Leadership skills in a hybrid world: An entrepreneur’s perspective
Culture Shaping

Leadership skills in a hybrid world: An entrepreneur’s perspective

Abakar Saidov, co-founder and CEO at Beamery, a talent lifecycle management platform, shares his advice for building a thriving company culture and diverse and inclusive teams.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Shaloo Kulkarni speaks to Abakar Saidov, co-founder and CEO at Beamery, a talent lifecycle management platform headquartered in London. Saidov shares his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and discusses the process and goals of building his company’s culture and values as well as his perspective on how to think about building diverse and inclusive teams. Finally, he shares what leadership skills he believes will be most important to drive success in 2022.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (2:48) What is your leadership advice for young, aspiring entrepreneurs?
  • (4:03) What particular changes have you faced as a leader in these last few months and what did you do to overcome them?
  • (5:28) How would you define a leading organizational culture and what have you done to build and maintain it?
  • (9:29) What do you do to ensure that you have diverse perspectives within your team, and how has this cascaded through the rest of your organization? 
  • (11:33) As we look ahead to 2022, which specific leadership skills and people capabilities would you say are going to be most important for your company to achieve its strategic goals?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Shaloo Kulkarni: Hello everyone, I'm Shaloo Kulkarni, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of our Heidrick Consulting practice. In today’s podcast, I'm speaking to Abakar Saidov, co-founder and CEO at Beamery, a talent relationship management service provider headquartered in London. Prior to launching Beamery in 2013, Abakar worked with Francisco Partners, a tech-focused private equity firm, and at Goldman Sachs, where he started his career. Abakar, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak to us today.

Abakar Saidov: Thank you for having me, Shaloo, it’s a pleasure.

Shaloo Kulkarni: So, Abakar, you started your career in finance and private equity. How did you move into entrepreneurship and found a tech platform?

Abakar Saidov: I started the company with my brother, and the true back story is that we were always entrepreneurial as we were growing up as first-generation immigrants to the United Kingdom, just to be able to have some pocket money. Our parents were not very rich—in fact, quite the opposite. And so I guess by necessity we found ourselves doing a number of things like, you know, importing cheap speakers from Japan and selling them to friends or founding our school sweetshop and working there, buying wholesale sweets and reselling them. So, early on both my brother and I would do things like that, that created a sort of entrepreneurial spirit. But, in reality, we didn't know any better; we were just like, this is the way, this is the only thing you can do. We both started careers at Goldman and then I worked in the private equity firm, but we ended up living together again, and every night we would have new ideas about things we could do, businesses we wanted to start, and eventually it came together when we realized that we cared to deeply about one topic in particular, which is helping solve the passport of birthplace lottery, specifically around access to work. To this day, we are both incredibly passionate about fair access to work and making that a basic human right, and we continue to come up with different ideas about how to solve that. So, that was the genesis.

Shaloo Kulkarni: Based on your experience and your career to date, what is your leadership advice for young, aspiring entrepreneurs who would like to make a similar switch into the space?

Abakar Saidov: There’s a statistics view of this, the likelihood of success being probabilistically weighted, you know, and you’re not guaranteed to have a better outcome than you would if you had a very stable job. So, it really has to be something that you care about so much—something that you want to exist in the world so much—that the fear of failure is not there, neither is the fear of losing money. One of my friends describes it as the idea almost ripping itself out of your chest, that you want to do this thing so much that you will go through all the hardships, all the long nights, all the emotional drama that comes with starting a company.

I know dozens and dozens of entrepreneurs who started companies and when it got hard—and it really does get hard—they dropped out. They were like, “This is too difficult.” And so, I think that my advice is to only work on something that you would work on for free, forever.

Shaloo Kulkarni: As you know, COVID-19 has impacted organizations around the globe and many of them have had to rethink their operating models. What particular changes have you faced as a leader in these last few months and what did you do to overcome them?

Abakar Saidov: This is something that I talk a lot about with my mentors and other CEOs, and I think—I'm going to say something that is probably relatively obvious in today’s world and literature—it’s a lot about how to embrace hybrid leadership. We’ve known for a long time that, in education, for example, children learn differently and there are different styles and different approaches to teaching, and so it shouldn't exactly be surprising that people work differently and some people work better at home, with different hours and in different locations. There are lots of things that are conducive to work and productivity, but I think something that isn't often talked about is what leading a company going through that hybrid transition looks like, as well as how building relationships works when people don't see you or meet you. Many managers are doing that for the first time, so it requires an extra bit of deliberate thoughtfulness on their part to understand what people are going through and how to motivate and inspire them and create connections. I’ve been making a very, very deliberate effort during the pandemic.

Shaloo Kulkarni: So, culture, as we know, is at the heart of all successful global companies. How would you define a leading organizational culture and what have you done to build and maintain it?

Abakar Saidov: My view is that you cannot just define culture from the top down: it is ultimately the summation of the traits of all the individuals you have in your company. And it’s something you can build deliberately, retain, or change. Every single person you hire impacts it.

And so, early on what we recognized is that, as founders, what makes us similar in many ways is that we’re very curious and we ask a lot of questions. So, the first value that we have as a company is starting with “why?” The small child that asks lots of questions always asks, “Why?” We wanted to capture and preserve some of that childlike curiosity toward everything, that seeking to understand and learn and not being satisfied with “this is how we've always done it.”  The question to that should always be “why?”

People like that want to be given the autonomy to go and do things. We want to encourage that autonomy, even in a world where the company is always changing, the business is growing, and things are hectic. People need to feel empowered to own the change they seek, to fix something if it’s broken, to just do it if they see an opportunity to make something better. We wanted to overcome that “burning building syndrome”—when people walk past the burning building but don’t call the fire department because they assume someone else already did. Owning the change you seek means that every sentence that starts with, “We should do something,” and should end with, “and here is how I'm going to do it.” It's not somebody else’s job, it’s yours. So that became our second value.

And to ensure that there is balance in that—a very ambitious, highly motivated, highly curious, high-ownership company—you need to make sure that you also create a culture of kindness. I think a lot of companies talk about authenticity, but authenticity is often associated with directness and bluntness. But you can actually be authentic and also be very positive and kind. And so, for us, acting with kindness became a third value. And to be able to operate in this kind of way is only possible if you get the trust you need by communicating openly. And so, for us, that open channel for communication and over-communication became incredibly important.

Initially, especially with the hybrid model forced by COVID-19, we focused on how we could practice some of our radical candor and really have that deliberate openness as something we always open with—no pun intended. And, lastly, you know, I started talking about our entrepreneurship and vision with this idea of what matters to me and my co-founders: creating fair access to work. We, as a company are very, very passionate about this mission and making this positive impact together, and doing things that are not just good for business but good for the surrounding stakeholders, whether it’s our environment, our customers, or our employees, ultimately aligning our culture to the development goals around things like access to work, education, and healthcare. We want to make a positive impact together, ensuring that, internally, our employees grow and develop together, and, externally, we make this impact on our communities. That became out fifth value. So we've been very thoughtful and very deliberate around how we think these through, how we define them, and how we practice them every day.

Shaloo Kulkarni: Building diversity and inclusive teams is at the forefront of the thinking of many businesses, now more than ever. What do you do to ensure that you have diverse perspectives within your team, and how has this cascaded through the rest of your organization?

Abakar Saidov: I think a lot of organizations focus on the high-level construct of diversity, gender diversity or ethnic diversity. Something we’ve spent a lot of time on and thought a lot about within D&I is inclusivity. My personal mantra is actually to start with “I.” Ask, “What needs to be true to create an inclusive environment?” If you start there, the inputs to inclusion include equity, diversity, and many others. Ultimately, our approach has been to create a company where people feel confident, included, passionate. And that kind of organization is, from a diversity perspective, one that is non-homogenous. And so, we build non-homogenous teams made up of people who don't look like each other or have a certain percentage of non-homogeneity.

Often, in the extreme cases, diversity gets associated with a particular gender or skin color and therefore too much of a particular gender or skin color means that you are not diverse. But it’s actually about not being like the others, about creating teams that act and think differently. And some of that different thinking comes from backgrounds or education. So, we think a lot about diversity from that side. But just having a diverse team with people that do not feel listened to or included is not useful, and so that’s why we’re really focused on how to first create an environment of inclusion.

Shaloo Kulkarni: As we look ahead to 2022, which specific leadership skills and people capabilities would you say are going to be most important for your company to achieve its strategic goals?

Abakar Saidov: There are probably two or three things that I think about as core leadership qualities that are going to drive our success. The first one is empathy. I think it is incredibly important for people to know how to listen and know how to understand and read between the lines of what's happening. I listened to amazing podcast with Stephen Fry recently; the conversation topic was, you know, students these days, “complaining” about this or that and, you know, what his opinions on that were. And what he said was something that I think rings true with employees and teams and leaders: students are trying to build a better world the best way they know how. So, if they're complaining about something, it’s because they believe it’s important. Your job as a leader is to listen. And I think that that rings true inside the company as well, because you don't have to agree with things, you don’t have to be on the same page, but you do have to listen and seek to understand. And I think that that empathy for your teams is also incredibly important because people are different.

I think the second driver is knowing how to take risks and move quickly. A big leadership quality that I hire for and that I look for in my leaders is people that know how to take bets, calculated bets, and how to inject urgency into what they're doing. I think that’s an incredibly important quality in being able to move quickly and achieve results quickly.

The third driver is probably coupled with a lot of the values we talked about when you're running teams that are hybrid and you're practicing empathy as leader, it’s about understanding how to create teams that achieve those results and how to be very, very focused on the building blocks of what it takes to build good benches of management teams. Because some of the things we need to really fixate on at the moment is how to create good managers that know how to manage those hybrid teams, and that is different from what we’ve had to do before.

I think the last point is investing in people’s growth and careers. When we look at some of the reasons for the “great resignation,” and we have a lot of research that talks about this, is that people feel that without connection, they don't feel like their careers or growth are being invested in. So, I think that that's a really important skill set for leaders as well.

Shaloo Kulkarni: Abakar, thank you for making the time to speak to us today.

Abakar Saidov: Thank you for having me! It’s been a pleasure, Shaloo.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Shaloo Kulkarni (skulkarni@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.

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