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It’s all about solving problems with design, technology and people

New York, March 15th, 2018

With offices in London, New York, San Francisco, Mountain View and Austin, Beyond is a design and technology ideas company, helping firms to create market value with design and technology-based products and strategies.

The agency looks comprehensively at their client’s business to identify opportunities to create value, guiding product creation across the lifecycle and via continuous delivery. At the same time, it uncovers organizational opportunities and builds new approaches for design and technology teams.

Matt Basford is the General Manager at Beyond’s office in New York, a position he has held since 2011. In an interview with TIA, Basford described what it means to be a leader, listing the tools he uses on a daily basis to lead well. At the same time, he gave his insights on talent creation, while explaining how to manage the agency’s culture.

How did you get started in the industry?

I started out in marketing and comms, and specifically client development and strategic consultancy, always at an agency. As the industry itself evolved, I shifted more towards digital strategy, design, and product design, but I’ve always had a focus on client development, growth, and how to strategically solve problems for large companies.

Can you describe your agency in a few words?

In the most abbreviated way possible, I think that Beyond is all about solving problems at the intersection of design, technology, and people.

How do you know that you are leading, and leading well?

Without overthinking it, there are really two ways to know if you’re leading well – the performance of the business and the morale of the people. The former has clear cut metrics, the latter is the tricky one.

I try to use a combination of “managing by walking around” and being highly connected to the pulse of the organization and the work that is happening, as well as taking a step back and thinking more holistically about where we need to be as a business and then communicating the big picture.

The thing I’m currently working on to better understand if I’m leading well is getting direct feedback on my own performance. As a leader, it’s easy to think you know what people want and need from you, but chances are you don’t. If you don’t create an environment where people can give you direct feedback, chances are they won’t do the same within their teams.

What is your approach to motivating and developing talent?

To pinpoint one distinct approach would be to create space that specifically challenges, motivates, and makes people uncomfortable – really providing them with the room and empowerment to conquer challenges.

With my experience, I started at Beyond, basically in a somewhat unstructured way, to grow New York as a studio and as a business, which was a very entrepreneurial opportunity and in a lot of ways a “make it what you want it to be” situation.

I personally felt a great sense of fulfilment from space and empowerment, so I think trying to give that to other people is important. Empower rather than micromanage, and let people feel in control of their own destiny.

How much time do you spend with customers?

It fluctuates quite a bit. Realistically, with growth comes a competing set of priorities. I’ve probably spent a lot more time with clients and customers when we were a lot smaller, but now as we grow, we have operational demands, people demands, performance demands, and of course client demands.

What I’m actively trying to do with my role as we grow is operationalize things and create empowerment in people to run a lot of the day-to-day so that I can spend more time with clients.

Do you focus more on problem-solving or opportunity creation?

I would love to be splitting time 80/20 in regard to opportunity creation vs. problem solving, but often it’s the inverse. And I think that’s something to be conscious of when you’re growing a company. It’s so easy to fall into the problem-solving mode, and that’s a constant struggle.

I’d ideally love to get it to 50/50, but typically, problems are more urgent, and they demand more immediate attention. That’s definitely an ongoing managerial challenge that a lot face. How can you systemize things so that problems most often solve themselves within the teams and then you can focus on opportunity creation, but it’s tough? Easier said than done.

How does your agency treat people involved in failed projects?

Ultimately, you have to learn from failure, as cliché as it might sound. We’re continuously learning how to appropriately balance accountability and discipline with support, learning, and growth. There is risk in skewing too far in either direction. If you’re all about accountability and discipline, where failed projects are treated with negative repercussions, that’s bad. But if you’re all about just growth and learning without consequences for failed projects, that’s not great either.

I think striking somewhere in the middle is the most effective. You want to encourage people to try things and to not be afraid to fail. Creating a culture that has expectations around performance is important too. Ultimately, there is a balance that needs to be struck.

How do you help a new employee understand the culture of your organization?

It’s important to understand what culture is and have a realistic, rather than idealistic, point of view on this. I believe culture manifests from what happens within the business, so as a result, the way that someone understands the culture is by creating the most seamless way possible to begin participating and contributing to the business.

However, that’s not to say that there aren’t intrinsic things in the company itself that heavily influence how culture is manifested. My point of view is that those are much more about the little things than big, sweeping strategies or programs. I wrote about this in an article called Company Culture: It’s in the little things, where it covers things aspects such as the routines that you set, the stories that you tell and the things that you celebrate, among others. These sometimes small, daily acts, are the things that reinforce the experience your employees have with the company as a collective entity.

What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

Find somebody outside of your organization for who you can rely on for ongoing advice. It’s so easy to fall into a trap where it feels like the challenges you’re facing or the problems you’re solving are unique to you, but so many people that have been through those steps before and have faced those challenges a hundred times.

I’ve always found it really useful to get advice from the outside – don’t be too proud, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are still so many things you don’t know.

The complexity can become daunting. There is rarely a clear-cut answer, it’s a huge shade of gray. Getting the pragmatic advice, and a humbling experience is valuable – find some direct channel you can go back to over and over again.

Thanks Matt!

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