams, because it lets everyone acknowledge their accomplishments while also clearing their head of the last task before moving on to the next.

Fourth, leaders should embrace a growth mindset and improve their cultures by turning mistakes into learning opportunities. I am a big fan of running a “5 whys” root cause analysis and taking action every time we miss the mark, even if it’s a small miss. This is a perfect counterbalance to the hyper-velocity of a high-growth company.

If you want to surpass competitors, you have to move faster than they do and you’re bound to make a few missteps along the way. But if you learn and act every time you make a misstep, you automatically build multiple layers of safety netting that allows your mistakes to become improvements rather than just failures. This comes with another important lesson: Build operational dashboards that will give you early signs of success and failure.

Finally, leadership must keep the customers front and center of the culture. I’ve bought plenty of barely used office furniture on the cheap from startups who lost sight of their customers. Your mission needs to be to make your customers’ lives better, and that should inform how you design your product, how you market and sell it, and how you service and support it. Customers should be so passionate about how your product improved their lives that they want to work for you. We’ve been delighted to see many of our customers be so happy with the product that they’ve applied for jobs here and become part of the team.

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?

Boards and the C-Suite need to remember that growth is a symptom of product-market fit, not the other way around. Our team only deems a new product a success when our users rely upon it every day. When we achieve that magic fit for our customers, we know the financial success will follow. Ingraining the idea that you’re here to make a transformative difference in the lives of your customers and improve g employee happiness into your culture will, more often than not, lead to market success.

I’m a “romantic capitalist,” which means I believe businesses are here to create value for customers. That value can be material, emotional, or both, but it has to be there. I believe that Amazon, Yelp, Google, and other review platforms help consumers make smarter choices. It’s the beautiful and meaningful products that will ultimately succeed in building wealth for shareholders, leadership, and employees.

Customers vote with their dollars and employees are voting with their feet. Our jobs as leaders is to build an environment where people can do their best work. As I mentioned before, I believe our rapid growth is very much related to the environment we’ve created. Apply the golden rule, win as a team and celebrate it, and be committed to learning and improving your company, product and culture every day.

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

For me it’s very important to combine empathy and accountability. I care about every single employee and want everyone to succeed. At the same time, because we are all dependent on each other, it’s very important for everyone to carry their share of the weight. It’s a tough balance for a manager. When people start as leaders, they tend to either resist making tough decisions, or make them too easily, without respect to the people they affect. If you’re early in the leadership journey: spend more time setting the expectations by clearly defining important and measurable goals and communicating them well; find a mentor; and prioritize what’s best for the team as a whole over a single individual — including yourself.

Goal setting and communicating those goals is an art and science that I’ve learned to embrace over the years. If you are running a mid-size organization, there are hundreds of things your employees are doing, and hundreds more things that they could be doing. Your job as a leader is to work with your team and stakeholders (managers/investors/customers) to understand what is most critical for company’s success, turn those into a very short list of high-impact goals, and make sure everyone is committed to them through inspiration, explanation, and reconciliation. Define ownership and hold everyone (including yourself) accountable to success, and then repeat this process through the org chart to ensure full alignment.

We have used quarterly objectives and key results (OKRs) for years across the company. This year, though, we stepped up the game developing a more detailed strategic and tactical plan and flowing the departmental objectives from there. It took more effort from the executive team but brought a new level of connectivity between departments that’s amazing to see in a company that will hire its thousandth employee this year. We’ve operationalized it on the Wrike platform down to real-time collaboration through the whole company that feeds our weekly, monthly, and quarterly reporting.

I’m also a big proponent of continuous improvement and try to recruit others who share the same trait. It goes hand in hand with low-ego and intellectual curiosity. It takes guts to look at something that has been working for years and ask is this still the best way to do it? How can we make it even better for customers, employees or the business? Is there something we can learn? We don’t want to become complacent as we grow and we strive to build a team that doesn’t have their egos hurt when we tear down an old program or process that no longer makes sense.

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 about that?

As a CEO, the board is my manager, and I’ve been very lucky in my journey of building a board. Todd MacLean was one of our earliest board members, and he believed in me and the company early and offered a lot of early mentorship. He and Tim Maly — also a former board member — have shared their wisdom while still allowing me to learn from my own mistakes. Indy Guha has been an important part of my journey and as a board member, to this day is always pushing my thinking by asking the right questions, which is an art in itself. Rory O’Driscoll joined our board in 2015 and is always on point and consistent with the biggest opportunities and threats, and also taught me a new level of accountability and ownership. Patrick Severson, Ryan Atlas, and Darko Denjanovic from Vista Equity Partners are immensely helpful in achieving operational excellence at scale.

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

I have to go back to two things I mentioned previously. They are both very connected: Happy customers and happy employees. We work hard every day to make our customers more successful and less stressed. Wrike’s customers are iconic brands that educate, drive, dress, house, heal, feed, and entertain the world. When our software frees some of their days from routine work to be creative and innovate, our mission is well accomplished.

That goes hand in hand with creating a place where our employees can do their best work. The world doesn’t need more jobs that make people miserable. It needs fulfilling careers where contributors feel valued, well cared for, and supported both in the workplace and outside of it. That’s something I’m really proud of when I look at Wrike.

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

“Great vision without great people is irrelevant.” — Jim Collins, Good to Great.

Good to Great was a very influential read for me at the time. It reinforced the importance of hiring the right team, orchestrating it well, and not letting your or anyone else’s ego stand in the way of achieving greatness. I spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort recruiting the right team, and keeping the bar high, even under strong pressure to hire faster.

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 remember in my teenage years getting up two hours earlier than my commute schedule required, just to get a free hour of dial-up access. Economic opportunity is connected to knowledge. Making information available to people regardless of age, income, gender, or location is going to help those people become more successful. It also has the chance of benefiting the world by unlocking everyone’s capacity to innovate.

I really like what massive open online courses like EdX are doing to make education available to the masses. I’d love to inspire a movement where everyone uses such platforms to make their dreams and ideas a reality.

Here’s a bonus one for work: Demand from yourself and others very clear goals, success criteria and a step-by-step action plan to get there. Put those in a collaborative system, creating accountability through transparency, and keep track of your success in real-time.

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

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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