Still Learning – Key Decision Analysis Part 7

by Ivan Mazour

As I come up to my 35th birthday (hence the change in the name of my blog), accept that I missed my chance to make it onto a Forbes 35-under-35 list, and supposedly get older and wiser, I have ironically found myself with the realisation that in the grand scheme of things, I know almost nothing. The teenage know-it-all me would be horrified by that admission. And yet over the past year I believe I’ve learned more than I’ve done in any previous year, and have had my eyes opened to quite how much more there is left.

While this has been obvious throughout the year, it has become particularly clear as I completed my annual key decision analysis over the past few days. This is the seventh time that I’ve analysed a year’s worth of decisions, which means I’ve been carefully writing down and tracking my decisions for eight solid years now. Each time I make a major decision, I write it down in my book, together with the reasons I believe it’s the right decision, and the risks of the decision backfiring, and then I come back to it exactly twelve months later to write out an analysis of whether I was right or not. At the end of every year, I go through all of the evaluations I wrote up over that year, and combine them into a blog post – a blog post about all of the decisions I made the year before, which I analysed and evaluated over the last year. So each blog post requires two years of preparation in order to write – a year of decisions, and then a further year of evaluations which come twelve months after the decision – and summarises all of the learnings from that timeframe into something which can be used going forward. The goal is to build confidence that my intuition is mostly right, and to identify trends and similarities between the decisions which were wrong.

So for the seventh year in a row, just as I wrote on the 1st of January 2018, 1st of January 2017, 1st of January 2016, 1st of January 2015, 1st of January 2014 and 1st of January 2013, here is my list of learnings from my analysis today.

I usually find that once I’ve analysed all of my decisions, and written out all of the lessons for that year’s post, I can group and summarise them into a few specific disparate categories. The fascinating thing this year is that there were two themes that permeated and flowed through absolutely all of the learnings in one way or another. Some years I come out feeling I’ve learned a bunch of interesting independent things. This year I’ve come out realising that I’ve developed more than I’ve ever developed before, and I’ve understood some truly deep and intrinsic aspects of life, and of myself.

The two themes are – leadership and biases.

I follow the key decision analysis process, and write up this blog post each year, specifically because I want to understand my biases and the impact they have on my decision making. Through this I try to train myself and remove the ones which prevent me from achieving the best outcomes. Over the past two years I’ve finally made significant progress in overcoming some major ones I’ve had, and yet most of my learnings this year relate to biases specifically. To better understand them, I’ve focused not only on the incorrect decisions I’ve made, but also on some of the theory behind why many people share these biases too.

But the biggest thing I’ve learned over the past two years has been what the true meaning of leadership. Well, realistically I’ve only just scratched the surface of what it means, but until now it turns out that I didn’t really truly understand it at all. I may have picked up certain things through osmosis, or through learning on the job, but what I’ve seen in the past two years has really opened my eyes to what great leaders are like, and how much I have left to learn.

So let’s jump into the 11 takeaways from this year’s key decision analysis – what I’ve learned about leadership and about the biases that I, and I’m guessing most people, have to overcome.

1. Becoming a great leader is a life-long commitment.

Leadership (and management, which is similar and different at the same time) is an art and a science, and takes intense study, dedication and practice. One of my favourite TV shows of recent times is Startup. While the plot is somewhat ridiculous, whoever wrote it really understands the nuances of current technological trends, and I’ve been enthralled by all three seasons. One of the characters (Seth from the OC, for anyone of my generation) is a perfect example of someone who hasn’t understood leadership. He keeps trying to make decisions and get people to follow them by saying “because I’m the CEO”, and it simply doesn’t work. Excellent acting, terrible leadership. Leadership is earned. People follow you because they believe in your vision, and believe that your decisions will get them to that vision – not because you have a C-level title. And you can’t fill the gap by hiring “people who know how to manage” underneath you either. It’s the leader who is responsible for leadership. They need to truly care about their people, know how to inspire and develop them, and be fully committed to constantly getting better at leading them. We had an incredible example of this at our all-team Christmas offsite a few weeks ago. Normal company offsites are slightly dreary affairs where the management tell the team about all the stuff they’ve done, and they’re going to do. Not at ours.. Each department head took it as a personal challenge to be the best at leaving the whole team inspired at the end of their presentation, and there was a real TED-level approach to the preparation and quality of each one. What was amazing was that it didn’t come from a place of ego, it came from a place of each of us being genuinely committed to being an exceptional leader.

2. Experience can’t be learned.

However smart I was, however many books I read, I had to learn the above through experience, by actually seeing what great leaders and bad leaders are like. By seeing the impact it has on the team. You can have innate leadership capability, and that capability can be developed by working under a great and experienced leader, but if you put someone without that experience in charge, then the chances of them swimming rather than sinking is pretty low. It has taken me multiple hours a week of coaching and mentorship (see below) for the best part of a decade to be able to stay ahead of what I need for my role. I am fortunate to so far have had the capacity, and the people around me, to be stretched at a pace that keeps me capable of leading my team. But over the past two years, I’ve seen others not be able to do this. And I’ve hired people who simply didn’t have the experience to be able to succeed in the leadership role they were placed in. My big learning here was that if you’re hiring for a leadership role, then not only do you need to have someone who has the commitment to leadership covered in the point above, you also need someone who has been in the trenches and built up the experience. A fast-growth startup is a great place to learn, but leadership is one of the hardest skills to learn, and learning to be a leader comes at the cost of the development of the people you’re in charge of leading. Most of the time that’s simply not an option.

3. Define responsibilities clearly.

Having a job spec, or a document which itemises responsibilities in any collaborative project, provides clarity over expectations to both sides and lets people be accountable for what they’re responsible for. Writing this out always ends up in the important but not urgent bucket, especially during the early stages of a startup, or in an environment outside of work, and typically it just doesn’t get done. But not doing it leads to a situation where it’s impossible to provide feedback, because there’s no way to point at any clearly defined responsibilities. This isn’t about telling someone off for not doing what they’re supposed to. It’s about helping people be successful. What I’ve seen over the past few years is how effective a job spec is at taking people who have disengaged, and showing them a direction to progress in – showing them that they have so much more left to learn, to develop. Multiple people in the company have been energised and motivated by truly understanding what their responsibilities are, and where they need to improve in order to fully master their role. I found this so useful that I took a long time to write out my own job spec as the CEO of Ometria. And then my wife saw it and wrote me a whole other job spec too..

4. People and roles both evolve.

And that means it’s your responsibility to have sufficient monitoring, reporting and visibility in place to ensure that you can tell quickly when the fit between person and role is no longer right. That reporting has to be lightweight enough to not be a time-sink for either side, and it also has to be done in a way that doesn’t take away from the ownership, responsibility and accountability of the other person. But it does have to be there. People will not always be able to develop at the same pace as the growth of the role requires them to. And that’s ok. The agreement is simple. The company promises to grow and develop the person, and give them feedback, and the person promises to always have an open conversation about their performance and ability in the role. This conversation should be constant, ongoing, and fully transparent. If the fit isn’t right, that should never be a surprise. It should be an obvious and rational decision for both sides. This applies to team-members of all seniority, including me as the CEO as well. And it definitely applies to external service providers. Especially accountants. Without fail, every single one of them starts out great and proactive, and within a couple of years starts ignoring the details of my tax return and making constant mistakes. I’m still looking for that perfect I can totally trust and rely on (see point 9).

5. Take charge.

Part of the responsibilities of being a leader is to be the person making the decisions. One of my absolute biggest biases, if not the biggest one, has been the difficulty I’ve had with separating my friendship and working relationships with people. It comes from something most of us have – the desire to please people, and the desire not to let them down. And that has often led me to choose not to make a decision, and instead to listen to others or to go with a concensus decision, all to try and make sure I please as many people as possible. Here’s the thing. That’s a total fallacy. One of the best books I’ve read in recent times is The Courage to be Disliked. And the point it makes is simple. Making decisions isn’t the selfish thing to do. It’s not making them that’s selfish. Doing what other people want, rather than doing what you believe is best for them and you, is actually the selfish and easy option. Because it’s the cowardly option. If you know what’s right, and you truly believe it’s right, then you need to make that decision and take that action, irrespective of if that means other people will dislike you because of it. Note that the point here isn’t to do what’s in your selfish best interests at the expense of others. It’s to do what you genuinely believe is best, from a morally and ethically correct point of view. And not to take the easy option of abstaining from the decision, and then using the excuse of “well I didn’t decide that so it’s not my fault” if it goes wrong. Over time this kind of approach also builds confidence and leads to all sorts of additional benefits. For example for all of our fundraises, including our Series A in 2017, we ran it to our own timeline, and put together own term sheet with terms we would accept. We set the expectations and we set the deadlines. It was scary to do it, of course, as all the investors could have simply said no. The easy option would have been to let each investor go and set their timeline, and set their terms, and for us to just go with the flow. That would be the less scary option. But it would also go completely against this principle, and it would definitely have led to a worse outcome.

6. Agreement does not equal follow-through.

It’s taken me a while to understand this but getting people to agree with you and say that they will do something does not mean that they will follow through on it. That’s not because they are lying, or trying to trick you. It’s because we are all human beings, and driven entirely by our emotions. And unless we buy into a decision emotionally, and feel that we’ve made it ourselves, we are unlikely to really care about it. We can get excited and carried away during a conversation, but the moment we move onto the next thing, unless an emotional imprint has been left, we’ll forget all about it. I’ve experienced this in many different ways. Investors saying how excited they were, and genuinely seeming excited, and then never following up. Prospects doing the same thing. And the biggest example has been our partnership programme, which until recently has been non-existent, because there was no one singularly focused on driving it forward. We’d have amazing meetings and sign many partnership contracts, but then very little would actually happen in terms of mutual commercial benefit. Because of course both sides would go back to their main focus – their own business. But if there is a person who is able to build those relationships and get the emotional buy-in, then suddenly things start to happen. People start to care. The big takeaway here is don’t just listen to people who excitedly say yes. Make sure you’re confident they’ve fully bought into that decision on a deeper, emotional level.

7. Get a coach.

The value of a coach can only really be understood once you’ve had one for a significant amount of time, and have seen the impact that it’s had. All I can say is that I wish I’d done it earlier, and that even though it seems extremely expensive, it’s the best return of investment I’ve seen. There is only so much we can do to understand ourselves, given our inability to take an external viewpoint. And there are areas of life that we simply don’t even know we need to develop. How often do you sit down and wonder whether if your spiritual framework was more robust, you would make better decisions and have a happier family life? I’m guessing not that often. That was certainly the case for me. A few years ago, I had a single-minded focus on achieving entrepreneurial success and beating Elon Musk to Mars. That was the only thing that mattered. Today, with the help of my coach, I have a comprehensive understanding of what drives my behaviour, what makes me happy, and what will make me more effective. I would not have been able to navigate the past year without my coach. There are biases I would have never discovered. It’s like doing key decision analysis on steroids, and without needing to wait seven years to get the learnings.

8. Intelligence isn’t enough.

One of my biggest biases, which I’ve only recently broken, was to place a huge amount of value on traditional intelligence. I was praised through my youth for my intelligence – first ever Russian to get a King’s Scholarship to Eton, member of Mensa at the age of 8 with an IQ of 175, and so on. And that embedded into me the value framework which I’ve subconsciously been using to evaluate others – whether friends, or people I worked with, or people I was hiring – a value framework that was very heavily skewed towards whether they were intelligent or not. What I’ve realised over the past two years is that other aspects are much more important – their emotional intelligence, their ability to communicate in a positive and productive way, whether they inspire and energise the people around them, their ability to be self-aware, take on feedback, and act on it to change themselves. Interestingly I was on the right track when I wrote the original Ometria culture deck. I was able to articulate what I believed mattered, even back then five years ago. But while I was rationally using this to build out my team at Ometria, I wasn’t able to change the actual personal value framework I was using to select the people around me until I understood the concept and the way I was applying it subconsciously. Now I apply the Ometria values to everyone in my life, and base my decisions about who to spend time with using them specifically. I’ve even given myself a goal to write them up, together with my wife Tijan, into a set of family values which we can then teach to our son Atlas (and yes our costumes are an accurate reflection of the power dynamic in our family).

9. You can only scale by delegating.

Another bias I’ve almost overcome, but not entirely, is my preference for doing things myself. I’ve seen multiple people around me struggle to overcome this bias, and some manage to overcome it very successfully, and watching that has given me clarity on how effective it is possible to be once you switch your mindset from “I can do this quicker and better myself” to “my only goal is to build a system which is able to do this without my input or intervention”. Switching to the latter leads to exponential acceleration, as you then also ingrain that mindset into the people who report into you, who then ingrain it into their teams and so on. Doing things yourself, however much it feels more efficient, is simply not scalable. But when you give the right people – people who have the intrinsic capability – the responsibility and accountability to own some objectives, and then give them encouragement and guidance, they will step up and deliver magic. They will take on the decision making and they will take on the problem solving and they will simply get it done. Over the past two years I’ve watched this play out so many times to such great effect. I’ve had multiple people step into roles which they had no experience of, but definitely had the intrinsic capability for, and then dedicate themselves so much that they absolutely smashed it. I’ve seen leaders come in and totally shift the attitude in their department towards enabling each of the individual contributors to become the best version of themselves. Each time, it’s been a d’oh moment for me, as I realised how much more effective I could have been had I taken this approach right from the beginning.

10. You’ve got to trust someone.

All of us have an unconscious bias to be hurt when people let us down, or break our trust, and then use that as an excuse to not trust people going forward. “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself” and all that. Well first of all, that’s completely at odds with the leadership and delegation points above, so on a very practical level this approach to life won’t get you anywhere. But on a much deeper level, people are fundamentally good. A few people will let you down without meaning to, and even fewer people will actively go out of their way to try and screw you over or defraud you. The majority of people out there in the world are good people and mean well. One of the tenets of Adlerian psychology (check out the book I recommend above) is that our happiness depends on a feeling of community, and in particular that people are our comrades. One or two bad eggs shouldn’t ruin that. It’s taken me a while to realise that. And the corollary of this is that when you do find people who you truly trust, then be grateful, and always let them know how much you appreciate them.

11. Don’t wimp out (unless that’s the right thing to do).

Another bias all of us have is the certainty effect. We prefer a reduced outcome that’s certain than a better expected outcome where there’s a chance of it not occurring at all. The point I’m making here isn’t to just wildly take risks. That’s just gambling. If the expected outcome of the risky option is worse, then we should take the certain path. But if the probabilistic expected outcome is much greater, then it’s worth taking the risk. In 2017 we took the risky decision of pushing forward and increasing burn because we believed that we would work out how to scale sales and raise our Series A. The reduced-risk option would have been to conserve cash, or become profitable, but without an investment in sales it would have been impossible to prove the growth, and the expected outcome, even given the risk, was so much greater if we accelerated. The sales came, we raised the round, and we’re now 80 people and a real company. We’re about to make the same decision again, ahead of our Series B this summer. The safe option is to stay profitable, especially now that we’re at scale. But the expected outcome of accelerating into the growth is worth the risk, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still know that I made the right decision for rational reasons. An example of when certainty is the better option though is if you’re fundraising and someone offers you more money for more dilution. Take it. An extra million or two at your exit isn’t going to make a difference to your life – getting to that exit or not is what really matters. Each round we’ve done, we were oversubscribed and took on extra money for significant extra dilution. It’s been the right decision each time. Another example of when a riskier option was the better option has been accepting challenges which were just beyond what we were capable of – for example large transformational customers. We’ve done that multiple times over the past two years, and each time the team has rallied, risen to the challenge and pushed themselves to improve in every way in order to achieve a positive outcome. It’s stretched and developed us as people, and as an organisation. Each of those challenges had a risk attached, as failing would have led to significant negative consequences. But the expected outcome was worth it, we made the decision to go for the uncertain but greater outcome, and the actual end result was transformational each time.

So here we are. Another year finished. Another 30 or so decisions analysed. Another 11 learnings and 2 themes identified. It’s always fascinating to see how the themes evolve from previous years, and whether I’ve finally learned how to avoid some of the biases which led to previous bad decisions which I’ve made. I will no doubt make bad decisions again, but at least I can see that I’m making fewer of them, and that I’m learning from my mistakes. And if this blog post helps you learn from my mistakes too, then even better.

My best wishes to you for 2019. May you discover what makes you happy, and may you inspire the people around you and help them do that too.


Find out more on the about Ivan Mazour page.
And watch Ivan Mazour's TEDx Talk - "Why we shouldn't be scared of sharing our personal data".

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Greg Nance January 7, 2019 - 1:39 pm

Insightful as always, Ivan! Would love to hear more on how to best leverage a ceo coach as that’s a 2019 goal for me too. Onward!

Ivan Mazour January 8, 2019 - 9:19 am

Thanks for reading and supporting for all these years Greg!

More than anything my coach has taught me how to handle highly complex and intense emotional interplays which are present in a fast-growth startup. How to handle difficult conversations and achieve the best outcome for everyone, how to handle and disarm people’s egos, how to handle my own sometimes incorrect framework for deciding what is and isn’t appropriate. That’s by far the most useful skillset he’s helped me acquire, and I don’t think I could have learned it from a book, or just through experience, anywhere near as quickly.


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