Centaur Stage Season 2 Episode 17: Global From Day One, the final episode with Marilyn Zakhour
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 the fourth chapter of the season about growing & scaling teams, we had two guests:
As always, Marilyn closed the chapter with a special episode where she recaps the previous speaker's key takeaways, and shares her insights, perspectives, and experiences on the topic.
You can watch the episode here.
Here is what she had to say:
We chose this theme for the last chapter because following the pandemic, it’s impossible to talk about teams without covering how to scale them and how to manage them globally. Even for really small organizations, like Cosmic Centaurs. I think the pandemic has unlocked something where we are all more open to the idea that even if you're just a team of two or five or ten like we are, you can hire people anywhere, onboard them, and make them part of your mission.
I like to say that Cosmic Centaurs has been global from day one. When we started the company, we didn't think that the UAE was our only country market. When we work for companies outside of the UAE, we don’t have to reconsider our work as an export. Our team is diverse globally, culturally, and geographically. We celebrate that - diversity actually is a core contributor to our value proposition, because we work with other companies that are global and scaled, and we need to understand them. We've had colleagues from so many different places: Italy, France, India, different parts of the Middle East, and Bosnia. That's been a major contributor to the value that we create for our clients. Everybody and every team leader must understand what it means to and how to manage in a global world. Even when it is sometimes, especially in the last few weeks, by conflict. It's really important to understand how to think about these things.
Managing globally is something that I learned really early on, from having had the chance to work across my career in different organizations. One of them is Keyward. It was a small company, relatively speaking, with 200 people, but it was a global company similar to Cosmic Centaurs almost from day one. I think there's a lot of amazing advantages to having global talent. Pieter talked to us about the technicalities of hiring globally, and the value of hiring globally: how it can help close the unemployment and labor shortage gaps, how it can give you access to incredible talent… In my experience, in my first job, I had a really meaningful example of that.
Hiring Globally: Local Specificity
Something that I learned about the value of hiring globally is that you don't just hire globally because it's cheaper, or because you might not be able to find talent where you are. It is to find what is called local performance and local specificity. My example of that comes from Keyward. It was part of a bigger group, which included a digital agency. However, the biggest part of the business was actually selling books worldwide, that were sourced and sold in many different places. We had a lot of different offices in many different cities, but we decided, for example, to set up in Brussels was where our design talent was focused. Why design talent, specifically? Well, because there are amazing design schools and a general art scene in a place like Brussels. We had our R& D team in France, because the French are quite well known for their scientific methodology. We had our engineers and thinkers in Montreal, because of the universities there. We had access to global talent from the point of view of technology that was world-class, working within the best practices and the conventions of how the U.S. and North America was building in the tech world. In Beirut, we experimented with new ideas, because when you live in a chaotic place like Lebanon, it teaches you a lot about being agile, experimenting, and iterating. Dublin was where our content writers lived, because so many young Dubliners choose to go and pursue studies in literature, and so they are amazing writers. We also set up warehouses in places like New-York, London, and Paris, because they are publishing industry capitals. They allowed us to tap into the wealth of the publishing ecosystem there. To me, in addition to everything we've spoken about, why hiring globally has a lot of value and how it's been unlocked these days, that idea of understanding local performance specificity is something that I wanted to bring home. At the same time, if you're going to be global, beyond understanding the local specificity, of course, you also have to understand the global pulse of the world. You have to be good at building resilience into an organization. I think that's the leader's job now, having myself experienced what it looks like to set up entities in a lot of different countries, and having to manage the regulatory aspect and the taxation, all of these things that are steep learning curves.
Hiring Globally: Employers of Record
I find it incredible that companies like WorkMotion and others have now developed through the pandemic. Of course, this is not a new concept, but they now have really become visible, and have amazing value propositions around helping with that local setup. Setting up Employer Of Record companies and being able to hire people on your behalf, manage things like contracting, payrolling, and regulatory compliance is really wonderful. It has opened up every company's ability to go global, including smaller companies, which might not have considered doing in the past because of the effort and the cost associated with that. Pieter also gave us a really important insight, which is while there are a lot of positives in hiring globally, he reminded us that once you hire your first individual from another country, you are undergoing a big transformation. He emphasized the importance of properly onboarding team members, and probably properly managing team dynamics so that they are healthy.
Global Team Dynamics
When you start to build a global team, you're also starting to build in many ways, a remote team, meaning there’s a lot to do in terms of how you structure your processes, making sure that your documentation is in place, and that everybody has a sense of trust in each other. Making sure that micromanagement is not necessary, everybody is empowered and autonomous. When Peter talked about that, it resonated a lot with my experience at Keyword when I was based in the Paris office, and my teams were in many of the cities that I mentioned earlier (Brussels, Montreal, Dublin, Beirut). Before the pandemic, I used to spend a lot of my time traveling between these various locations. I used to say that I was theoretically the leader of a part of the business, but actually my job was less about managing the business side than it was about building bridges and connecting people with one another.
My metaphor for my job at the time was that I looked like a phone operator in the old days, where you see them taking a cable and plugging it into two parts of the dashboard so that they can connect people to each other. We really shouldn't underestimate the importance of building those bridges and connecting people together. A big part of managing teams globally, therefore remotely, is of course around the processes and the systems that we put in place. Maintaining healthy relationships, measuring team morale - even when you're not together - and learning how to build shared values and shared alignment towards a purpose, yet still keeping space for local knowledge and culture, is something that's really important. Ensuring that while your organization is aligned, alignment doesn't necessarily have to mean sameness and that you must take the time not just to celebrate the diversity, but to also listen to it, and to also learn from it.
Culture & Purpose in Scaling
I think in that space, the importance of culture and people emerges. It's important everywhere, but distance makes everything more complicated. In that sense, what Tariq spoke to us about really resonated with me. He reminded us that it's necessary to keep the organization aligned to its purpose. He also pointed out that it's okay that it evolves as the company grows and scales, because different people bring in different parts of the culture. Tariq was very honest and transparent about the fact that it's also so important to let people contribute and evolve what you've already built. He shared with us that when he sits down with other leaders, those that have joined the company perhaps later on, and they do diagrams on words that they feel defined the company, there's always a new word that emerges.
That's a good thing because culture needs to evolve, and you need to accompany that change. He did also mention that the core culture of a company, what the organization stands for, shouldn’t change that much. Regardless of where you're hiring people from and how fast you're growing, the purpose of an organization should be something that you keep close to your heart.
Giving Teams the Space to Grow
When it comes to scaling, a great piece of advice that Tariq gave us is the ability to have faith in your talent, the ability to put your trust in people before they've earned it, so to speak. One of the topics we discussed with him is the scale anticipation fallacy, which refers to judging a team's ability to scale too fast, like looking at a team and saying, ‘actually, they're not going to be able to do it because they don't have the capabilities and the knowledge to grow’, which sometimes leads us to not give them the opportunities to grow.
What Tariq does, is that he creates space for the less experienced team members to grow as the company scales. I couldn't agree more in that while experienced leaders bring in a lot of knowledge and ways of doing things, they're less likely to think dynamically outside the box, to try things that they've never tried before. If you're in a small company and you're scaling, it means usually that you're doing something that hasn't been done a million times before. What matters is not to focus just on the expertise of the people who are going to help you to grow the business, but also on their attitudes. Tariq shared with us a few tips about how to find those people, how to interview them, how to make sure that they have the right spirit.
As he was sharing that, I was reflecting about how I can do that for my team. How can I make sure that I create the right environment for them to grow, scale, and to truly take on more and more responsibility? At the same time, it reminded me of the generosity that I had been afforded when I was in my early days in my career, which again goes back to that company Keyward.
I studied architecture, and I knew relatively early on that I maybe I was not going to be an architect. Probably because I've always wanted to have a global career. I felt like I wish I had known that when I was 18, but by the time I was my early twenties, I felt like architecture was going to bound me to one vocation. I decided to apply for a job - my first job was at Keyward, and my first task was to write reviews for books on and e-commerce website for books. Quickly, I was bored out of my mind, and my manger noticed I wasn't really thrilled by the repetitiveness and the lack of challenge by the work I was asked to do. He walked in one day, and he's like, ‘why don't you write a business plan for this business idea that we have?’. And I was an architect. I didn't even know what a business plan was, but I Googled it, and found a template which I tried using. Probably it was not that great, but it did help me grow. Every week, he would think up a new challenge for me to figure out, and I would Google my way out of it. What that really created for me was an opportunity to realize that even though I didn't come from the right education, it didn't mean that I couldn't develop my circle of competence. Eventually I went from being an architect, to being the leader of a tech company. I went from being a digital talent after my first 10 years at Keyward, to becoming the CMO of a real estate company, and managing an opera. I think that all goes back to someone believing in me, and giving me opportunity to grow, lear, and removing my imposter syndrome. This allowed me to have the confidence to start Cosmic Centaurs and to lead a team that is global, and that I'm hoping will a lot of amazing opportunities and growth.
People in Global Teams
Pieter, who mostly spoke to us about technicalities of scaling globally, actually ended up talking a lot about people as well. While scaling globally is a lot about setting up the right processes, structure, and systems it's also about people. The big lesson for me, is that people who care about people make companies grow, and make companies succeed.
It's also not native to us to hire and manage people from other cultures. Even when you think you're highly, emotionally intelligent, there's so much you don't understand about the world that people live in. I think being curious and being willing to learn and to be given feedback and to try things out, to have the courage, to reach out to people, and be vulnerable in front of them is really essential in leading global teams.
My advice to team leaders in general, and that applies for team leaders who want to manage globally, is that you should focus on both engagement and performance, so never lose sight of what your team needs to accomplish. Just because someone's from a different culture, or doesn't agree with you or what your team needs to accomplish, doesn’t mean you have to remove pressure - it's on you to get it done. But also, exercise compassion, vulnerability, openness, and curiosity, and be obsessed about how you engage your team and how you make them feel aligned and how they connect to each other.