Centaur Stage Season 2 Ep. 10 - Building an Epic Team, a Special Episode with Marilyn Zakhour

Updated: Jan 30

Centaur Stage is a weekly video series produced by Cosmic Centaurs, and this second season is all about the magic of teams. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 3:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, is joined by incredible guests who share insights, opinions, and perspectives about what makes teams cohesive, high-performing, and happy.


In this chapter, we had four different guests:

  • Jonathan Yeo, Founder of the Potential Space, who spoke about diversity and inclusion in teams.

  • Sonal Bahl, a Career Strategist & Founder of Supercharge, who discussed hiring for skills and hiring for culture.

  • Chase Warrington, Head of Remote at Doist, who shared how to build remote-first teams.

  • Saima Siddiqui, CEO & Co-Founder of gradGREENHOUSE, who talked about why fresh grads are a great fit for teams.

You can watch the recap episode here.



Here is what she had to say:


Diversity & Inclusion as an ongoing state, not an end goal

What was really beautiful about the way that Jonathan approaches diversity and inclusion is that he considers it as more than just ticking a box, doing one training, or a workshop - he taught us about how it's an ongoing process. Every organization needs to continuously prioritize inclusion, rather than simply focus on quotas or end goals. One of the ways in which Jonathan encourages us to put inclusion on the agenda, is to get people to talk about who they are.


Creating space for people to be who they are

That is the kind of space you want to create to make sure that everybody's individuality is brought to the table. When we had Dr. Vinika Rao at the Future of Teams conference back in July, she made a beautiful point about the fact that we often tend to look at diversity as a visible and inherent kind of diversity, such as nationality, race, gender, or age, but acquired diversity is also very important to consider. Acquired diversity includes the experience and background, in a way, individual narratives. That's more difficult to measure, but it's equally important to take into account. That's where Jonathan's advice about creating space for people to share about who they are comes in. He highlighted a simple example of how teams can be inclusive: hosting an activity where each participant can share how they are not like the stereotype that goes with the boxes that they're in. Funnily enough, one of our ex interns, Billy, hosted a similar activity. When first joined the company, he had us answer a questionnaire that would help us measure ourselves across different dimensions, and then compared us to our national stereotypes. It was fascinating to see the ways in which we do or don't correlate with those labels and stereotypes. That's an example of an activity that reminded us that what matters is really looking at the stories and the individuals, and not just the labels.


Aim to always be constantly more diverse, not to to fit a certain quota

Jonathan also got us to think more about how we can be more diverse, rather than fixating on what is the level of diversity that we must achieve. Rather than focus on blanket goals, aiming to become more diverse in general rather than having tokens of diversity is really important, especially, in places where that measure doesn't quite work out very well or in really small teams where it's difficult to make sure everybody's represented.


Don’t fall into the trap of homogeneity, but stick to your values

There are so many difficult aspects in building teams, but I think one of the ones that I found, especially in a company of our size, where it's young, is that when the company is the team, it's not set within a broader scope. In the early days of creating a team, whoever's leading that team, when they have the choice of who they're going to recruit, it's very easy to fall into the trap of recruiting people who are very similar to you. It’s because you're going to work well together, you don't have to re-explain the universe to them. It's easy, it's simple. It just works. I think one of the most difficult aspects is making sure you don't fall into that trap, and making sure you don't surround yourself with people who will naturally agree with you or work in the same ways. That's why we actually chose to start with Jonathan in this chapter, because building teams is really about having a broad view on who you want to include in what they bring to the team. At some point, the more you can hire people who are different from you as an individual, the better, but of course there's always this question of culture fit and culture add. As a matter of fact, one of the other insightful points that Jonathan made was this idea of rather than always talking about hiring for culture fit, we should focus more on culture add. This means diversifying what individuals can bring to the table instead of directly fitting in. Of course, that doesn't mean that we should hire people that hate our purpose, don’t agree with our values, have nothing in common with us, but more that we seek out diversity quite openly, and that we don't default to just being surrounded by people who always act and think the same.


Hire for energy and drive, not for perfection

If you want to know what your Avengers team is going to look like, how do you make sure you're recruiting them well? Sonal helped answer this question. She shared tips on recruiting people, and what's the right balance to find between that culture piece and the skills piece, because that's always a difficult balance. Her stance on hiring for cultures and skills can be summarized with a simple quote from her. She said, “hire for attitude, and train for skill”. What she meant by that, is that lots of skills can be taught on the job, so it's pointless to try and go and find someone who already knows how to do all of the things that this job might require. What matters more is the energy and drive for the jobs that applicants have. We should make sure that we measure that motivation rather than trying to find someone who's going to tick all the boxes, because that is a bit unrealistic and perhaps a little outdated.


Balance in recruitment is everything

Balance is everything, both in terms of how to look at culture versus skills, but also balance in terms of the interview process. Interview processes that have around 12 rounds of interviews end up being about survival of the fittest, not necessarily the best matching. But of course, you also don't want to just hire with one interview. I think this idea of striking balance in your process is really important, and making sure that you really give candidates a chance to shine in different settings. We talked about assignments, we talked about asynchronous tasks, and creating the right process to find the right candidates.


Include behavioral questions

We also discussed how to make sure that you integrate culture in the way that you recruit. It's also important for the applicant to see if the company they're joining sounds like a place they want to be in - interviews are not a one-way process. I think a company is interviewing a candidate, but equal amounts of candidates should be interviewing the company to see if that's where they want to bring their energy every day. One of the ways that Sonal recommended in making sure that this is the right fit for both, is that you want to look at how applicants respond in certain situations, because when it comes to the typical interview questions, in principle, a good candidate has come prepared. It's not like they don't know how to answer the questions you're about to ask, but it's more about seeing how they would respond in certain situations. One of the tips that she gave us, is that one way to hire someone by looking at their values is to ask behavioral questions. Ask them what their opinion was on something that happened recently in the news. It's a lot harder for them to prepare a less genuine answer to that question. It’s a great way to get an honest perspective.


Have your values documented first

If you're going to require potential team members to share values with you and your organization, then you need to have a clear idea of what your own values are first. That means that you've documented them, and know how they integrate into your team life and company life. In my case, for example, the way that I integrate values in interviews is that I tell candidates about our values, and ask them to tell me about instances where they express those values, or also just to react to them. Amazon has something more stringent but similar in their process.


When can you build teams?

We've seen a lot of young entrepreneurs in their twenties, maybe barely out of college, be able to build really successful high-performing teams, and have beautiful success stories. Sometimes, you get it wrong quite a few times before you get it right. I think as with everything, be mindful. An exercise that one of my mentors has given me when it comes to recruiting, is write down not only what you want in the person you are recruiting, but also, write down what you don't want in that person, write down anything that even if that person was 2000% match to your kind of job description, you would still walk away from them because you don't think that they'll have added value to the team.


Since we’re staying on this recruitment train, and talking about recruiting people who may not have any skills when they first join your company or do they, we’ll jump into Saima’s episode and talk about Chases’ later, since she shared with us why fresh grads can be a great fit for teams nowadays. I think the first point she made that really resonated with me, especially considering what Cosmic Centaurs does, is that organizations are trying to adapt to flexible work models, and they are constantly trying to figure out how to get people engaged. There's talk of the great resignation.


Learn from the new generation about the future of work!

There's so much change around us, and much of the technology is getting in the way of human interactions. She made a point about how fresh grads, especially those who have just graduated, have been going to university and doing group work and finishing exams online for the last two years, they've learned quite a bit about how to make it work. They can definitely be a source of great learning for us, even just with regards to adapting to flexible work models, and leaders should be open to that.


I've always believed in the power of hiring fresh grads, and always just been in awe of what a 21 year old with a lot of ambition can get done, and how fast they can learn. I think both Saima and I agreed on that. What's also beautiful about this generation is how value-driven they are, and how much diversity and inclusivity means to them. Jonathan made a similar point about how much they take those issues to heart. I think we can learn a lot in terms of both helping us adapt to the new world, but keeping us in check about our values, and our diversity and inclusion initiatives, and all the other issues that this generation finds close to their heart. I think it's good to have this pressure from within the team.


Explicitly create a learning environment, which everyone can benefit from

We also discussed with Saima teaching fresh grads new skills. What matters most is that you create a learning environment, and not to think about this as a one-way relationship. I think fresh grads have a lot to learn about how a certain company operates, or the methodologies, and the principles that they work with. Creating a learning environment that goes both ways is really important. Showing any team member, honestly, fresh grad or not, that you can both help them grow, but also that you grow from their feedback is very important. A really interesting point that Saima made is that if you're having fresh grads who are top performers in their class, you should be very explicit about the fact that they can and should ask a lot of questions. That is because the way that the education system is set up, is that if you're a top performer, you tend to be great at answering questions, not necessarily great at asking them. There's a bit of unlearning for them in this environment where they still want to be high performers, but now they have to do it through a very different means. There's a bit of a steep learning curve for them to become mindful of that. They're used to being rewarded for answering questions, and now they have to reprogram themselves to become great question askers, not answers.

Learnings from building Cosmic Centaurs

What I've learned in building this team, is that first of all, we were given an opportunity to build a team where it didn't matter where people were sitting, or where they were from. Many of us are Middle Eastern, but we've also had the opportunity to include people from very different cultures in different locations in Europe, both Western and Eastern. I think that first, I've learned that this idea that we need to have some kind of shared layer of culture is truly irrelevant. I'd already started experiencing that in my first job at Keyward, but it was really solidified here that you can build a global team from day one, and you can always find ways to make your team inclusive. We can still build a great experience for our teams, even if we're not the same, and as our Consultant Tala says, “alignment doesn't mean sameness”.


About rituals and connecting with one another

One of my favorite rituals, I don't know if it strengthens teams, but I think is definitely an energizing one, is listening to Cosmic Girl by Jamiroquai before important meetings or workshops, on the Zoom call, before the participants or the clients join. I just love that. I think reminding ourselves of being lighthearted and not taking ourselves too seriously is always a good thing. My other favorite one is our dedicated Team Time. Usually once every three to four weeks, we all come together, and we never talk about work during those calls. We've done a lot of different things during those times, whether it's playing Pictionary, answering questions from our Cosmic Conversations game, take the test that I was talking about earlier that Billy gave us about our national cliches, dedicating time for connecting with each other was always a great time for us.


Focus on both engagement and performance

This might be a less popular opinion, but we have rituals that are more about the health of the business. For example, we all come together as a team once a month to review all of our KPIs, and we never miss that. We look at our revenue, our margin, our marketing funnel, or sales funnel, how we're performing our project based accounting. It’s not like the beautiful social rituals, but I think it's equally important to indicate what matters. In this case, it matters to us to build a healthy, and financially sustainable organization. Everybody has a part to contribute to that. I like the mix of rituals that are on the one hand about engaging together, and on the other about managing the performance of the organization because in the end, it's what brings us all together, and it needs to survive for us to stay together. There's a great research piece from Gallup about how managers that focus on both the engagement piece and the performance piece tend to outperform.


Building remote-first teams

Chase shared with us how to make sure remote-first teams are successful, how to use the tools of asynchronous communication, and all the other ways in which you engage with one another when you are remote. This is a very important aspect of teams, since so many of them are remote nowadays.


You've found this talent, it's diverse, it's aligned, it's a culture add, and you've brought in a few fresh grads for their ideas and created a learning environment. Great. How do you do this all in a remote first setup? Having myself, as I mentioned earlier, built a remote first team in the pandemic, I had so much in common with Chase in terms of how to do that. For example, this need for leaders to be really intentional about activities, and the team about creating space for connection. We always say this, that connected teams are happy teams, and we're actually conducting research to prove that!


The importance of being intentional and explicit

Chase spoke a lot about how one of the things you have to do is you have to make sure that everything is explicit. Everything has to be set out loud whenever possible. There's always tasks that require knowledge in an organization that's difficult to document, but what can be documented should be, and this intentionality has to start from the top. If you want team members to come to work with these hygiene rules, be explicit about getting to know each other, take time, et cetera. Leaders have to prioritize those activities as part of the workday, they cannot be an afterthought because most people will want to prioritize getting their work done.


Asynchronous work, and balancing out synchronous work

The way remote first teams operate is that they really rely heavily on asynchronous work. Asynchronous work is essentially no video calls, no phone calls, no like live chatting. Everything is that if I share something with you, I have no expectation that you will respond to me in a synchronous manner. The reason for that of course, is that, the more spread out you are as a remote first team, the less this overlap is possible. You have to figure out another way to do it. We talked a lot with Chase about the rituals and the different ways in which he manages the team. We know there's no one size fits all. You have to take into account your culture, your team, how spread out you are.


One debate that we had with Chase, is that our team relies quite a bit on daily stand-ups, to learn from each other, make sure we're aligned, to connect, have fun, to keep each other company, and he's completely against it. Every different team can find the right balance for communication. To learn more about how to know and achieve that balance, I advise you to look at two resources on our website: our remote work manifesto, where we tell you what you should prioritize, and a worksheet that we created to help you look at how you communicate with each other as a remote team, and make sure that your communication guidelines and tools are shared and that everybody knows how to use them.


Engaging introverts in connecting with them team

I think introverts are equally capable of assessing their own needs, and sharing their emotions. It's about role modeling first, meaning as a leader, you share first, you put yourself out there, you show how you can be vulnerable in front of them first. You make sure that you are intentional about creating space for them without overwhelming them, or making them feel like they have to share anything with you. Just ask, ‘how are you doing today? You don't seem yourself. Do you want to talk about it?’ Leave space for them to say no, but I think that creating that space is important. Maybe introverts prefer having asynchronous communication. Maybe they don't want to be in a meeting telling you how they feel. Maybe there's a different way for them to contribute. We wrote an article about the topic, and how extroverts and introverts experience remote work.