Ep. 26 Aydin Mirzaee

Decoding Supermanagers: Aydin Mirzaee on Developing Great Leaders


29 min

Ep. 26 Aydin Mirzaee

29 min

What does it take to be a great manager? It’s a question Aydin Mirzaee has spent a lot of time thinking about. In addition to being the CEO of Fellow.app, he’s the host of the “Supermanagers” podcast. He’s talked to dozens of managers from leading companies about how to drive success. Hear him explain the traits that make good leaders great.

Read transcript

“One of the things that we say often is great managers are not born, they're made. So the good news is that it's never too late and it's something that you can keep working on. And with enough effort, enough repetition, you too can be a Supermanager.”

Quick takes on...

How Practice Makes Perfect

“You have to treat this just like a professional athlete would. Just like a professional athlete would do drills and practice and look back on their week and figure out what conversations they had and how they went and how much feedback did they give and how did the feedback get received. The world's best managers are also practicing and they're very deliberate about all these things."

The Risks of Imitation

“Often, we try and look at a leader or a manager and we'll try and emulate, right. And we'll try and be like them. And the big takeaway I had was that you really have to try and be like yourself. It's not about emulating anybody else. You just have to really understand just like you understand your team. You have to understand yourself, understand what your strengths are and like what the authentic you looks like, and then be that person, not trying to necessarily emulate others.”

The Bottom Line

“The thing that I hear most often is, it's all about the people. At the end of the day, you really have to treat everyone like real people, really understand them, and treat them like human beings.”

Meet your guest, Aydin Mirzaee

CEO, Fellow.app; Host, “Supermanagers” podcast

Spotlight Aydin Mirzaee

Aydin Mirzaee is the CEO of Fellow.app, a SaaS company based in Ottawa. Before Fellow.app, Aydin co-founded Fluidware in 2008, which was responsible for running two very successful SaaS businesses, FluidSurveys and FluidReview. The company was bootstrapped and grew to a $12 million run-rate and over 90 employees. After six and a half years, Fluidware was acquired by SurveyMonkey. Aydin is also the co-founder of FreshFounders.com, a non-profit organization with the vision to create a community of young entrepreneurs in every city around the world.

Listen to the next episode

Ep. 27 Home Ep27 Sovie and Viniak

Decoding XaaS: A Deep Dive with Accenture’s David Sovie & Vik Viniak


31 min

The "as a service" model has been around for decades, but many companies still struggle with transitioning their products to take full advantage of cloud-based go-to-market strategies. In this podcast, two experts from Accenture, David Sovie & Vik Viniak, talk about how to rethink products and the value you can deliver in a world where almost everything can be a service.

Episode transcript

Decoding Digital w/ Aydin Mirzaee [0:00] [background…

Decoding Digital w/ Aydin Mirzaee

[0:00] [background music]

Aydin Mirzaee: [0:06] One of the things that we say often is great managers are not born, they're made. The good news is that it's never too late. It's something that you can keep working on, and with enough effort, enough repetition, you too can be a supermanager.

Daniel Saks: [0:24] That's Aydin Mirzaee, CEO of Fellow.app, a fast growing SaaS company that helps teams have better, more productive meetings. As part of his role at Fellow, Aydin is the host of the "SuperManagers Podcast," a weekly show where he interviews leaders from across the business spectrum to tease out the habits, attitudes, and experiences that helped them be amazing managers.

[0:50] Aydin has been leading Fellow.app for almost five years. Before that, he was the co founder of Fluidware, a bootstrapped company that he helped grow from to a $12 million run rate and almost 100 employees. After six years, he led Fluidware through an acquisition by SurveyMonkey.

[1:10] Aydin is passionate about entrepreneurship. He is also the co founder of freshfounders.com, a non profit organization with the vision to create a community of young business leaders in every city around the world.

[1:26] In this episode, Aydin will delve into some of the lessons he's learned, both from talking to so many successful leaders and from being a successful entrepreneur himself. Are great leaders born or made? Get ready for a thoughtful discussion on that topic and more.

[1:43] This is Daniel Saks, co CEO of AppDirect, and it's time to decode supermanagers.

[1:49] [background music]

Daniel: [1:55] Welcome to "Decoding Digital," a podcast for innovators looking to thrive in the digital economy. I'm your host, Daniel Saks, and I'll sit down with other founders, CEOs, and changemakers to decode the trends that are transforming the way we work. Let's decode.

[2:12] Aydin, thanks so much for joining the podcast today. I love this because I was recently on your podcast, SuperManagers, and I know you've been running it for almost a year now and you just broke 50 episodes. Congrats on SuperManagers and the 50 episode mark.

Aydin: [2:34] Thank you. It's crazy to think it's been a year that we've been doing it. It's exciting. It's the sort of thing that once you get passionate about it, I could see myself doing this forever. It's awesome.

Daniel: [2:45] There's nothing better than chatting with interesting people. I find it to be great. When we talk about supermanagers, there's an obvious question for you, which is what's a supermanager?

[2:56] Beyond that, what are some of the takeaways that you've had from interviewing so many leaders and supermanagers?

Aydin: [3:02] That's a good question. The term supermanagers, it's a term that we invented. We have to talk about what a manager is. We think that the purpose of a manager is through their involvement, you'll get a lot more out of the team than if they were not involved with the team.

[3:20] A supermanager to us is someone, through their involvement, you get almost 10 times as much impact than if they were not involved with the team. They have a lot of characteristics. One of our favorite characteristics is that they're always working on their craft. They never take it for granted.

[3:37] It's like continuously focusing on becoming a better manager and leader. It's something that they think about, they practice. They're very deliberate. Just like an athlete would practice their free throws and do that on a consistent basis, supermanagers are constantly figuring out how they can do what they do better. That's the broad premise of it.

[4:00] It's not everyone, but you'll notice that the ones that have that mentality and mindset, they're always thinking about how they can get better. That's why you were a great fit for the podcast. That's the sort of person that we've tried to have on.

Daniel: [4:13] Thanks so much. I'm curious, what are the common threads of things that supermanagers are consistently trying to work on?

Aydin: [4:20] There are a lot of things that we've figured out that supermanagers do and also a lot of lessons that we've taken from them. One of the things is, for example, they're always focused on understanding their employees on an individual level.

[4:38] Part of that is there's this great quote from Peter Drucker. He basically says, "Effective executives understand and build on the strengths of themselves or team and their organization to make everyone productive and to eliminate weakness."

[4:55] Part of that is they're always trying to figure out, what are each person's strengths? What are their weaknesses? It's not to say individually remove a weakness, but it's more, "Let's figure out how, through using a team, we can actually eliminate weakness in that way through the use of a team." They're always understanding who their team is on an individual level.

[5:19] There's a lot of great examples that I can bring up, and I've written a few of these. One of them was they're always focusing on different models that you can employ, that there's no one size fits all for these things.

[5:32] One of the things is we had John Michel, who is the now leaving but CTO at Shopify and one of the things that we talked about with him was this concept of a 25:50:25 leadership model. What that means is a lot of people will come in and they'll say that, "Oh, well, it's servant leadership. My job is strictly to just unblock other people."

[5:55] What's interesting about the model that, for example, he talked about was 25 percent of the time, I'll be your manager and I'll instruct you and guide you. 25 percent of the time, you'll tell me what to do and what you need from me.

[6:11] 50 percent of the time, for example, we're peers. We're going to work together and we're going to brainstorm, and this is going to be a very collaborative process. There's a lot of individual lessons like that.

[6:24] For example, we had Vlad, the CEO of Webflow, on. This is something that I've heard from a bunch of other people as well. Oftentimes, we try and look at a leader or a manager and we'll try and emulate and we'll try and be like them.

[6:40] The big takeaway I had from that episode was that you have to try and be like yourself. It's not about emulating anybody else. Just like you understand your team, you have to understand yourself, understand what your strengths are and what the authentic you looks like, and then be that person, not trying necessarily emulate others.

[7:03] There's a bunch more, and I can list these out. There's been a lot of great guests. One of the main things for me is after every episode, I always learn something. Even if nobody else listens to the episodes, it still works, because I'm learning a lot. Obviously, people will listen and learn, too.

Daniel: [7:21] For sure. It's such a great group that you've been chatting with. I've had a lot of takeaways from your podcast. When it comes to a lot of these supermanagers that you talk to, one of the things that I've observed is a lot of them have had to make adjustments in their communication style and their motivation style, particularly over the last year.

[7:38] What are some of the strategies that you've seen be particularly relevant in this digital first environment?

Aydin: [7:45] One of the things that we focused on was trying to get a lot of guests that had a lot more experience with remote and had a lot of things that they could contribute so that everybody else could learn from what they had been doing.

[7:58] One of the guests that we had on it was very early in the pandemic Job, who is the CEO at remote.com. Before that, he was VP of product at GitLab, which used to be the world's largest remote company. One of the things that we talked about right from the beginning was that remote is harder.

[8:17] It's harder to run a remote company. You have to do a lot more. You have to be more purposeful, you have to think about things in different ways, but it is worth it. The reason that it can become worth it is because you get to access broader talent in so many other places. It's not like it's not going to be more work.

[8:37] Some people might have assumed that, "Oh, we're just going to get into remote and it's going to be the same amount of work." It's a different ballgame. That was a really interesting thing.

[8:46] The other interesting thing that we talked about with Job was this concept of documenting everything. There's this culture that they promoted at GitLab, and certainly, something that we've also adopted at Fellow, which is this concept of respond with a link.

[9:02] When people ask you a question, don't give them the answer. Go write it in the wiki, and then respond with a link, so now it's documented. It was interesting when he first told me about that. I said, "Oh, but that's a lot more work. It's going to be slower. It's a lot more work." He brought up a very good point, which is, "No. Actually, it's faster. It's a lot faster."

[9:22] The reason is you only answer your question once. It's not just about having a repository of knowledge. It's also about when you have people in different time zones, imagine if you want to ask a question at 5:00 PM someone else's time zone and they're leaving. Now, you have to wait for the next day.

[9:39] The more that you can think about documentation and responding with a link for a company know how and knowledge and processes, it speeds things up. You just have to operate differently once everybody is not in the same physical location and all the same rules don't apply.

Daniel: [9:57] Can you tell us a little bit more about the founding premise of Fellow and how you help managers become supermanagers?

Aydin: [10:04] There are a bunch of things. When we originally started the company, one of the things that we started thinking about is software enables behavior change.

[10:15] One of the things with work from anywhere, and work from remote, and hybrid, and all these different concepts is you have to use technology to make these sorts of communications possible. Technology can help behavior change.

[10:28] One of the things that we thought about when starting the company was we looked across the board and we said, "Everybody in every sector has software for them. Salespeople may have Salesforce. Marketing people may have a Marketo or a HubSpot, but nobody had built a tool for managers of teams and taken that lens."

[10:48] When we first started the company, we wanted to focus on building what we like to call a manager's co pilot. In the same way that you hire an account executive and they might use Salesforce, you would use Fellow, and Fellow would be that manager's co pilot.

[11:03] As we started digging in, what was interesting was we saw that where managers spend most of their time is in meetings. Over 50 percent of their week is spent in meetings. When you take that lens, it's such a massive area to help and deliver impact.

[11:21] Over the course of time, what Fellow's become is we like to call it a meeting productivity and team management tool. We lead with a meeting centric approach. What we like to say is, "Turn all the chaos of meetings into productive work sessions," and then we layer on team management concepts, one on ones, and feedback, and goal setting.

[11:40] Those things are married in but with a meeting centric approach. There's a lot of interesting things about meetings as it relates to digital and remote. For example, a very common concept, I don't know how many of these you do, Dan, at AppDirect, but do you have asynchronous meetings? Is that a practice you employ, at least in your teams?

Daniel: [12:03] It's not. I would love to learn more about it.

Aydin: [12:06] One of the things that people realized is when we went all remote, part of it was, "Let's do the exact same thing we did in the office, but let's run those exact same meetings remotely." The dynamic changes.

[12:18] There's certain meetings, and specifically, status meetings, and stand up meetings, and those sorts of things are the first to go. Any sort of status meeting doesn't actually need for everybody to be there at the same time.

[12:31] It's a matter of making sure that those things, people are putting in their updates at a certain point in time by a certain date and time, and then making sure that information is available for everyone. That's, in general, the concept of an asynchronous meeting.

[12:44] It's something where not everybody needs to do it at the same time. People can finish this on their own time, but then you can view things afterwards.

[12:54] Not every meeting should be an asynchronous meeting. For example, one on ones should not be asynchronous, because there's a lot of purposes to it, but relationship building, for example, is a critical part of a one on one meeting.

[13:07] Those are the sorts of things, for example, that you should do on a synchronous basis. If there is discussion and debate, a lot of those things benefit from real time interaction. Other things don't need to be that way, and so they can be done on an asynchronous basis.

[13:25] That concept brings more time in people's days, allows their schedules to be more flexible so that you're not in a situation where all you're doing is back to back meetings. That style of communication is also more than that.

[13:40] For example, we had Sarah Milstein on our podcast. At the time, she was director of engineering at MailChimp. One of the things that we talked about was this concept of, if not everybody needs to be there synchronously...Sometimes, you have a presentation or a meeting that is basically like a presentation format.

[14:03] If that doesn't need to be synchronous and you're going to get everybody to read the deck or watch the video of someone presenting, how do you know that that's effective? Part of the culture that also needs to change is the way that we react to these things.

[14:18] If you're using a tool like Slack or MS Teams, it's about reacting to messages. You read a message, it's about putting eye emojis or some reaction to say, "Yes, I read this."

[14:30] Or, commenting on things on purpose, or when you distribute a presentation or something important, checking in with people after the fact and literally going out and messaging them and saying, "Hey, what did you think?" and proactively looking for comments and feedback.

[14:46] The communication style does change in a world where not everybody's always in the same physical location. Those are some of the things that we think about when building the product and building Fellow is, how can we make all those workflows easy to do and build all the right habits for people who want to use the product?

Daniel: [15:07] What's your vision for how technology can help support a manager, and how far do you think this technology can go?

Aydin: [15:15] The technology can go a really, really long way. It starts from habit building. It can create the framework so that you can basically make sure that things that you need to do, that you do them often and in the right workflow and in the right format. When it comes to an organization, it's always hard to make sure that everybody is doing things the same way.

[15:38] You don't want it to be copy and paste across the board, but broadly, at the same structural way that, say, one on ones are held or meetings are held across the organization, to have a consistent approach across the board. Why wouldn't you want to find workflows that work and make sure that everybody does them? That's one thing.

[15:57] The second thing is data. Having data at your fingertips and looking at this stuff and understanding, based on the data, what decisions you should make, that starts to go a long way. The third layer as we get more futuristic is now we start to get suggestions on what we should do. This is where the software can aid us beyond just showing us data.

[16:24] It can also start to make recommendations on, "Hey, you should talk about this topic in your one on one," or, "You should really meet with this person," or, "You should really consider using this workflow for that meeting because this is the type of meeting that you said it was."

[16:41] Over the course of time, first, you start with the basics of, "OK, here's workflows." Then, there's, "Here's data to make better decisions." Third is now this offer starts to make suggestions on how you can implement a bunch of these things.

[16:55] I have some controversial views on this, too. I think that, for example, in the long term, as technology starts to get better, and this is maybe a controversial viewpoint.

[17:04] I think you fast forward 10 years from now, technology will get so good that you're going to be in a situation where you and I might maybe hang out socially, but the second that we want to say, "Hey, let's talk business and let's actually have the meeting," we'll want to use technology, and that'll be a better meeting.

[17:24] A meeting done using technology or a remote meeting might be better than an in person experience. The reason is while we're talking and we mention something, or I mention a Peter Drucker, I get pulled up information about him on the side.

[17:39] We talk about another person and the action item for that person gets recorded and gets sent to them right away. There's a lot that technology can do. We look at it based on the technology we have today and we're like, "Well, clearly, in person interactions are the only way to go."

[17:56] Imagine now, 10 years of everybody focusing on this over the next decade, it's going to be game changing.

Daniel: [18:03] Super powerful. What happens when we think about AI, as well as contextual search, as well as augmented reality, and voice to text, and other elements? Do you feel like we're going to be interacting traditionally in conversations like this, or are we going to be interacting in totally different ways?

Aydin: [18:22] I think it's going to be very different. A couple of interesting things that I've been thinking about here. One of the things about being on camera and the way that we are and we're conducting this conversation is you have no idea how tall I am.

[18:35] I've my whole life, been basically the shortest person in the room. All of a sudden, on video, that's democratizing. It doesn't matter. I started my first company when I was very young, and I know you basically started straight out of school.

[18:51] Selling enterprise companies as a very young person, especially in some rooms, it's nice to have some grey hair sometimes. I think that over the course of time, it might be that we have different filters when we have conversations, or maybe my voice has changed a little bit.

[19:09] A lot of these things may sound crazy as we're talking about them. It's not normal for me to have an avatar or a slightly different persona when I'm talking to different people. That, over the course of time, might become something that's the norm as we try and democratize the way that people can interact with others.

[19:29] That's one of the things that, for example, I think it's going to change. It's not going to matter if you're young or old, or how tall or short you are. A lot of those things will start to change.

[19:40] The other thing that I think is going to start to change is, again, if you get very futuristic about this, you can replicate a lot of these environments. Certainly, there's a lot of technology in the world of AR and VR, where you can replicate being amongst a lot of people and interacting with them.

[19:57] I know there's a company that's doing some cool things in this space called Spatial VR. They're replicating in person interactions in the virtual space. You mentioned AI and how can AI help with these sorts of things? Imagine if you and I are talking. I am the super interesting person, so you would never get bored if I'm talking.

[20:20] Say that you were, I could get a flag that, "Dan's not paying attention now," or, "This meeting's productivity score is low because three people are clearly browsing or doing something else," or, "You're going off topic," or, "This person has talked too much during this meeting."

[20:36] There's a lot of things that we can do live, even as meetings and interactions are starting to happen, to guide those interactions into a good place. I have to tell you about a cool tool that I've been using. Do you ski?

Daniel: [20:49] Yeah, of course.

Aydin: [20:51] Cool. Have you used a product called Carv?

Daniel: [20:53] No.

Aydin: [20:55] This is an incredible product. You insert these sensors into your ski boots. It can connect your AirPods. What happens is it's got 250 sensors on each foot, and it's guiding you on how you ski, and it's scoring you for every single run, how you did, how is your balance? Every measure that you can imagine, it scores every run.

[21:18] Then, when you're on the chairlift, it tells you and can coach you. There's even live coaching so that you can listen to it while you're skiing. It's instructing you on how to do things.

[21:28] That's the analogy of sports. All we have to do is take those things, and then apply them to knowledge work so that we can make ourselves productive and performing at our best in the knowledge work that we do.

Daniel: [21:42] What's preventing that technology from existing today? The example of we're in a meeting with 20 people and ten of them are tuned out on their computers, browsing other stuff, is that technology out there today?

Aydin: [21:55] We're focusing on it. It's just a matter of, what should everybody focus on? The events of the last year or so has made it so that it's become acceptable that we can have more digital so that you don't have to fly to another city just to have a meeting, and then go back.

[22:13] Before, these were not acceptable things. If I got on the phone with you and you were, say, in your kitchen, I might maybe think that, "Oh, that might be unprofessional." Now, it's an accepted norm.

[22:26] Now that we've run this big experiment, you'll start to see that not only at Fellow, but many, many other companies, they have been and they will continue to basically introduce a lot of new technology on improving our meetings and interactions.

[22:41] This is a space that you're going to see all this attention and all the smart minds are now focused on this area, and you're going to see a lot more good things come out of it.

Daniel: [22:52] Got it. How, at Fellow, do you calibrate managers? At AppDirect, we think about a calibration, what we call a performance grid. We look at the what and the how, the what being the output based on your OKRs, or objectives and key results, and you're KPIs, which are your key performance indicators.

[23:09] The how is values and competencies, so values being, how do you execute based on our values, which include humility and positive mental attitude we coach on that but also competencies such as communication skills and coding skills or other skills that you may need?

[23:27] We have tracks to help enable our teams and managers to progress to be able to excel at not only being able to maintain and execute on their own OKRs and KPIs but if they become a manager, how they can do that on behalf of their team.

[23:41] That's our methodology on how to calibrate a manager. How do you think about grooming and calibrating managers at Fellow?

Aydin: [23:49] This is a very good question because your approach makes a lot of sense. You had all the right elements in there. There is a performance element, there's a cultural element. All those things are very important.

[24:01] Some of the things that we've come across that a lot of other people have talked about is factors like retention. Do people stay when a manager is responsible for that team? That's an important one.

[24:14] You also have to counter that with, you don't want them to stay forever, because you want managers to be able to grow leaders and for those people to go on and do other things and be successful.

[24:25] There's also this element of people who have worked with the manager, how often do they end up becoming leaders and continuing to grow and being promoted in their career? The things that are very outcome oriented and characteristic oriented, but then there's also these aspects of the team.

[24:44] Those are some of the aspects that make a lot of sense, and then there's some other aspects. For example, one of the factors that is very important is trust. What's interesting is we were just talking about "Manager Tools" and we just had the founder of that podcast on the show.

[25:03] He was talking about a very large study that they ran. They basically got all managers to rate what they thought the trust level between them and their employees was, and then they got the employees to also rate the trust level that they had with their managers.

[25:19] On average, managers scored what they believed their trust between their employees to be as a 7.1 and the employees rated it as a 3.5. It was drastically different.

[25:33] Over the course of time, through systematic one on ones, and understanding, and level setting, and asking for feedback, that flipped. It would be nice for the trust level to be at a 10, but what's more important is for the trust level that the employee rates the manager to be higher than what the manager does for their rating.

[25:53] Part of that is managers have to understand it's like driving, everybody thinks they're a better than average driver. It's coming to understanding that the trust level is maybe not what they think it is, and it's also consistent work to make those things happen.

[26:07] Again, what you said outlines very, very well some elements that you have to do. If we think about team structure and some of those aspects, some of these other aspects are great ways to understand if someone is a good manager or not.

Daniel: [26:22] As the host of SuperManagers, what's the one piece of management advice you would give the listeners on the podcast?

Aydin: [26:30] What I would say is, and the thing that I hear most often is, it's all about the people. At the end of the day, you have to treat everyone like real people, understand them, and treat them like human beings. Secondly, what I would say is that you have to treat this just like a professional athlete would.

[26:53] Just like a professional athlete would do drills, and practice, and look back on their week and figure out what conversations they had, and how they went, and how much feedback did they give, and how did the feedback yet received, the world's best managers are also practicing and they're very deliberate about all these things.

[27:12] Those are the two things I would say is it's all about the people and you have to work at this. One of the things that we say often is great managers are not born, they're made. The good news is that it's never too late. It's something that you can keep working on, and with enough effort, enough repetition, you too can be a supermanager.

Daniel: [27:34] Amazing. Inspirational words. Aydin, so great to chat with you on Decoding Digital.

Aydin: [27:39] Thanks for having me. This was super fun.

Daniel: [27:41] Amazing. Take care.

[27:42] [background music]

Daniel: [27:45] On the next episode of Decoding Digital...

David Sovie: [27:49] This is not like a small little tweak to your business. It is a fundamental transformation of your business model. It needs to be board and CEO sponsored and you need to think holistically because it impacts every single process. It impacts how you develop products, how you market them, how you sell them, how you service them.

[28:06] [background music]

Vik Viniak: [28:08] Once you're on this journey, you're all in. You have to stay patient and you have to stay persistent on this journey. You can't turn around in six months and say, "These things are not happening fast enough." To turn around a ship, it takes time.

[28:19] [background music]

Daniel: [28:21] David Sovie, senior managing director, and Vik Viniak, the managing director and senior partner at Accenture.

[28:29] [background music]

Daniel: [28:33] Thanks for listening to Decoding Digital. Make sure you never miss an episode by subscribing to the show in your favorite podcast player. To learn more, visit decodingdigital.com. Until next time.

[28:46] [music]