Modern Performance Profile: Alexis Zhu, Director of Revenue at Affirm, Discusses Relationship Expectations, Interdisciplinary Office Hours, Team Activities and More
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.
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, in 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.
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.
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.
“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.
“Often, 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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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.