HR Talks with IT Leaders ep. 6: Teodor Panayotov on the importance of being humble and ready to take responsibility

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.

Our next guest is Teodor Panayotov, founder and CEO of Coursedot, a marketplace for IT upskilling courses and one of the fastest-growing tech companies in Central and Eastern Europe, according to Deloitte. With a network of over 3100+ IT instructors, the edtech startup is helping customers deliver training programs in the most efficient possible way. In 2021, the Coursedot team raised $1M in venture capital funding and reached a valuation of about $7.5M.

What is the number one lesson about leadership you have learned over the past few years?

Really the number one is to be humble and listen to others, be it the team or external mentors.

I started as an IT professional and I would say I was quite arrogant 15 years ago, but through the years I met so many people who helped me and helped the company and taught me various lessons. I really saw that the saying is right — once you start to expand your circle of knowledge you realize how many things you don’t know and the more and more you know, you see that there is even more you don’t know.

I can give you examples with mentors I had. I distinctly remember meeting with Vassil from Telerik and we had a very tough discussion during which he gave me an important piece of advice. The outcome was that it actually saved the company, it moved us from losing money back in 2018, to being profitable in Q4 in 2018. Another example — I went to the first cohort of BIH (the Bulgarian Innovation Hub). I was one of the lucky few who actually was able to be there physically in San Francisco and I met Pavlina and Bogomil, and all the other successful people from Silicon Valley that are part of the program. It was a truly humbling experience, because I went there with businesses which had already been running for a couple of years, had some customers, and I thought I knew how to organize the sales, the strategy. It turned out I really didn’t.

How do you as a leader communicate your failures to the team? Do you have any tips for young leaders who need to recover from a mistake they made?

It is tough to acknowledge your own bullshit. You have to be super honest. At least that’s what I am always trying to be. Being completely honest and transparent as possible with everyone on the team, being open to their feedback, sometimes rough feedback. We had cases where someone had seen a problem and escalated it before I did, and it had turned out they were right, and I was wrong.

So, being super honest and taking responsibility is a major factor for the leader. There is no one you can hide behind. You have to be there, you have to be responsible.

It is also super important to buy time and this is not something orthodox in the startup way of thinking, especially in the US startup way of thinking of hyper growth, of blitz scaling, etc. There are times where you can buy time and be profitable and expand a little bit slower if you are not 100 % sure if you should put gasoline on the fire. Sometimes it is a matter of being able to survive so you can fight the next battle, since it is not a sprint, it is a marathon.

It is over when you run out of ideas, not over when you lose a battle. Being able to survive that battle is key, buying time is critical, at least in my very humble experience.

Let’s dive deeper into CourseDot’s team culture. What are the currently most important skills and mindset you foster in your teams and how do you actually do it on a practical level?

The function of us being a small organization is the ability to communicate with everybody. Anyone can come up with ideas or challenge the way we are doing something. It’s super important to have critical thinking and be able to respond quickly to changing circumstances. Because as you know COVID came and literally changed our business overnight. I really think that being mentally flexible is the most important thing. Everything else is learnable. If your mind is set in stone it is a really hard thing to change. Being able to understand that what you have been doing yesterday may not work a year from now is critical.

What is your approach to employee training and development within the company?

Well, for example, we have a catalog with all kinds of classes people could choose and take. It is a budget available for everybody, including myself. Everybody is free to choose whatever is interesting for them in terms of both professional development and personal development. We had people throughout the year attend courses on things like operational excellence, finance, both personal and company, we had people do sales classes. So, they are free to do whatever helps them advance, do their job better and become better people.

How would you measure your success as a leader in the long term?

I would like to have built an organization which has as much automation and personal autonomy for everyone as possible. Right now if a truck hit me, operationally CourseDot could continue and grow profitable. I’d like to keep it this way but we also need to become a bigger company. If we grow as a business and everyone on the team is still happy and doesn’t consider this to be just a job to earn a salary, then it’d be good.

What is the key to creating a truly autonomous organization as you scale?

Processes and priorities. It is not like it is written somewhere on the wall but one of our priorities has always been to make sure our customers are happy.

Everybody on the team has a certain level of autonomy, which means that if they have to make a decision which will make customers happy, they can do it autonomously, they do not have to ask for permission. They can just go for it. I can give you a recent example. One of our guys made a decision for a class that actually lost us money, which is not ideal but it is something which the customer took note of and remembered.

So, being able to take this responsibility and be autonomous with it rather than having a strict structure where somebody punishes you once you lose money is important. Being able to think over the lifetime value of the relationship with the customer — even more.

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