“Trust is crucial” — We have never encouraged micro-management, and when we see it, we get rid of it. Micro-managing employees is an admission you don’t trust them to do the job you have employed them to do. Trust is mutual, so they too will not have faith in your capabilities as a manager or have confidence in the values of the company. In my experience, trust, not dogma is what produces the most significant results. Admittedly mistakes will be made, but as long as problems are solved quickly, and my team learns from their mistakes then it would be a rare situation that you couldn’t recover from — no harm, no foul.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zane McIntyre.
Zane McIntyre is the CEO and Co-Founder of Commission Factory, an affiliate marketing network that began with Zane and his two co-founders on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. The company is now one of the most recognised networks in the Asia Pacific region with over 35 employees across Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. Commission Factory is the first company that Zane founded after a diverse career in marketing, graphic design, content writing and SEO.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I am one of the founders of Commission Factory, but being a founder didn’t by default make me the CEO — that came later. My co-founders and I started the business from our own desire to contribute to the affiliate marketing industry in new ways. Whether that be better software and user experience or being agile enough to change and pivot as the industry quickly evolved.
A couple of years into the life of Commission Factory all of the founders were equal as decision-makers, this wasn’t working efficiently, and we recognized you can only have one Captain of the ship so to speak. So we brought the shareholders and an external advisor in to evaluate the performance of each founder, their personality traits, skills and drive to help determine who that Captain would be. The recommendation was put forth that I should be the CEO of the company, and with a unanimous blessing from the board and shareholders, I become the CEO.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Managing people is an entirely different skill set than that of running operations in a company, but nonetheless, a skill that needs to be mastered. The way I personally tackled this challenge was to look at my time as an employee for other organisations and thought about the things I liked, disliked and what elements of management and corporate policies I would have appreciated or benefited from as an employee.
Personally reflecting on my time as an employee allowed me to set the stage for the company going forward. Even now from my position (which is a bit further from the ground level than it used to be), I will still always put myself in the shoes of my employees to understand how an action or a decision could be perceived or could be improved.
The next challenge that came into play was understanding the financials to a degree a CEO really should. I recall one time when looking for investors in the business going into an important call with someone that could have been an enormous asset to the company, completely unprepared. I had no idea how to answer his questions, and I couldn’t answer the simplest of financial and performance queries. While I knew how much money we were making, I probably could not have told you what EBITDA meant. Feeling rather dim getting off that call, I vowed I would never let that happen again, my team needed me to do better.
Financials wasn’t an area I ever historically had much interest in and spreadsheets bored me to death. You could even say I hated numbers.
Over a week, I read a book that essentially summarised an MBA and upskilled myself. The following months I continued down that path, reading material on blogs that discussed forecasting, budgeting, growth-hacking — I even went so far as reading the Australian Tax code to ensure I was across how tax worked — that was pretty dull.
But over time, I began to appreciate numbers and the insight it provided me to understand areas of the business that needed improvement and how to align KPIs of my team with the overall goals of the company.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I have always believed no one is above specific jobs in the office, and I have never asked someone to complete a task that I was not prepared to do myself. This form of leadership kept me in line with my team, ensured I was approachable and gave a sense that I was a subservient leader and that we were “all in this together”.
We recognised early in the life of the company that people don’t tend to leave companies, they leave managers. So every manager needed to share our values and ethics and to never put themselves above or look down on their team. Without that team, we will collectively fail. We have been very fortunate that the people we hired have been amazing assets to the company and our staff retention is one of the highest in the industry.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- “Things can get weird” — There are times when challenges, problems or situations arise, and you ask yourself “Is this normal?”, “Do other CEOs have to deal with this type of thing?”. The reality when you start to discuss some of your situations to another CEO is that “yes, this is normal” and often you may find they have a similar tale to tell if not one that makes your story pale in comparison.
- “You can’t please everyone” — No matter how hard you try to please all of your employees, the reality is you just cannot. You may pay top-of-market salaries, allocate funds to social committees, office massages or a booze fridge. However, some will still want more or compare the perks you offer to some other company that provides clothing vouchers, unlimited days off etc. For those that have bootstrapped their businesses, such as myself, some things are just not always financially viable, despite how much we might want to offer more perks and benefits
- “Hire slow, fire fast” — It became evident over the years to never rush the hiring process simply because you want to move on to your next task. Moving ahead with a candidate and ignoring your gut-feeling has always lead to a waste of everyone’s time and energy. You can honestly say three months into someone’s employ, whether it’s working or not. We once made the mistake of keeping someone employed because by the time we paid attention to their actual performance and output they had already passed probation. We then spent another 6 months doing performance management. It was not a fun process for anyone and had we paid more attention in the beginning, we could have called it a day and had an open position to fill with a superstar.
- “Trust is crucial” — We have never encouraged micro-management, and when we see it, we get rid of it. Micro-managing employees is an admission you don’t trust them to do the job you have employed them to do. Trust is mutual, so they too will not have faith in your capabilities as a manager or have confidence in the values of the company. In my experience, trust, not dogma is what produces the most significant results. Admittedly mistakes will be made, but as long as problems are solved quickly, and my team learns from their mistakes then it would be a rare situation that you couldn’t recover from — no harm, no foul. It took me some time to eventually delegate a lot of the things I did day-to-day. This was a symptom of the company growing around me and the forces of habit. Once I learned to grow with the company, delegate and trust the people I had hired was the moment they were able to show me what they were truly capable of.
- “You don’t need a process for everything” — As we grew and to create more efficiencies in the company, the rational thought process was to standardize everything and have in place black and white systems and processes. While imperative in some areas of the business and absolutely necessary, one problem started to rear its ugly head — process brought strong short term outcomes but long term failures and stifled creativity. People were no longer employing creative solutions that they could share with their team and instead followed the steps carefully laid out by management. Some processes were applied as a band-aid to a more significant problem with the root cause not being addressed. So as a means of bringing back that level of creativity and innovation that made us great in the beginning we started to reduce process but include our team in the broader context and picture of what we wanted to achieve and more importantly, why. This restored freedom again to come up with solutions to problems or forced us to address a root cause. In the end, one of the most significant issues we were able to identify was that some people turned out to be a bad fit for the company. We shifted our hiring back to my earlier point of hiring slow but also hiring high-performance people. No longer did a process have to be employed to cover up a bad fit or someone that only worked for self-gain and not the greater good of the company.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This can be difficult as my work ethic is strong, and my dedication to the company is high. “Burning out” is something that can happen to all of us and trying to avoid it is a skill and discipline in and of itself. One of the things I have been attempting to adhere to over the years is keeping a running list of all things I need to do, jobs to complete, people to speak to etc. This is broken down into a daily list of completing specific tasks, and I don’t leave the office until I have completed them.
The reason for this is I can find it hard to switch off at home when I have a massive workload waiting for me the next day to get done. So by ticking off items on my list, I feel productive. This means at home in my own time my mind isn’t continually ticking over on the things I need to get done, and the 101 tasks in my list don’t feel so daunting and looming over me.
So while we’re not always able to take a holiday in our positions as often as we might like, so long as we can get our minds to shut off the office (even for a brief period) can do wonders to prevent burn out.
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?
There have been many people along the way I could thank, and no one particular person could stand out above the rest. Each mentor or confidante I have known has had some skill or mindset that I have been able to leverage in some fashion and shaped to my business or thought process along the way.
When considering mentors or people whose brains I wanted to pick, I did so by looking at those I admire, in a position I want to be in or have achieved things I too would like to achieve. Sometimes it was a simple request on LinkedIn stating I admire and aspire to their achievements and asking if I could take them for a coffee or buy them dinner.
Most have always been accommodating and willing to chat informally. I think this could be due to the fact it can be lonely at the top. Not that we don’t have family or friends, but some of the problems and challenges we face are different from other people in the company or may not be understood by our personal social circles. So talking with someone in a position similar to yourself can alleviate the feeling that your challenges are unique to you.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Right now, my goal is on understanding the role of the board, shareholders and the type of corporate governance that becomes important as business scales. We started from such small beginnings and where we were free to do as we pleased and take more considerable risks. Now that we have investors and shareholders, I have a responsibility to them to perform, and while still free to take risks, these days they just have to be more calculated.
I learned in the early days of being a CEO that budgets and forecasts should not just be best guesses, and there is an art form to being as accurate as possible. We went from being 50% in the red on our forecasts to now being anywhere from 5% to 10% in the black. This will continue to be a personal achievement from me to meet and exceed the expectations of me, whether that be financial expectations or the expectations of me as a leader.
Before starting a business, I was an avid reader. The desire (or potentially being time-poor) got lost somewhere along the way, and now for both professional and personal development, I am setting myself a goal of reading at least one book a fortnight — maybe this can progress to one per week….
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope that during their time at Commission Factory I will have created some absolute rockstars in the world of digital marketing and created a work environment that others too can aspire to just as I once aspired to others.
I hope as well that we can set a high bar for user experience, customer service, compliance and ethics within the world of affiliate marketing that will spread across our backyard in Asia Pacific and one day the world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I would like to see our major cities consider the future of a sharing economy and self-driving vehicles when it comes to city planning and the infrastructure needed for electric cars. As someone that has lost a family member to a road accident, I see the most significant issue we have is the human element or human error. One day if we could remove this risk where drink driving is a thing of the past, then we will have created a much safer environment for everyone.
Climate change too is an issue facing all of us, and we need to encourage small shifts in people’s behavior and attitude. The world currently swings one way too far in either direction when it comes to the world’s most pressing issues and recognition that small steps (or death by a thousand cuts) and incremental change will benefit everyone. This can be done by looking at reducing the carbon output of specific industries and presenting solutions that can help achieve this. Limiting our reliance on fossil fuels, plastic waste and our dependence on animal products to reduce the land requirements of farming and agriculture.
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