HR Talks with IT Leaders ep. 9: Marin Petrov on self-managed teams and fostering creativity at work

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.

In our next conversation, we talk to Marin Petrov, a serial entrepreneur and product builder who left his dream job in the animation industry (he was part of the team that drew Scrat, the squirrel from Ice Age) and founded two companies. While one failed, the other got acquired by Amazon. Marin’s currently part of Camplight, a digital cooperative that creates experiences for the web and mobile world.

That you learn a new thing every day. There are so many lessons I learned over the years and if I have to pick just one, it would be that leadership comes down to being a good listener and communicator. It’s actually really hard to listen with empathy. Especially when times are hard. Learning to over-communicate and repeat the same message over and over again has also proven to be beneficial.

You can divide your listening abilities into several different levels.

  1. When you completely ignore the other person and you just don’t listen at all. Sometimes that’s useful, for example when you drive a car and it’s better to focus on what’s on the road rather than the talking kid on your back seat.
  2. When you pretend to listen, nod your head but you’re not really there. We have all done this. It is a pretend-listening.
  3. It’s our usual day-to-day communication with other people — you talk to each other but you’re pretty much responding to what the other person is saying and talking about your experiences.
  4. This is where we go into the area of empathic listening — you don’t just listen to what’s said but also to what’s not said — you try to understand the feelings, fears, and desires the other might have. This is very powerful because not everything we communicate with words is what we actually think and feel. It’s all about the other person, and not bringing your personal agenda to the conversation.

I became very interested in self-managed companies and cooperatives a few years ago. When I came back to Bulgaria there weren’t that many and Camplight was one of them.

At Camplight we constantly talk about culture and how we can improve it. It’s often about these invisible things, the vibe at the company. I’ve facilitated several internal workshops on giving feedback, non-violent communication, and distributed decision making.

When it comes to processes, we don’t try to force them and have them only when truly needed. Leaders often think that by implementing a bunch of processes, they will improve things but this often doesn’t happen and the result is the opposite effect of what you wanted. We aim to be fluid as an organization because nowadays work is highly unpredictable.

As a start, I think it’s really important to escape from the parent-child mindset with which we’re often raised and learned in our early years at school and work. It’s often the only way we know when it comes to how to operate in the world. It’s like a rabbit hole, once you get there, it’s very hard to leave because it’s a self-reinforcing loop.

As leaders, we often feel that we need to fix things and take care of the team all the time. When you reinforce this mindset by acting like a parent, the people in the company will also reinforce their mindset of being like children that need saving and taken care of.

So, as leaders, we first need to learn how to let go of that mindset and the need to have control. Then, learn how to distribute decision making in the whole organization. We need to stop trying to give advice all the time and start asking others what they think. And, simply be part of the team — go for the peer-to-peer relationship rather than the parent-child one.

This has been my personal experience with leadership. I have tried the other way and it just doesn’t work — at some point, you’d burn out. When you create a structure that is more inclusive and distributed and everyone takes ownership — it’s easier, more fulfilling for everyone and just a more sane leadership.

Well, as a parent if you want your kids to grow into self-sufficient human beings, you don’t try to control them or tell them what to do all the time. You allow them to fall on the ground, to get up on their own — you don’t need to constantly be there as a guardian angel but let them learn by themselves.

The same is true for being a leader and you need to catch yourself when you slip into that savior mindset and always try to help.

For example, when somebody asks me what they should do in some situation — my usual response is what do you think you should do.

Here it’s very important that you make the distinction between whether somebody is asking for advice because they lack the experience or because they want approval and validation. It’s the same question but coming from two different places — the first actually needs advice and mentoring while the second would need coaching or just a peer to peer conversation.

I believe that people are creative by default. What usually stops creativity is the bureaucracy we introduce in organizations. We put all these rules and rigidness and structure — this just kills creativity. On the contrary, the more you allow for spontaneous thoughts to emerge, the more creativity you’ll get.

I come from animation studios — there it’s really important to set the right vision — the role of the director in a movie is a really important one. They’re not the boss but the people who communicate the vision. As long as everyone is clear on what we’re all doing, then we all go in the same direction.

There are many ways and books on how to set vision but the important point I want to make is that you should include the team in the process and organize them to come to a shared vision together.

This is a really important question, especially in today’s environment with everything going on around us — I feel like people are more exhausted, burned out, and stressed than ever before. Everybody is going through some rough times at home, at work — so we need to be much more empathic, caring, and basically patient with each other.

At Camplight, we constantly talk about mental health and we even developed a free tool everyone can use — it’s called Moodlight. It’s a software that allows teams to map their emotions and make them visible to everyone. It’s a much safer way to be open. We use Moodlight prior to every meeting we have at Camplight to better understand people’s emotions and spot if somebody is not feeling okay so that we can be mindful about this.

It’s an interesting question because recently I’ve been trying to stop evaluating success with external factors. I am trying not to pay too much attention to things outside of my control.

The orientedness towards goals and results is another self-reinforcing loop. We often think that something external needs to happen in order for us to feel happy. However, happiness is an internal state. I know a lot of super successful people who are just miserable.

So, I am currently trying to change my mindset on this topic and it’s a long process. But the only thing I try to really care about is my health and the health of everybody around me. As long as I am alive and healthy, I think I can enjoy my life.

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