Modern Performance Profile: Chris Schwass, Head of Relationship Management at Intercom, Discusses Test Projects, Rapid Feedback Loops, Effective Delegation and More.
As the Head of Relationship Management at Intercom, Chris Schwass (Twitter, LinkedIn) should know a thing or two about evaluating candidates, hiring, and communication. A veteran of the industry, Schwass’ knowledge is hard-won and battle-tested. At LinkedIn, his teams helped to sell customers on the benefits of cultivating and maintaining professional relationships through better communication, identification of skill sets, and knowledge sharing. Schwass’ Sales Excellence group mapped sales metrics and processes to sales behavior, with the goal of influencing behavior towards those metrics. Before that, he managed a team of account managers in the Western Region of LinkedIn’s Marketing Solutions Business. In an in-depth discussion of hiring, onboarding, communication, delegation and goal setting, Schwass touches on the importance of intellectual rigor, opening back channels of communication and the efficacy of treating team members like officers rather than privates.
The characteristic I look for on the very first screening is outside impact. People who have done something that goes beyond what they’re asked to do in their role. For example, when I was hiring account managers, there was one candidate who had worked with the CEO of his prior startup, rebranding the company. There was another account manager who had worked with the CFO and the CEO of a small- to mid-sized startup on their internal processes, including restructuring their billing and a lot of their financial systems. After outside impact, there are a few other key characteristics.
“A good candidate should be disciplined, so I look for rigor in the way that they’ve approached a decision or the interview process, or even the way that they answer the questions.”
I look for people who will step out of what they’re asked to do. Then, in the interview, I looked for candidates that are insatiably curious. I want people who will continue to ask questions, have done some research on their own, and demonstrate a level of curiosity in everything they do.
With external candidates, I listen for curiosity and intelligence in the phone screen. I ask them to tell me about the project that they’re most proud of and listen to see if the scale of that project is a differentiator. Some people will say, “I helped this one client be successful,” and it’s clear that it was within the role they were asked to perform. Some people will have examples where their work impacted the entire company. I look for that outside impact. For analytical roles, I might give candidates case studies similar to a case interview that you’d get from a consulting firm. But I prefer to pipeline internally.
“I can put internal candidates through small projects. I’ll have them complete something that actually adds value and see how quickly they’re able to get up to speed.”
Do they know where to go to get the resources? Do they know how to ask the right questions of whoever is helping to facilitate? Can they complete the assignment? Are they able to set good timeframes and execute on them? I can give them exercises that get them comfortable with the role that they’d be going into and that make me feel comfortable with their ability to execute it. At the very least, we’ll know where the gaps are.
There are a lot of things that are going to be present in any onboarding, like training and peer shadowing. Those are important aspects of getting a new rep up to speed.
“What I think shifts the trajectory toward effective onboarding is how quickly you’re able to iterate and create a feedback look for the person who’s onboarding and get them to demonstrate the skills that they’re supposed to be learning.”
You can do some of that through peer shadowing. The earlier you get them on mock calls with clients, and get them feedback on live client calls, the quicker they’re able to ramp up. The shorter the feedback loop, the quicker the people are able to ramp. I try to get people on the phone with clients within three or four weeks, depending on the role, and get them with a veteran rep and can give them structured feedback. We record calls and pass them to the veteran rep to give feedback immediately. Then they’re able to adjust their approach and learn much more quickly.
The most important element is exposing them to people who embody culture in the organization, including high-performing peers, cross-functional partners, leaders who represent our culture. You’ve really got to see the principles of the culture in action. If I want this person to really understand the value of transformation, I’m going to expose them to a leader who came out of a background like theirs and was able to do something in their career. I also need to be aware of the set of capabilities that the new rep takes into the role, to know where they’re indexing really high and where they’re indexing low.
“I’m going to expose new hires to a set of people who are going to help fill in the cultural blanks for them and I’m going to be really explicit about that when I introduce them.”
What I do outside of that is create some sort of track or progress for that new hire to say like, “Hey, I want to see your progress on collaboration. I want to see your progress on transformation over the course of the quarter. Bring me updates in our one-on-ones or send me updates over email that are showing how you’re developing in that aspect of our culture.
I tell them upfront that I want to see progress, I want to be useful to them, and that it’s their time. There may be one or two things that I require out of a one-on-one, but the majority of the agenda is going to be driven by them.
“Putting my team members in charge of the agenda puts the opportunity in their hands to talk about whatever they want, but it also helps them create some rigor and discipline, getting ahead of their own career, problems with clients, whatever I can help them on.”
I require them to send an agenda ahead of the meeting to helps guide us and give the meeting some purpose. Otherwise, it can really quickly get into just catching up on what’s happening. I also offer the option of a walking one-on-one periodically. I recognize that there are times when you just need to talk something out, and it’s going to be less structured. Usually, we’ll have some sort of theme that the team is working on during each quarter. For a while, it was leading with insights. I wanted an example every week of how each person on the team led with insight to a client in the last week. In a one-on-one, to keep it moving, you also have to know it’s time to move on from a topic. I try to bucket into inquire, inform, or decide. When somebody offers up an agenda item, I’d say, “Are you inquiring something of me and it’s my job to answer this for you or are you informing me of something like, ‘Hey, I’m going on a trip.'” Does this item require a decision, like, “Should I take this approach or this approach with a client? Then that’s like a joint discussion and that could lead to an action item for me or them.
There are basic things that are in every team meeting, like updates on what’s going on at a leadership level, check-ins on progress toward our goals using certain metrics. But one addition that has been very helpful is using team members as subject matter experts in areas of expertise, whether it’s a new product or a way to interact with the client, and giving them the space to present to their peers. I encourage them to leave the team with a next step around adopting whatever was shared. My goal is to have one or two presentations per meeting and have them be ten to twenty minutes out of the hour. If we don’t have a great opportunity to present, we won’t present it, but that’s rare.
“I’ll typically identify something that is helping a particular team member in a one-on-one and say, ‘Hey, why don’t we put that on the agenda for a team meeting?’”
Ideally, we get an agenda out a couple of weeks ahead. Sometimes it went to the team and they’re like, “Okay, that’s reasonable. We’ll try that.” Sometimes they get really excited about it and there’s an aha moment. We typically take those presentations and expose them to the broader team. Sometimes they went out to the entire organization. There were a couple that actually even influenced our product road map.
I use performance metrics to track progress in our one-on-ones. I get a really quick, one- or two-minute snapshot from reviewing their pipelines and we focus on any problem areas, any roadblocks I could help remove. Maybe it’s a hold-up with credit or billing, or there’s a problem with the contract we use. I could step in and help resolve that or escalate that. As a team, performance metrics help assess our progress towards our goals, measuring against quota, against past quarters, against other AM teams. There are secondary metrics that affect the primary ones, like, “Where is your pipeline and how many campaigns are you currently live on in one-on-ones every week?” To me, performance metrics measure the outcome of whatever actions you’re taking. If our focus for the quarter is leading with insights, then if my team was following through on that and delivering recommendations to clients using metrics is that influencing revenue for our team? Are we able to move revenue faster than other teams as a baseline? It serves as reinforcement to the story.
Start by hiring people who communicate well. If there are people who are not communicating as effectively or are affecting morale with negative communication, you can work to remedy that, but sometimes that means that those people just need to leave the team and make room for people who will communicate effectively and positively. The less things you mandate as a manager around how people communicate with each other, the better. Secondly, I need to have a couple back channels. Somebody on the team who’s willing to share transparently with me when things are not going well and when things are going well.
“Having a back channel helps me get some real feedback as quickly as possible and lets me get ahead of some of those challenges when communication starts to break down.”
Thirdly, establishing clarity of purpose for our team and establishing really clear objectives helps drive that communication. Loose and ambiguous goals can drive a lot of ineffective communication. People are going to experience friction in any job. I don’t need to solve every problem. Is this problem big enough that it’s going to affect the business or the client? Is it coming up consistently? Then, getting observable behaviors, make sure the two sides’ stories match up, and then empower the parties to go resolve it. If they’re not able to, sometimes it means changing a process, or moving one person out of the situation.
There’s a difference between delegation and management. Delegation comes into play when working on projects that become bigger than one person’s book of account. It’s identifying who on the team has the skill set needed and the interest that would drive them to be successful on that project. Then who has availability and could follow through. I would typically test with smaller projects, with people who I haven’t given any work before, and see if they’re able to take it on and move it forward independently. Sometimes it means that I have to help coach them a little bit or provide a little bit of structure. It might be a deadline or a deliverable or quizzing them about how they’ll approach a deliverable. Questions like: Who would you need to talk to to be able to get that answer? What kind of work do you think you’re going to need to do to hit this deadline? What’s your work back plan? How many iterations do you think you’ll need? Who’s going to need to look it over? When people can pick it up and run independently, I’d try giving them bigger and bigger tasks.
How do make sure I’m delegating enough instead of taking things on myself? Everything to me is built around a priority list. There’s a point where I’m going to cut it off and I’m not going to be able to do anything below that. I look at what’s dropping off of my list and the available time on one of my account manager’s plates. If I feel like we could have a bigger impact if they were able to take something off my list, then that’s an opportunity to pass it to them. If their plate’s full and they’re going to deliver the most value just offering insights to clients in their book and not taking on something that is work that I could be doing, then I either keep it and try to find a way to do it or push it off my plate completely.
“The issue around delegation is not really me holding on to too much, it’s having a really clear sense of when my account managers’ plates are full.”
Some of them are very ambitious high achievers and so they raise their hand even though they don’t have the bandwidth to do something.
I have significantly less influence over revenue goals than a sales manager or an account executive. I have more control over expectations around what we would deliver. I think about goals, not in terms of revenue, but what do the account managers deliver the clients, what are they both on the hook for, and what does success look like. I think that’s where I can have more influence. Don’t get too rigorous about identifying the tasks that an account manager is responsible for, it’s much more useful from a strategy standpoint to give them an objective like, “Your goal is to maximize the success of your client against whatever KPI you set and to organize your time across your book to maximize revenue.” Get them really centered on their strategic objective and then let them choose the set of activities that align with it.
“Consider the difference between treating somebody like a private or treating them like a sergeant. You’re going to tell a private, ‘Move this ten yards to that location. Stand there. Now move there. Shoot in this direction,’ and you’re going to tell a sergeant, ‘Hey, you need to take this hill.’ Then they find the best way there.”
The more I was able to offer autonomy, people really responded well to that.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.