Modern Performance Deep Dive: Alexis Zhu, Director of Revenue at Affirm, Discusses Relationship Expectations, Interdisciplinary Office Hours, Team Activities and More.
One look at Alexis Zhu’s career(LinkedIn, Twitter) and it quickly becomes apparent that a thread runs through what may at first seem like very different positions. Whether in investment banking at UBS, or at growth-equity firm Summit Partners, or in her current role at innovative fintech startup, Affirm, Alexis has always worked to make traditionally opaque and consumer unfriendly industries like finance and health care more straightforward and transparent through improved communication and technology. These same principles and goals apply to her managerial career. In our conversation, we touch on topics like continuing education, delegation and goal setting.
What’s the secret to hiring for high performance? What are the most important characteristics you look for?
The first thing I look for is personal drive, which, I find, translates into ambition and motivation. I ask them about their goals.
“If a candidate can talk about their goals very succinctly and express why they’re in the interview process, what they see for themselves and what they want to learn, I know that they’re a motivated, ambitious person.”
If they’ve already thought those three or four steps ahead. It’s also very important that a candidate be humble, but confident. To identify humility, I might ask about a time when they were wrong and how they handled that situation. I look for a real hunger to learn and naturally curiosity. High performers are also able to really take feedback well, with a good attitude about it, and integrate that feedback quickly. Finally, they need to have strong sales and business development fundamentals. I’ll ask them to do their own pitch, or basically, run me through how they would interact with a potential buyer in their existing company. That’s a really great way to gauge their style, their ability to qualify, to listen, to ask effective questions, speak professionally and structure an effective call that ends with tangible next steps.
I give them a retail vertical and ask them to create a presentation.
“I ask them to tell me about three companies in a particular vertical that could be ideal partners for us and why. What would the partnership process look like?”
What are the things that company seems to care about? What values would you drive home with them? Who are the right people to speak with at that company? The goal of that exercise is to see how they think about a problem and see what kind of questions they ask and to make sure they are answering the right things. It’s more situational awareness than anything else. How do they think through a problem.
I draw a distinction between onboarding, orientation. and continued education. For me, onboarding involves making sure their computers are set up, they know where the bathroom is, they have access to our CRM. Orientation is knowing our products, understanding how we communicate our values to our customers, learning about the competitive landscape.
“Continuing education is methodical reinforcement of the lessons of orientation in one-on-ones, team meetings or on a deal-by-deal basis.”
For me, there’s the stuff that you have to do, the stuff that you need to do, and then, the continuous education piece, which is the most important aspect of professional and personal development.
Culture is very important to me. I’m a very analytical, data driven, factual person. So we don’t talk too much about feelings, but I try to get to the core of why something didn’t go right.
“Culture is about how people on the team interact with each other, our approach to accountability, and our attitude toward wins and losses. It’s ever-evolving and every new-hire should have something to add.”
Culture is actually something that needs to be worked on every single day. and it’s having the right attitude about your work and the people around you and having really positive reinforcement around those attitudes. When, for example, a partnership falls through, we sit down and we do postmortem. We talk about how we would structure it next time. Revenue and sales teams will have wins and will have losses. It’s how the team communicates in those situations that can either tie them together or break them apart.
I have a one-on-one weekly with everybody on my team. I take the stance that the one-on-one is for the account executives and other managers on my team, not for me. I have them send me their agendas in advance.
“When there’s a conflict on my calendar, I will move or cancel basically any meeting, but I will never cancel a one-on-one.”
The one-on-one, to me, is the most crucial and important meeting that I will have every week. Of the four one-on-ones each month, three are focused on active deals, deal flow and any pressing issues that arise. The fourth is set aside for professional development and training. For those, I usually do a walking meeting to get out of the office.
Like most companies, we have a lot of meetings. If I can give some of that time back to people, I consider that an accomplishment. I like to focus team meetings around either an activity or brainstorm or a discussion for a high-leverage action that we want to implement. By having everyone in the room focused on a problem to solve, it creates a sense of accomplishment, that they’re getting something out of that meeting.
“We do this thing called office hours, where we gather our finance team, our legal team, our product team all in one room for thirty minutes each week. It allows us to solve some things very quickly that otherwise might involve a lot of back-and-forth over email.”
When we’re working on partnerships and we have issues to raise other cross-functional teams, we can go and talk to them about it. I tell my team, office hours is not mandatory. If you have an issue, go, and you’ve got everyone’s attention.
We make use of performance metrics, as everybody absolutely should, they are a key aspect of running an effective sales team. We have dashboards that we review during our one-on-ones and do a pipeline list.
“I think metrics are a great way to set goals and also uncover weaknesses or untapped opportunities. But I think it’s important not to hide behind the metrics as the only way to judge performance.”
To really get to the core of the things that folks are working on, I try to understand that whole partnership process from the very beginning. Whether we’re running an effective process, if we’re speaking with the right people, if we have a clear understanding of goals and return on investment.
If two people aren’t communicating well or they’re not getting along, I think when you really dig into it, it comes down to expectations around the working relationship.
“When a conflict arises, the parties involved often have different expectations of that relationship and haven’t shared those expectations.”
One person then does something that breaks the rules of engagement for the other, because those rules are so poorly defined or have gone unsaid. In my experience, it’s best to sit with each individual separately and ask what they expect of the other person, so I can draw out the disconnect myself. It’s usually very easy, at least for me, to get to the bottom of things.
I try to be very communicative. Like most fast-growing companies, we have a lot of information to disseminate to people on a regular cadence. We use stand-ups and emails for most of these work-related updates. I try to keep it simple. If it’s really important and something that they should definitely know, I’ll just gather everyone in a room and do a quick 15 minute stand-up.
“For revenue-generating parts of the business, you are constantly in communication through emails and dashboards and texts and phone calls. It can become a little bit overwhelming. So it’s important to arm those teams with the specific and appropriate tools they need to be clear on their goals and what expectations are.”
We keep in touch on day-to-day issues on a chat system. I try to communicate any team changes or big company-wide changes either in our team meetings or in one-on-ones if it affects an individual team member. Because we have them pretty regularly, it’s not a problem keeping them up to date. Also, I’m not in an office somewhere. I sit in the middle of the floor with my team. They know that if I’m at my desk, they’re free to come and grab me if they want to chat through a deal. I’ve done walks at 6:30 am and I’ll do calls at 9 pm. If you create this very trusting and safe environment, communication becomes very easy. Team members feel comfortable communicating with you and they know you’re there to listen if they have any issues.
The first step is to not be in denial about the need to delegate. My boss once told me that I have the capacity to take on a large amount of work, which sounds like a compliment. But he really meant that I needed to realign my focus.
“In a growing start-up, having the ability, the capacity and the mental fortitude to take on a heavy and wide-ranging workload is a great attribute to have. But as a company scales, you need to direct your energy into the biggest growth levers that you as an individual can impact.”
If I give people challenging tasks, it’s important that they know they have support to be successful. I assign a bite-size project and give them a small cross-functional team to work with. For example, if we’re discussing a new way to structure something and they need to discuss their plans with finance, legal and risk, then we’ll create a small team for them and set expectations and dates. They have a lot of support, so their minds aren’t spinning.
The first thing I do is I look at my calendar. My role is to empower and support my team.
“If I’m not spending 60 to 70 percent of my time with my team, then I’m not making enough of an impact on the success of my team. That will ultimately affect our goals and the company’s goals.”
The rest of my time, the 30 to 40 percent, that’s often taken up by hiring, admin, supporting my boss, working with cross-functional teams, strategizing and planning for the future. It’s also important, but if I’m not getting that 60 to 70 percent of my time with my people, then there might be others better suited to take on those other tasks.
I put some goals in writing based on my expectations, and have them also set goals for themselves. We look at the lists side-by-side and have a healthy discussion on what the combined goal list should look like. For people who are more quota driven, we tend to look at business plans and determine quotas together. Once you have goals in place, now you know how to motivate your team members.
“Leverage other teams in goal setting, because though it starts with one or two people in a room, you often have to involve field operations and the finance team at some point. The more people you can get on board early, the better it is for the solidity of the goals.”
If there are any changes or fluctuations that happen down the road, everyone is already up to speed and feels ownership over those goals.
“The secret to team goal setting is to make goals achievable and attach a team reward. In the past, we’ve done team events like screen printing, taken cooking classes and done wine tasting. Anything that the team does together is just another bonding experience.”
You can do it after hours or during the workday, which has the added benefits of everyone being available and it feeling like a treat. Make goals very clear, so that team members know what they’re expected to do. Communicate goals often and be as transparent as possible, tracking progress through the CRM and with verbal communication.
People ask me about metrics a lot. I think they expect answers in terms of deal cycle lengths, win rates and pipeline size all the way down to the number of demos, number of onsite visits, number of calls, number of emails. My thought on that is you should absolutely be tracking those things. The more revenue-generating people you have, the more cycles you have under your belt and the more that these metrics are helpful. They’re helpful to separate out your top performers from those who need improvement. Metrics can provide you that snapshot. But it’s really only a very small percentage of your job.
“Metrics regarding pipeline are good indications of follow-through or persistence or the pipeline available to close, but it’s really getting into the weeds of each deal that gives me the best feel for how successful an account executive will be.”
My expectations for those are pretty explicit. We build those into our tracking system. Examples of things that I look for in deals are ‘Do we have the right people? Do we have the decision maker and the champions involved? Do we know who signs the contract? Who leads the integration? Do they have a budget? Do we understand their buying process and the parties involved? Do they know our process? Do we have a timeline in place? Do they accept our return on investment assessment?’ It’s part of sales training and part of this continuous conversation that managers should have with all of their account executives on every deal. At some point, you’ll feel very comfortable when you start realizing that your folks have all these questions answered. If you just look at some of the win rates, it will give you a good indication of who the high-performers are, but it will make your job of coaching the middle-performers or the low-performers much more difficult if you weren’t regularly asking these questions about deals or tracking them in your CRM.
What aspects of qualitative performance do you like to pay attention to that are hard to instrument?
Confidence, attitude and humility are some of the more intangible attributes I look for in a candidate and continue to track through professional development.
“If a team member’s goal is to be a thought leader in the Home Décor space, we come up with metrics. In the next quarter, you need to publish three blogs on home décor, attend one trade show or conference, and provide a list of people you spoke with or things that you did. That way, we start to track actions they are taking to get to that place.”
If there was somebody lacking in confidence, I could see us saying, well, what are the reasons. Is it because fundamentals are weak or unclear? Maybe it’s public speaking or maybe it’s not knowing the product well enough or not being able to speak on X, Y or Z. Then you can start to build metrics around those. Making them into really actionable things.
I ask a lot of questions. We do postmortems on deals. Every call I listen to, I give feedback. Every interaction is an opportunity for coaching.
I think positive feedback is easy. Make sure it’s actually genuine, give an example of good work, and avoid inexact language or hyperbole. You’ll hear people say, you’ve improved a ton. What does that mean? You should give specifics and say you’ve really showed improvement by not doing this or by doing more of that.
“I think for feedback in general, and especially for negative feedback, you have to know who you’re giving feedback to. That means knowing if something more subtle will be enough, or if you need to be more adamant about the feedback or change that you’re trying to affect.”
You still need to give the feedback your way. If you want to do it in a compliment sandwich, I think that’s fine, but the core is you need to understand how they’re going to react to the tone you use and be able to structure that tone effectively for them. So start off gentle for new hires and ease into the feedback, so you just gauge their reaction. If nothing changes, or you’re not really seeing an improvement or a recognition that they need to improve, then you say it again, but a bit more directly. As a manager, you should know that it may take a couple times, so if you don’t see an immediate result, don’t just jump into the conclusion that they’re ignoring you. Don’t try to be very adamant in the beginning.
“Professional development is so important. It can run anywhere from honing their craft to help them develop new skills. It’s motivating, it shows that you care deeply about their growth, and that you’re investing in them.”
It’s super important. Also, professional development is not the same as a promotion. Professional development is working with them so they’re constantly improving, constantly learning. Once they’re hitting their goals, then you can kind of go down that path of asking, ‘Are they ready for that next challenge?’
“Performance is usually dictated by motivation and ability. In other words, a person’s desire and their aptitude. It’s important to suss out which one it is that’s holding them back.”
You have to understand what their motivations are, what they care about, and then place it on the axis of their desire to do the job and their ability to do the job. If it’s both motivation and ability holding them back, then they’re probably the wrong fit for the company, doing the wrong job. If it’s ability, then there’s training that you could provide to enhance their skills. If it’s willingness, then maybe they have the ability, but there’s another role in the company that they could really excel at.
On every team, you have individual contributors and people who want to become managers.
“Individual contributors don’t make great managers and great managers don’t make great individual contributors, so determining their strengths and vision for their future is helpful in trying to align goals and prepare them for professional development.”
First you have to identify the path they want to take because the skill sets can be very different. One involves honing a skill set and the other means learning a completely new skill set. If I have a team member who’s doing really great work, shows consistency in their work, is up for a new challenge, and has the right attitude, I will always try to promote from within.
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