“I had literally just joined as CEO when we had to go into Covid lockdown”
Today we continue looking at leadership examples:
Leadership Examples: Starting as new CEO during Covid
Your first day as the new CEO of a company is always tough.
What if that day coincides with Covid, and you have to lead your 250 new employees from home?
Today we’re looking at more leadership examples: Meet Yann Lechelle, who got an unexpected start as he joined his 250 new colleagues.
After Yann played a key role as COO in French AI start-up Snips being acquired by Sonos for $37 million, he continued to tap into his entrepreneurial passion.
He found himself drawn to Scaleway. The fast-growing European cloud infrastructure provider had been led by Arnaud de Bermingham, its founder, for the last 15 years.
As the business grew to deliver services to clients in over 160 countries, they set out to increase their growing market share.
Yann entered as CEO, side by side with Arnaud who became Chairman and President.
Then Covid-19 knocked on the door.
“On my very first day I had it clear that I wanted to put our people first”, says Yann.
At Scaleway some of our teams are based in their offices and others in the massive data centers where the physical infrastructure is.
“There we host over 130 000 servers, petabytes of storage, all linked by kilometres of cables. As with all mechanical parts, they need replacing, so we do a lot of meticulous maintenance, continuously. Since we are constantly adding capacity, this part of our activity is critically key to our operations”, he continues.
“I really wanted to understand each group and the dependencies. So the first thing I did was to start meeting all of our people.”
150 interviews, and then…
Yann did 150 interviews, in groups of up to 7, in one hour slots.
“I didn’t organize this by the anticipation of the upcoming Covid lockdown”, he says with a smile from his home office in Paris.
“My reaction as I joined was just that I needed to meet everyone.“
France, like many other European countries, has been hard-hit by the pandemic. Just a few days after joining as CEO, the majority of the employees had to work from home.
As a digital company, Scaleway was ideally suited to make the transition.
Even so, Yann quickly realized a key point:
“If people are going to be telecommuting and it’s not by choice, you have to provide them with a proper working environment. Not everyone had the right equipment at home. So we promptly dispatched 27-inch secondary monitors to everyone who needed one for example.”
Circles instead of organizational chart
The 150 interviews were useful as they made Yann understand the human architecture of his company. And where to focus:
“I decided that HR was core, and designed a plan to clarify things: The Scaleway CORE.”
As the company had grown fast, there was no formal organizational chart.
Yann decided against building one, creating one in his head only.
Instead, he reorganized teams around concentric circles. He wanted everyone to identify what their role was within the organization in order to create stability, excellence, and business relevance.
The circle also created a sense of inclusivity, something which he felt needed to be reinforced.
He put a particular focus on where the outside forces were.
“The market has a tremendous influence and impact on what we do. When you build tech you have to move rapidly, but you move according to a pace defined by the roadmap. The market does not follow that pace.“
“You need to create some structured distance between the two paces, a sort of asynchronous tempo, and proper feedback loops so that the teams on the market side can feed the technical side, which in turn feeds sales and marketing with products that will sell. This cycle is well understood by mono-product startups. But in our case, we have 3 product universes and over 20 sub-products.”
What matters to Yann, short term is to rebalance the energy.
A new team had to be created: they named it Excellence. Their role is to make sure there is a healthy flow between the market side (external) and tech side (internal).
They assume a role of interpretation and typically handle customer assistance, as well as trust and safety issues between the market and the tech.
“So this was my first dive in. To get to know people, what they do, and the 20 different types of jobs or so we have here.”
Yann’s next leadership step was to make sure they get the customer and the market right.
We’ve been shy about telecommuting
As soon as the teams were confined to their homes due to Covid-19, the company put emphasis on finding the right habits:
“I was brought in to expand and build on what the previous CEO and now President had built. It’s different to join a company when something isn’t working and your task is crisis management or change management for example. Here my role is to tweak and amplify an already well-functioning team.”
“As leaders, we need to maintain and reinforce our rituals. In confinement, we needed to work very much like before. We used tech to maintain rituals, and also to create new ones.”
So for the first time in the company’s history, they organized a gigantic release planning effort online with hundreds of virtual post-it notes. The second quarter was entirely planned online. The experiment was deemed as almost more efficient than before.
“This demonstrated great opportunities about working remotely!”, says Yann, noticeably excited.
In the past Scaleway has been shy about telecommuting. Remote working is typically the exception, and only a few employees had somehow managed to set up telecommuting here and there, in a non-official way.
“The situation forces us to consider the possibilities seriously now… perhaps we can become that company that can implement it in a way that makes sense at scale. It will take some careful thinking, planning, training and tooling, but many want this new way of working.”
He pauses a second and then adds:
“We are social animals though. We need to meet in person from time to time. I would hate for us to become socially distant in a permanent manner.”
More connected now than ever
Scaleway has a physical heritage: they’re anchored in the physical, through their data centers.
Yann’s feeling is that they’re more connected to the data center workers than ever.
“If they are not cared for and get the right sanitary masks and gels, if we don’t organize their workload and physical space, they will be prone to get the infection or be worried about going to work. So I feel extremely connected to them, and so does the rest of the team.“
“We are all in the same boat, just not on the same deck.”
“The distance somehow reinforced relationships and social mesh. In France, most people go out to clap at their window at 8pm every day. We clap to celebrate and encourage our health workers, but also to socially reconnect through analogue synchronicity and sound.”
“From a societal point of view, it’s interesting to witness that technology helped maintain the social bond that unites us all. I don’t know how this will transcend post-confinement but there is something very powerful there.“
This COVID-19 virus tells us that we are in fact extremely social. The virus spreads precisely because of that, and there is something revealing about it,“ says Yann.
Tech can be an enabler for many, or a blocker for some.
Leadership examples: Social impact
Scaleway’s business has continued to grow during Covid.
They were able to handle the increase in traffic, and follow their business plan, focusing on people first.
They are also anchored in society as a key utility service and infrastructure.
“Our goal is not just to slap a multiple on our revenue and grow that way; we need to find our place in the social fabric and have an impact. We deliver essential tech for our society. In fact, within a few days of confinement, an essential need arose for back-up videoconference solutions. Our teams promptly reacted and thought they could build a solution rapidly, but also offer it to anyone who needed it. When an initiative is genuine and we can really help, I naturally allow it to thrive.”
Indeed, the company put together the Ensemble at Scaleway solution using open source video conferencing and deployed on hundreds of their servers, resulting in a free videoconferencing solution for all.
All open-source, with a focus on privacy and users such as the French educational system.
“We did this within 2 days of confinement. Thousands of people now use our tool daily, sometimes thousands of people at any given time. We are not a provider of video conferencing but we have powerful datacenter resources with tremendous bandwidth. We saw a chance to step up, and so we did.”
Back to the Office!
“I was very much looking forward to meeting and greet our datacenters’ teams. I didn’t get to do this before we went into confinement”, says Yann.
His leadership priority will remain the same under lockdown as when they’re in the office: make sure communication keeps happening so they can continue to scale.
To think about the hard problems and what prevents the organization from scaling.
“The more time I spend on getting feedback from our teams, the clearer the picture gets”, he says.
Yann believes in interacting with everyone on every topic. He considers himself a generalist and an entrepreneur, but with deep technical roots. He started coding when he was 10 years old, in the 80s.
“I try to go deep on pretty much every topic, but I always keep the business in mind. I typically do not micromanage, but I need to get a strong sense of the underlying operations before I can fully delegate.“
“Leaders need to literally state in which direction to go. And I can only give a direction if my analysis has been guided by information and knowledge that people have entrusted me with. That trust is a capital that you can build over time, but you can lose rapidly if you are not careful.”
Yann’s experience is that people appreciate leadership more than management; leadership is when a strong direction can be given and explained.
Not everyone will agree, but generally, if it is explained with conviction, then it is worth following that direction. Reversely, changing directions often can be catastrophic as a certain degree of coherence is expected.
“I am also happy to agree to disagree. That produces powerful and healthy conversations. As a business, we need a direction that is aligned with our visions, statements, etc. My vision piggybacks and builds on top of the amazing work accomplished by Arnaud and the team well over a decade.“
“I have a lot of respect for legacy.”
How do people feel at work? We need data
“Other signals I want to pick up on is to get the Celpax kiosk survey to capture how people feel at work, to get a beat like we did at Snips. If one worksite is happy and pressing a lot of green, what does it mean? How can we translate that and move to other Scaleway sites?”
When the mood is down, Yann wants to ask the right questions.
This will be part of their tools, to capture the impact of daily and monthly activities. Yann feels that their business need to be more data-driven:
“Which we actually aren’t that much, taking into account that we harness data. We can go so much further. People data will give us insights into what we do”.
The CEO recently started doing frequent All-staff meeting every second Friday. It takes a bit of time but it’s a format he wants to keep.
They do 15 minutes where Yann speaks, and then 15 minutes of Questions & Answers where he’ll bring on guests from the team depending on the questions.
These sessions will be virtual even after the lockdown is over.
I expected something different
Reflecting on his time so far as CEO, it is safe to say that Yann’s days have been full every single day. There is a lot of learning even at the best of times as you join as a leader.
Yann joined during the Covid-19 pandemic AND started leading his team of 250 employees from home. An interesting leadership example, right?
So what has surprised him the most?
What has been the most fun? After a brief moment, a big smile emerges:
“Our team is… extremely friendly. I feel very lucky because I expected a group that would have been more stoic or jaded by the industrial constraints,“ he says with a laugh.
“Instead, I met a bunch of passionate geeks, product professionals, and all-around nice people, at all levels.”
And the people was actually one of the main reasons why Yann joined, as he felt there was a match.
“I felt like I could help Arnaud build up the company, he had done so pretty much alone for the best of 15 years.”
“I love my job, I love the tech ecosystem and we are almost like a start-up within a large group. We face the typical issues that hyper-scalers have but what I love the most is that we produce fundamental tech that enables modern society.”
Yann is back to his roots.
Interested in setting your own leadership examples? Measure employee morale with a Celpax device. Create a better workplace
Hej! I’m Rebecca, co-founder at Celpax. We manufacture simple tech tools to improve workplaces. And build a better society while at it. Your 1st device to measure employee morale is free. Got more positive leadership examples? Let’s talk on Twitter.