HR Talks with IT Leaders ep.10: Alexander Zlatkov on leading a team through hardships, the importance of being honest with your employees and preventing burnout

HR Talks with IT leaders is a campaign organized by Bica and our goal is to give more visibility to the knowledge of how great tech teams are built. Every week, we will meet with accomplished entrepreneurs and managers who will share their personal experience and what’s their approach to leadership, communication, hiring, talent development and much more.

Today, we meet you up with ’s Founder and CEO Alexander Zlatkov. The company’s Digital Experience Insights platform is used by product managers, developers, customer service experts, and UX designers to decrease the time they spend on understanding and fixing product issues. It allows digital businesses with web applications to get comprehensive and actionable insights into their users’ journey to improve product quality, adoption, and user experience. The idea for creating SessionStack comes from the problems the founders had in their previous roles as software engineers. Just recently, the company closed a €750К seed round and will use the investment to drive product development, more sales, and fuel more marketing efforts.

What is the number one leadership lesson you learned through the years that helped you when growing SessionStack?

I personally learned a lot of key leadership lessons through the years, but the main thing was to be honest and open with myself and the team about the market dynamics and opportunities. We started SessionStack when we were very young and had almost unrealistic expectations that SessionStack could become the next Google in a few short years. Even though there was clearly a market spot for our product as we were growing it turned out that there were quite a few problems with the market we were focused on that couldn’t lead to the growth we wanted. At that time I learned that we have to be very honest and unemotional with ourselves about the situation we were in. Not just me, but the whole team, had to quickly accept what was our position in the market, what were the challenges that we were facing, and what we needed to change.

Through this objectiveness and clear perception of the market reality, we were able to make the proper changes and find our sweet spot where the opportunity is huge. Because, no matter how brilliant a team you have, or how amazing your solution is, if the market demand is not big or the market is not growing quickly, then you won’t be able to grow also.

You mentioned the challenges that the company had to face in the past. How did you manage to keep the team motivated through these times?

Ever since the beginning of SessionStack, we have implemented a policy where the senior people and those who are with us from early on, have equity in the company. So we were very transparent and honest about the challenges that were presented in front of us. What we did was to be very transparent and objective about the situation, and as people felt very connected with the company, there was also lots of motivation to tackle all the hard challenges. All the employees were constantly updated on the current situation and we didn’t hide anything from them. Also, we were very objective and didn’t try to numb the situation, only because somebody might leave. The challenges required strong team members so if someone had left, it would have been a clear indicator that they are not the right fit. Everyone stayed.

We broke down the major problem into smaller tasks that were assigned to different team members and turned the challenges into opportunities for personal and professional growth. Everyone knew what they had to do and why it mattered. This way, we all had a look at the bigger picture and how our efforts were helping to solve the challenges in the difficult situation.

It seems like you’ve gone through a lot as a team. But what kind of people can succeed in SessionStack, as you are in the process of expanding the company?

Although we have grown in the past few years, we are still quite a small team. When we finish our expansion plan, there will be more than 20 professionals that work for SessionStack. So we have quite strict criteria when it comes to hiring new people.

We highly value the professional qualities of a person and they are very important for us, but personal traits are far more crucial. Also, we are super picky when it comes to the personalities of our potential new colleagues. One thing I would never compromise on is the morality of a person, no matter what his professional qualities and experience are. Work ethics and morality are very important to us and we value them quite a lot. For me, success has a price and the lack of morality is not the one that I am willing to pay to get it. We realize that there are great professionals who might lack decent morality that can be very beneficial short-term for us in terms of growth, but in the long run, the downsides are far bigger not only for the company but also for the whole ecosystem.

For professional qualities, we are at a point of our progress, where we are focusing on candidates that have a strong background and solid experience. The people that want to join SessionStack need to be self-driven and creative when dealing with tasks. We usually present to them the big picture and what we want to achieve. But how they will manage to do it is up to them.

Another quality I highly value personally is a good sense of humor. I think people that you can share a laugh with are also better to work with. Also, they manage to deal with different tasks and challenges with ease. Our whole team has a great sense of humor and that’s why we prefer someone to fit in the environment.

You mention that the inspiration for creating SessionStack comes from the motivation to tackle a problem that you had working for different companies. How do you support the creative ideas that your employees have? How important is intrapreneurship for SessionStack?

As I mentioned previously, the senior people that lead some areas in the company, have equity in SessionStack. It’s really important that they don’t just think about themselves and their personal success. They dedicate some time to share some of their knowledge and experience with the other team members. It’s very important for us to make sure that everyone feels like a part of the success and part of the team.

We support everyone in the team who has a creative idea, and we spend time discussing every single one. Usually, the team members who are connected to the particular task gather and we share our opinions about the idea. We are very transparent and honest about it. If we consider that an idea won’t be appropriate for us and the market, we share it in a polite and honest manner.

Are you using an organizational framework like a north star metric or an OKR system to keep track of tasks being completed?

We don’t use specialized OKRs software to keep track of these indicators. We have an internal system where everyone has monthly and quarterly goals. Also, we have monthly meetings where we track our progress. We evaluate our goals during them and decide in which areas we are overachieving and in which we are underachieving. During them, we try to figure out a way to improve our performance and also get feedback from our employees.

In a previous interview, you mentioned Peter Thiel as the person you want to be mentored by. Why?

The main reason I like him is that he has a very fundamental approach when it comes to analyzing the world, economics, technology, and humanity. Another thing I like about him is that he is a contrarian and has fundamentally different viewpoints on important topics. Also, I like to read about and talk with people who think very differently from me, especially on crucial topics. Although I may not agree with the person, I like to hear another perspective from a person that is based on knowledge, experience, and first-principles analysis.

How do you implement mentorship in SessionStack?

We have a quite informal way of mentoring, if you can call it that. We do monthly one-on-one meetings with everyone in the team to discuss people’s needs. During them we spend some time together to think about what people need, can the company change something to make them feel better, do we have to do anything to allow them to learn new stuff. So we dedicate some time to everyone in the team to understand the needs of our employees and help them.

Especially since the onset of the pandemic, mental health has become an increasingly important topic for everyone in the technology sector. With the possibility of burnout, how do you approach mental health at SessionStack?

A person that is very close to me is still going through actual burnout, so I am very familiar with the whole process and how it can affect someone. This is the reason at SessionStack we implemented a bunch of benefits that do not allow people to get even close to that.

The first one is the hybrid working model, where people can spend some days at the office, and some at home. We decided to introduce the model because people weren’t sure what is the best working model for them. We sensed uncertainty, even in more experienced employees, whether they wanted to complete their tasks from home or the office. After the implementation of the hybrid working model, we saw very positive feedback from everybody. On the days when we are at the office, we organize team lunches with everybody going out and catching up which boosted the team morale.

We also ensure additional holidays for team members, additional health insurance, so nobody has to worry about their healthcare, and we encourage people to get a day off when they’re sick, and we fully cover the days of employee’s sick leave. Also, this summer we plan to organize “summer days” when we will have a few working days at the seaside. We will use this time to catch up, have some fun and maybe do some work.

We also support our employees to share knowledge as we encourage them to organize lectures. Also, we guarantee a paid day off for anyone that uses this time to support a cause they believe in.

One last question, how would you personally measure your success as a leader moving forward?

For me, the measure of success is whether an organization’s activity is helping for the well-being of the whole community and even the world. Especially for a company that works for profit, the financial capital is the fuel, but it shouldn’t be the end goal. It is more important the products and solutions of this organization help the people around and work for a better future. And the capital is just the tool to achieve that. So, my measure for success will be whether I managed to help in creating a better future for everyone.

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