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Leadership and Teamwork with Jeremy Brown

Jeremy Brown is Chief Product and Technology Officer at Traveldoo, Expedia Group.

Jeremy Brown is Chief Product and Technology Officer at Traveldoo, Expedia Group. We discussed leadership and teamwork in this quite emotional episode of Le Podcast.

When I was a developer, you had these periods where you entered flow, and you could like lose track of time, and you were like achieving something and making something, and you just felt so happy.

Jeremy Brown

In this episode, you will learn how Jeremy:

  • How Jeremy ended working on his passion,
  • What leadership really means to him,
  • How he tried to learn with his team in the current crisis they face due to the pandemic,
  • How individual incentives and rewards drive the opposite behavior of what you want to bring when building a team,
  • How to replace meetings, or instant messaging, with more asynchronous means of collaboration,
  • How both of us miss the opportunity of connecting with people offered by travels, conferences… [which made me think of an idea to create those opportunities, I will go back to that in another post]
  • What gives or drains his energy, and his tactics to avoid the energy drainers,
  • The importance of knowing yourself and knowing the people around you, learning to use personality profiles could be a good first step, using the Clifton Strengths Finder is an example,
  • How to provide useful feedback,
  • How to manage the relationships around you, and make sure you don’t stay stuck with the wrong people.

If you think about trying to navigate through a forest, they’re the person that climbs up the tree and looks out over the forest, and points you in the direction where you need to go. I think that, typically, I would expect leaders to have a clear vision of where we are going, and perhaps more importantly, explaining why we’re going in that direction.

Jeremy Brown

You can listen to this episode on your favorite platform: AnchorSpotifyBreakerGoogleApple…

Here is the transcript of the episode:

Alexis:

Hey Jeremy, thank you for joining Le Podcast. Can you tell us a little bit more about you and your background?

Jeremy:

Hey, Alexis. It’s great To be here. So yeah, a little bit about me. I’m Jeremy. I’m Irish. I’m actually half Irish, half Finnish. I live in Paris, where I’ve been here for about five years. Currently, I guess my background, I’m an engineer. That’s been my history, but I think I have also probably one of the most, I think, fairly diverse backgrounds for someone in my position, because while I’ve worked as an engineer on low-level things like the operating system of mobile phones, I’ve worked as a consultant doing very large scale Java implementations. I worked in pre-sales. I’ve worked in sales as an actual sales person. I, with a friend, started a startup incubator in Cameroon of all places and helped local entrepreneurs start tech businesses in Cameron 10 years ago. So it was pretty crazy. Yeah. So really lots of different things. And I would say my background and my passion is about building products and the teams and the systems that build those products. I think that’s really my passion and what everything has led me to today.

Alexis:

Today you are chief product and technology officer at Traveldoo, right?

Jeremy:

Yes. Yes.

Alexis:

So it directly connects to your passion of building products.

Jeremy:

Exactly. Yeah. And building products, and we’ve been, Traveldoo is a subsidiary of Expedia. We’ve been changing how we work as well. And I think that the majority of my work has been a little bit less on the product and actually more on how we build the product and how can we change how we do that that has a material impact on our customers and our users.

Alexis:

So of course, as soon as we said travel in the current context, I need to ask you a question about all that current situation that pandemic is affecting your business and the way you work.

Jeremy:

Alexis, this past year has been, I think, one of the hardest that I’ve personally experienced on multiple levels. Obviously, like everybody else just in a personal level of trying, the pandemic clearly had an effect on our personal lives. And we have a small child at home. He’s less than two. And we were, in March, we were all at home, and there was no crash. And we were busy juggling him and trying to get on with work.

Jeremy:

But of course, more than that our business is a travel and expense SAS business. And we went from people booking travel, where we were doing millions of transactions in a year to 80%, 90% down on the previous year. So from a business perspective, we’ve had, I would say, an extreme shock to the system.

Jeremy:

There’ve been a lot of implications to us as a company and the product team. We’ve had to let go of our contractors that we had. We’ve had to half of our team are contractors based in India, and we had to significantly downsize that team as well. And the people cost for us has been really high, not only for the people that we had to let go, and contractors, I really saw them as our own staff, but then for the people who are still here with us, they’ve had to, not only like everybody else, had to make a transition from being co-located in two different offices, one office in Paris and one office in India. But they’ve also had the personal challenges. And then, I think when you’re in one of the companies that’s heavily affected by the pandemic, it adds an extra stress and a worry for the staff compared to one of the companies where they’re benefiting from the current situation, because there are winners and losers right now. We’re definitely a loser. So it’s been hard. Yeah. That’s how I’ll summarize it. It’s been a tough year. Yeah.

Alexis:

I can hear that. It’s, of course, always difficult to imagine what people feel about it. I understand that you’re focused on, of course, the business is impacted, but that’s the big people cost. And I’m sure that if you see people around you let go,, it’s always affecting you. You cannot just be satisfied of being lucky and still having a job. That’s not the way it works. Of course, it’s very hard. So, yeah. It’s difficult to go to the next question.

Jeremy:

Well, all I would say is that that this has been, I think, a test for all of us, for myself. While it’s really tough. I would say that the growth in yourself, I guess like in hard times, you grow more like, just like you prune plants to help them grow in the next growing season. I think, I feel like the one thing that this has done for me is it’s helped me grow as a leader. It’s very easy being a leader when everything’s great. It’s much harder being a leader when things are not great, and it’s even harder when you don’t control a lot of the things that make it not great. I don’t just speak personally for myself. I speak for my leadership team and what they’ve had to handle.

Jeremy:

And I would also add that, we have dealing with customers who are also many of them struggling, because I would say that a large part of our business is with travel agencies. They’ve been even more heavily impacted than ourselves. We’ve been fairly fortunate. We’ve kept most of our staff from being furloughed so that we can continue to build a product. A lot of our partners that we do business with, they’re not in the same situation. So it’s been an interesting learning and growing experience, not one that you would choose to ever go through. But I’ll take it because, first of all, you don’t have a choice. But secondly, I do see the positive growth in myself and the others around me as well through all of this.

Alexis:

That’s really bringing me to the next question about what does being a leader mean to you?

Jeremy:

Yeah. I was actually thinking about this question when you sent me some of the questions you might ask beforehand. And I was wondering actually, what leader means change because of this experience as well. And I would say, first of all, I don’t know if it has. For me being a leader, there’s a couple of parts of this. I believe that there’s a big difference between leaders and managers. And I believe that a leader is definitely someone who’s kind of, if you think about trying to navigate through a forest, they’re the person that climbs up the tree and looks out over the forest and points you in the direction where you need to go. They have, I think they typically, I would expect leaders to have a clear vision of where we are going, and perhaps more importantly, explaining why we’re going in that direction.

Jeremy:

And really then I think the second part of leadership for me is really about being a human being. I’ve always believe this very strongly, and I think it’s become more important through the pandemic and managing things. But yeah, I really believe that not being disconnected from people, but really showing you’re not perfect and not painting a perfect picture of yourself, being human and looking into seeing how are your people doing and coming alongside them, if you can, and encouraging them to not… We’ve had people that have overworked, a lot of people, I guess. They’re out home, and there’s no, the lines blur between work and home. And you can really start to see the stress build.

Jeremy:

And I think the two parts to all of this is kind of showing that you yourself are having the same struggles as everybody else. Because I think that that’s important. Certainly I’m not the kind of person who would want to hide that.

Jeremy:

And secondly, providing space for people to manage the extra complexity that everybody’s currently managing. So I guess, yeah, for me, that leadership is about direction, and more importantly, explaining why that direction is important. And secondly, being human. The one thing I’ve learned in my journey, and I can say I’m far from perfect, but the one thing where I’ve had breakthroughs as a leader is where I’ve gotten to know myself more. The more self-aware I become and the journey I progress on that journey, the better leader I become as well. So yeah, that’s leadership for me.

Alexis:

It’s very inspiring. Being self-aware, being human. That’s not the first thing all times. And I think it’s really important. And I feel that the people around me are more and more aware of that and are more and more ready to be themselves and to be a real person in their work environment. And I see that as really a positive evolution of the world.

Jeremy:

I agree. It’s a world I want to be part of. I don’t know, Alexis, but just a quick comment on this. But I do think as work changes, creativity and collaboration are actually the things that we want to encourage in the workplace in order to really bring value to the businesses that we work in. I think that this is the kind of leadership that people respond best to to help people be inspired to bring their best and do their best. And so for me, it kind of goes together with the nature of work changing. I think the nature of leadership has to change a little bit too.

Alexis:

I think the kind of leader that was more kind of manager, that was showing the artifact of success could be a big car, a big watch, the nice clothes and inspiring respect or things like that, that’s already gone. That’s not the kind of feet our people are ready to follow now and wants to work with now. It’s interesting that shift that is happening.

Jeremy:

Yeah. And you know that because we’re not all in the office anymore, it’s harder to flex like that. It’s just you with, in your, home with a camera. You can’t flex in that same way that… I don’t know. Yeah. It’s different. When you’re in the office, there’s all sorts of power that happens that kind of, it changes clearly, but like the bad micromanagers come out still. But yeah, I think this new way of distributed work doesn’t really facilitate people to do that either.

Alexis:

Speaking of offices, I remember a passionate conversation with you about gathering, about how to assemble the team in a space and all to design the space to make the collaboration happen. We did discuss a lot of that. I assume that your way of working change, of course, from colocated you said that to fully remote. How you change those things? How you change your way of working to still be able to foster that creativity and that collaboration you were mentioning?

Jeremy:

Yeah. So I’m fortunate enough at least to have when I worked at Red hat before, Red Hat is kind of, I would say, pretty good with remote work. And a lot of, I would say, a large percentage of people who work there were kind of remote workers. And certainly, I was, though I saw my team face-to-face a lot, and we did have a lot of face time. We just definitely haven’t got that now. But here in Traveldoo, we had basically a team co-located in the office in Paris with a kind of a really office first culture. And the same thing in Cocci and in South India and Carola. And it was a pretty sharp change to not be in the office anymore.

Jeremy:

And I would say that the first phase of our transition was kind of just replicating the way that we worked in the office, but with video instead of face-to-face, and we heavily used, we were using Slack already, but I think we went a bit even more into Slack. And I think that was the first sort of transition out.

Jeremy:

And then we used the retrospective in the team, probably not as… Everyone says they use retros. We do use retros. I would say, it’d be nice if we used them more at the same time. But we tried to learn. And what we realized was, first of all, I started to hear my skip level conversations, especially with the tech leads, that they were in a lot of meetings and actually not able to code that much. And we still have that problem today, but I think we’re a little bit better than when we first left the office.

Jeremy:

We started to change the way we communicated. We started intentionally moving more and more things to asynchronous. I think I would say that if you looked at my calendar a few weeks after we had moved out of the office, and then you look at my calendar now almost a year later, it’s very different. We’ve definitely moved basically all of our status reporting to asynchronous. We’ve reduced the amount of time we spend in meetings. We’ve intentionally cut repeated lead meetings and asked why we’re doing that. And we’re moving more and more of what we do to even shorter form meetings. So that’s, I think, meetings is like one area where we’ve actually also, we had a release meeting, and we had people getting around at lunchtime and spending 15 minutes talking about the next release. And then that release meeting moved to a video call. And now today, it’s moved to a Slack workflow. So it’s fully asynchronous. And yeah, I think it’s incremental changes that we’re moving. And we’re moving in this continuum towards more and more written and asynchronous.

Jeremy:

We’re not there yet. I wouldn’t say, you look at companies like Automattic, the company that makes WordPress and so on. They’re very well known for how they work. We’re not there yet, but we’re definitely nudged towards them in how we do things, which is a very positive thing.

Jeremy:

Certainly we’ve seen while our team size has reduced, productivity overall has actually increased for all of us. I think that we’ve surveyed our staff, and we have a healthy percentage, like 20%, 30% staff who would like to stay remote and actually would like to even leave Paris. And we have another percentage of people who, the majority, the rest, would say, I’d like to go to the office, but I don’t want to be there five days a week, which is what we had before, where we had one or two people that worked two days a week remote, and they were the exception. So we’re really moving in a different way.

Alexis:

Have you noticed, of course, when we speak about companies like Automattic or Basecamp that are really working with people fully remote and putting a lot of attention to written communication and asynchronous communication, they are a thing that enables people that are usually more shy or more introverted to contribute better, and that enabled the better thinking. Have you noticed a change in the contribution of people? Have you noticed that some people were able to contribute more? Or what do you think?

Jeremy:

Yeah, I will say the extroverts still are the most chatty people on Slack. Their personality still comes through. Yeah, I think we’ve seen that nudging. I don’t think we’re at that stage of where Automattic are, but I do think that the one thing I will say is video calls or chat and email and all are more inclusive if you operate using them differently. Certainly, we’ve intentionally adopted a number of different behaviors, just to give you some examples, in video calls, we’ve introduced hand signals to say, I agree, or I disagree. We’ve introduced a hand signal to say, I’d like to talk. We do try to intentionally ask people who are not talking to say, hey, I see you didn’t really comment here. Have you got something to say? And I’ve always found that that question generates the most powerful insight in the meeting. So we’ve definitely, through the retros and stuff, introduced more behaviors like that.

Jeremy:

And I don’t think it’s as easy to do that in real life because definitely the extroverts dominate that much more. And you kind of… But you do sense the body language in a room, but it’s not… Yeah. I still think that this is still pretty inclusive, and it’s definitely, even through this, we’ve become more inclusive. Maybe if we would go back to the office, we’ll also have learned from that and still be like that. But it seems a bit weird to hold your hand up in a room and to stick your thumbs up in a room, whereas on a video call that feels now natural. So I don’t know.

Alexis:

Yeah. I remember the first time I had a workshop using sociocracy or using the core protocols. And you are asked to make hand signals in the meeting room and not talk to talk to signal your agreement to a proposal that is made. And it’s really odd. It sounds counterintuitive, but at the third round of the table, going around the table, it’s starts to become more interesting, because you are already focused on what people are saying. And you look around, you see the hand signal, you see that suddenly you catch the opinion of people that you would have probably not even noticed before. It creates something different. So I think it’s odd to put in place in a room in the physical environment. Interestingly, I’m curious about what will happen when we are coming back once we learned those things remotely.

Jeremy:

Yeah, me too. I’ll tell you the one thing that I’m looking forward to when we can like see each other is to see each other. We do have like little coffee conversations, and we realized at times that some of the middle management were getting more and more disconnected in different departments., And they have like regular coffee hours together, which has really worked out well. But yeah, I think, for me, that the hybrid approach where you charge up your face to face time, and you get that small talk and stuff, I think is super important. And I think even where teams are fully remote in the future, certainly on my side, I intend to have regular face to face time for those teams because I think it’s important.

Alexis:

Yeah, absolutely. In the company like Automattic and Basecamp, they have face time events when they gather all together. So there’s a need for that definitely.

Alexis:

We spoke about leadership and what it means. Who do you look up to as a leader? Where are you inspired from?

Jeremy:

There’s been a couple different books I’ve read from different leaders that have inspired me. And maybe even more than, like nudge is maybe too weak a word, like really kicked me in the direction. And I would say David Marquet and Turn the Ship Around! has definitely altered the course of how I try to be a leader. I would say that Simon Sinek has really transformed how I go into work, start with why and a lot of the thinking that he puts into work. And I would say that he’s certainly inspired what I feel is my personal purpose for what I want to achieve and how I turn up and work. So there’s probably a few others like that, but yeah, I think those are the two that instantly come to my mind when you asked that question.

Alexis:

Yeah, good. And what gives your energy?

Jeremy:

When I was a developer, you had these periods where you entered flow, and you could lose track of time, and you were achieving something and making something, and you just felt so happy, and you don’t think about it. But afterwards you realize that those are those moments. I think as a leader, as a manager, you don’t have that kind of creator schedule and a maker schedule. And it took me a long time to feel reward and energized by some of that. Today I think it’s long-term for me. It’s the investment that you make in people and the pay off that you see. And it kind of three months later, a year later, and this, you made this change for the person, or you coach them towards a certain way of turning up into work. And then you see that paying off, or you have a one-on-one with someone, and they say, I did that thing that you said, and it just worked so well. That’s the big energizing moment for me now.

Jeremy:

And I accept that they’re not every day, but yeah, I think that that’s very rewarding for me. And also, I think in nudging an organization over a period of time where, as a kind of a leader, you’re you feel you’re repeating yourself over and over again, saying the same things. And I think there’s two rewards. One is that the language that you insert into the situation to try and nudge things starts to be repeated by others without, the same terminology that you introduced. And the second is you see the metrics that you use to track how we’re doing actually making it significantly changing. And those are also super rewarding and energizing.

Alexis:

This is really good that made me think of things in a different way. Right now, this is really good.

Alexis:

I have a question about, of course, what drains your energy, the opposite side of that coin?

Jeremy:

The opposite side, so one is, I think toxic people, and maybe also just people that no matter how much you invest, you can’t seem to get them to see the world differently or to change. And I think it’s also frustrating for me because I feel like there’s probably a way to nudge everybody forwards and into different way of behaving. And there’s a level of maybe frustration in me. So that’s one.

Jeremy:

And I would say that we’re all different. I’m a big fan of the Clifton StrengthsFinder and the idea of each of us having unique strengths that are in different orders. And my number one strength is belief. And what that means is that it’s a kind of an actually an execution strength. And if I believe in something, I’m going to go after it with all my energy and passion and everything else. And I think one of the things that kills that and drains it and creates bad behaviors in me is where I feel like people don’t get why I’m so passionate about that thing and why they should also be passionate about it. And so that can be really, for me, at least, that really is, it drains me a lot. That’s at least the things that I think about.

Alexis:

I think if you form a club about on that, I would join happily. I think you are not alone with that kind of frustration and a belief that, yes, we could all and get to somewhere different ways to change our mindset. And sometimes you don’t find the way, and it’s frustrating. That’s true.

Jeremy:

I would just say that when you’re energized like that, you want everyone to move fast, and you can’t… The fact that it’s not moving as fast as you want is also part of that kind of frustration. But then you get these payoffs, and boom, you’re back in the game, and you’re, yeah, we did actually make progress. It wasn’t as bad.

Alexis:

Yeah. Sometimes you need the feedback from others saying, no, you don’t remember how it was six months ago. It seems you don’t realize the progress we made. You say, oh, okay. Oh, yeah. That was nice. Well, that’s good. You need to do that every six months, a small paragraph like this will really help me if you can continue, maybe add it to your calendar 🙂

Jeremy:

But I’ve tried very hard to build a culture where we speak out those things more. And it definitely energizes people, not just me. But yeah, to call out and say, thank you and to call out those little wins, repeatedly. We now introduce weekly updates. We actually have that built into it. And we have a biweekly kind of all hands just within the product and tech team. And we spend probably 15 minutes of that meeting just thanking people for the last different call outs for the last week, last two weeks. So, yeah, I think as you build that, and we’ve only been really introducing more and more of that in the last six months, you do start to see it popping up more and more, and then you get a few compliments yourself, and it’s rewarding.

Alexis:

Yeah. It’s incredible, the impact that it has. And it’s difficult at the beginning, but I like that way of celebrating. I feel that the regular celebration close to when the event happens is really more efficient than the big awards ceremony.

Jeremy:

Exactly. Yeah. Actually I just personally hate big awards ceremonies because you always have to give awards to some people, and you can’t give it to all the people who really deserved it. I’m actually really kind of an anti those. I prefer the continuous kind of call outs and encouragement than plaques and awards and things like that. Yeah. At least that’s my personal, relatively strong belief. If I was leading an organization, I definitely wouldn’t have something like that there.

Alexis:

Yeah. The question a little bit other is, is there something you’ve always dreamed of doing but never dared to?

Jeremy:

Yeah. Difficult question. I think I’m quite, I’ve taken quite a few risks in my career, but I think, and I did start a company already. But yeah, I’d like to start another company. I’d like to build a real business from scratch or acquire one or do something like that, and really built a different kind of business, one that stands for different things in society. I’m very energized to turn up to work to do that. But I think that when you run a company, you can really shape it in a different way. And ideally, more in the sense of like Basecamp or folks like that, where they’re really, they don’t have to do something specific for their VC, the funders and things like that. They can really grow the company at the pace that they believe that it should grow at. And yeah, I think that would be the thing.

Alexis:

This is nice. I love it. I hope you will.

Jeremy:

Oh, me too. Me too.

Alexis:

Apart from work, is there something that you’re passionate about that you want to share today?

Jeremy:

I’m a geek. I’m passionate about lots of things, and probably like maybe a lot of men, I’m also, my passion is like, I would say obsessions change from time to time, but I do like to get out on my bicycle and go cycling. I really enjoy cycling. And my partner and I are very fortunate also to have a son, and he’s just about to turn two in a couple months. There’s definitely my passion has shifted being a father. That’s definitely like where a lot of my energy also goes, and probably why I’m doing a little bit less cycling these days as well, apart from just the pandemic. And certainly, in the lockdown, in Paris, we had a one kilometer radius that you could leave your home. So cycling wasn’t really a thing you could do so easily.

Alexis:

Yeah, of course, of course. What would be the really your advice to people who want to develop themselves as leaders?

Jeremy:

I think a lot of people who aspire to leadership, there’s getting to being a manager of people is something that they can all achieve and be entrusted with managing a team. And I think that there’s clearly certain skills that are needed for that. And they can learn and grow that. But to really push through, to break through kind of up another couple of levels, I think that there’s a bit more that needs to be developed. And it goes back to what I said earlier, but I do think knowing yourself, going deeper in yourself, I highly recommend people to take some kind of tests, like the Clifton StrengthsFinder, and there’s others, like I think Kolbe and a few others. Often people’s work will pay for those, or even people have done a bunch of those. I think if one doesn’t really work for you, try a few, but use some of those tools.

Jeremy:

I think being in the right environment of having the right people around you is super important. And if you’re not getting that in the environment that you’re in, change it. Find people that are going in the same direction as you and passionate about that, because I think we take each other on the journey together. And you’re not going to really be tested in going deeper in yourself without other people willing to challenge you. And then, I would say that my current team, there are people in there who have challenged me on my behavior, and that’s helped me grow. So yeah, I think going deeper in yourself.

Jeremy:

And then clearly in the kind of executive world, I think there’s a couple of things here. One is that you definitely have to be able to deliver results. Ideally, the good kind of execs do that without people paying a price, like taking people with you. Second is just managing the relationships with execs of other departments that are not directly related to yours, managing the politics and the… Just it’s relationship thing. And those are critical skills, but you can test, you can, every level of your career, you can definitely develop them. But I think it gets a bit harder the more senior you go. And often people get a bit stuck at a certain level. Yeah. And for me, the breakthroughs come when you either, and I think you also, you need to be willing to move a little bit to change jobs, to get those experiences and get the right people around you, or even to fail and then move again and try again. So yeah, that would be my advice.

Alexis:

I love the advice.

Jeremy:

Thank you.

Alexis:

Very tempting advice. I hope that people will be appealed to that, knowing yourself and looking at your environment and look at if the people around you are helping you to grow. I think it’s a really, really good one. Love it.

Jeremy:

My parents taught me that, Alexis. I just hear their voice at the back of my head when I’m thinking that, because that’s from my parents. I definitely learned that from them.

Alexis:

Excellent. Excellent. Yeah, we learn all the time, and sometimes you remember the things we learned are coming from a long time ago. It’s really good.

Jeremy:

Exactly.

Alexis:

Thank you very much, Jeremy, for having joined the podcast today. I really appreciate your time and your insights. It was really beautiful. I’m really glad that we had that conversation. Thank you.

Jeremy:

Thank you, Alexis. It’s been a pleasure.

Jeremy:

Yeah. I’ve been a long time listener of your podcast. So it’s great to be here, and yeah, please keep going with the podcast. It’s great.

Alexis:

Thank you.

Alexis:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Le Podcast. Go to alexis.Monville.com for the references mentioned in the episode. And to find more help to increase your impact and satisfaction at work, drop a comment or an email with your feedback, or just to say hello. And until next time, to find better ways of changing your team.

Photo by Annie Spratt 

Le Podcast – Season Two

Le Podcast – Season One