How Kong Lee Grew Zenyum's Operations Productivity By 300% With An Unexpected Hire

Myth: The best developer in the company should be the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). If that's your only job description when hiring a CTO for your tech startup, then you really need to read the rest of this article before hiring a CTO for your company...

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Hi Kong! As a key early employee, how has your growth journey with Zenyum been?


It has been absolutely crazy, challenging and absolutely amazing - all at the same time. I joined the company when we were still 8 of us in a small room at JTC Launchpad and I still remember the skepticism we faced in the early days when people were going like, “So cheap, are you sure this actually works or not?” but over time our happy customers became our living testimonials and would happily attest to the quality of our treatment, products and quality of service. 


As the company grew, I had to as well and that was incredibly challenging for me. Problem solving is the easy part. If you have bright people in the room and they understand what the obstacle is usually it is quite straightforward what the solution is.


The main challenge would be the alignment in terms of prioritisation, what was good to have, and what was absolutely mission critical and that is usually the main point of contention as to each function their needs were usually the most important for them.


We heard that you made a hire without having a role for her... how did that happen?


Once in a (long) while, you meet a candidate that is just a great fit with the company culture and has experience and skills that you would be able to utilise at the company but you do not have that particular JD up or a specific need there and then.


At the back of my head I knew that with our growth trajectory we would definitely need more members on the team and there were new roles and needs that had not been created or filled. So when I met this candidate, I was incredibly impressed by her personality and the way she described her work at her previous company which involved coordinating literally hundreds of people, to ensure cruise ships were handled properly and on time in order to accommodate the next group of customers who were preparing to board.


It seemed to me that she had a way with people and it definitely takes great organisational skills and people skills to handle that kind of work so I believed that she would be a great addition to the team. I just didn’t know what she was going to do with us yet.

"It was a role I did not know I needed, but I made the right decision of hiring a good candidate and that made all the difference."

How did that work out?


The results were outstanding.


Once she joined us, I ran her through our current setup and asked her where she thought she would best fit. As we ran through the setup it became very clear to us that there was still a gap in the way we were managing new projects and initiatives. She was tasked to manage this right away.


She tried out many different ways of doing it until she settled on one that was easy to use and could fulfill our needs. Just for an idea of how effective it was, when she joined us we had a small team of 8 people who were honestly struggling to keep track of our 12 initiatives in Q3.


In Q4 alone with her efforts, we managed to run 140+ initiatives and improvement projects with a 90% completion rate. It just became immediately apparent to everyone the impact that she was having on increasing the overall productivity of the entire team and that she was absolutely amazing at this role.


It was a role I did not know I needed, but I made the right decision of hiring a good candidate and that made all the difference.

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Beyond hiring, how do you ensure your team is fulfilled and recognised at work?


So far I’ve been speaking a lot about our full-time team but we also do rely on a team of quality check and packing staff in order to ensure our customers receive the correct product of the highest quality. Our packing team relies on a significant number of part-time staff as well and it takes some time for us to train the new team members to perform to our expectations. We have had the good fortune to hire a really dedicated, hardworking and cohesive team so it was super important for me to ensure that they felt fulfilled and recognised at work despite the fact that they were part timers. 


Most of the time, we look to things like compensation and promotions to reward our team members, but these are tools that may not be the best way or available for a part-time staff. We then decided to hold a monthly review meeting with all the packers to understand how they felt, and give them an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings.


Through these interviews, we found out that they felt like a “different” or “less important” part of the team, and realized that we had not placed enough emphasis on making them feel included. As we conducted more interviews, we heard quite a suggestion for them to receive Zenyum t-shirts and everything clicked together. From then on, besides giving the entire packing team Zenyum swag, we also made sure to introduce them to anyone visiting our storage and packing area, as well as to organize team lunches to thank them for their contributions and let them know that they are an integral part of the company’s success as well.


What are your top 3 learnings from being a manager and leader?


1. Take care of your team, they will take care of your customers and your customers will take care of your company.


This also means holding them accountable and pushing them to levels that they never knew they could achieve. The best people want to work with others who have the same high standards as they do.


2. Remember your own journey.


When you look at someone struggling, pause to reflect on your own journey and it will allow you to have a better perspective of where your team members are currently at. This will allow you to provide the right advice and right knowledge at the correct time in their journey which will be the most useful for them at that point in time.


3. Always assign people responsibilities, not tasks.


This seems like such an obvious management principle but so many of us including myself are guilty of taking the easy way out and delegating a task to a person, and validating it by giving reasons such as “It’s such a straightforward task”, “the person is so junior/a temp/an intern” or “I don’t have time to explain to the person” and maybe even “If the person is really interested they will come and ask me”.


In reality, assigning responsibilities creates ownership and a huge motivation and a source of pride for the owner of that responsibility to ensure that it is done well.


Moreover, as a manager you may not be aware of the day to day changes and realities of the job, but delegating the responsibility and communicating what is required and why it is required, you empower your team member to think about all the tasks required to fulfilled the responsibility holistically and they may then provide you with suggestions or input for things that you may not have considered and would not possibly be able to know about.


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5) Develop and Retain Talent


Hiring is hard, but retaining the talent you hire poses even more challenges. A good startup CTO must be responsible not only for the process of hiring and managing engineering talent. A startup CTO must also play the role of developing and retaining them.

Ultimately, people want similar things no matter their position. Besides money, which motivates talent to a certain extent, a person wants to be recognised at work, have growth and development - no matter how they define it. Tech CTOs need to be aware of how each individual member in the software development department is motivated (Surprise: Not everyone in the company wants to be promoted!), and manage their growth and development accordingly.


A team cannot succeed if only the leader is exceptional. The role of tech CTOs is to develop every member in engineering, so that they help scale technologies and pull their own weight even better in the company. These talent will then bring about fresh ideas, help the CTO with challenges instead of creating new ones, and have stronger skills to contribute more to a tech project and its development.


Conclusion


A tech startup CTO is like any other key managing position within an organisation. Besides role-related knowledge, in this case having skills in software, tech architecture and security, a CTO's non-technical qualities are as significant for good performance. A shoutout to Adrian, CTO and Co-founder of Nodeflair, for sharing his hard-earned experience to help more engineering managers lead better teams!


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