7 Lessons I Learnt as COO

Earlier this year I celebrated the 3 year anniversary of being the SKU Cloud COO. A job I got the same month I turned 24. It’s been a wild ride of ups and downs, struggles, laughter and everything in between. I wanted to mark the occasion by listing a few of the things this experience has taught me.

Everybody wants to do their best.

Nobody wakes up in the morning thinking that they want to do a really bad job, we all like to feel useful, good at what we do, and like we are making a contribution. As humans, a lot of the time we jump to conclusions, that when somebody does something or doesn’t do something it’s because a) they have some intrinsic flaw (lazy, evil, malicious, stupid) or b) they have a personal vendetta against us. From what I’ve seen, neither is the case with most situations. If people do something you wouldn’t have done, or don’t do something you would have done a lot of the time it’s because they don’t have the knowledge or information you have (you know why they should be doing something, but you haven’t explained the why to them, and because they lack that information they might disagree with the course of action enough to not follow it), they have information you don’t have (you aren’t aware of another factor which if you knew might alter your own course of action) or they lack motivation (this is hard to achieve, so a lot has to go wrong before you end up here). Before you jump to a conclusion about somebody, try to approach the problem with empathy, put yourself in their shoes, and try to understand where their decisions are coming from — you might learn something yourself.

People will do boring stuff, if you manage it properly.

It’s hard keeping your team when you need them to work on something you know is boring, but you can get people to do really boring stuff, for a long time, as long as they understand why they are doing it, how important it is, and keep the communication lines open. Everybody has parts of their job that just aren’t fun, they are mundane, repetitive, boring, if you also feel like they are insignificant you will stop enjoying your job. Ensuring that people understand why the boring stuff is necessary allows you to keep the team motivated. You revisiting what the boring stuff is, allows you to constantly check that it is actually necessary. Keeping the communication lines open means you can figure out better ways of doing things, more creative things to do elsewhere, things that can be experimented with and so forth. Keeping your team in today’s very competitive job market is difficult, so don’t make it harder for yourself, keep people informed about why what you’re asking of them is a requirement.

Communication is the never ending struggle.

The amount of problems that we could solve if we managed to talk to each other! If every rant actually lead to a constructive conversation every aspect of our life would be more efficient (both personal and work related). Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to quite fit with human nature and that’s a shame but it shouldn’t prevent us from striving towards it. Encourage communication when possible, not pointless or aimless meetings (and no reason to schedule them to last an hour), but prove to everybody over time that nobody in the team is an enemy and that we are all working towards the same goal, the reasons we all push back on things are reasonable and if we all talk together we can come up with better solutions, understand each other better, and achieve more. Lack of communication and visibility demotivates everybody and makes targets harder to hit. It’s never a solved problem, but try to put things in place to make it as easy as possible to communicate on every level. An us vs. them attitude sometimes creeps into different teams — communication helps get everybody on the same page and understand that there’re no enemies, only challenges to overcome and make your product the best it can be with all the restrictions that will inevitable be there.

Humour is important.

Laugh. Things get tough, certain conversations are not going to fun no matter what you do, some responsibilities you just want to shrug off but can’t. No matter who you are in an organisation not all days will be easy and pleasant. Keeping that in mind, it is important to understand how much easier humour can make things, it breaks the ice at the beginning of meetings, it relieves the tension in a difficult discussion, it points out the funny in a very difficult situation. Never underestimate the value of humour. The less it seems like the right time for it, the most it’s needed; when things get ridiculously hard, the ridiculousness of it should be pointed out and laughed at, to put things into perspective, to help you gather your thoughts, to get everybody into thinking gear and working together on the next challenge yet again.

Take care of your own mental health

There’s no point in burning yourself out, no point in working yourself ragged, because the workflow will never ease off, it never becomes manageable. Focusing on what’s important, being able to prioritise well, being able to delegate without micromanaging, being able to break up an impossible missions in doable chunks of work — those are things that will help you in the long run, but sometimes it’s hard to see that, sometimes it seems like you are the only one able to do what needs to be done and there are 3000 different tasks on your to-do list which are all crucially important. Take a deep breath, sometimes the best thing you can do is simply stop and find your inner balance — read a book, run a bath, play with your children, take a walk, listen to a podcast about Vikings. Re-set. Sometimes when you think you need to work your hardest you actually need to just stop, figure out what’s important and then head back in again. Taking care of yourself by sleeping well, eating well, keeping yourself active and surrounding yourself with friends & family will bring many benefits to your work-life too. Value yourself.

Try to be present.

100s of emails, requests, chat notifications, red dots on open applications and emotions every day — it’s easy to burn out, feel anxious and stressed. Try to be present, even when the whole world feels like it’s going to crumble, you can only ever deal with one thing at a time, so do that. One thing at a time, getting your undivided attention, with you being present, getting to understand the situation, listening to others and then making decisions and moving onto the next thing. We’ve build a world full of distractions and it’s easy to fall prey to it, but if you want to be in control of your time and your life, learning focus and presence is a must. What’s the point of having a meeting if you’re checking your emails? What’s the point of putting out fires the whole day every day when you never make time to plant a single new tree? Sometimes it feels like drowning is the only option, but embrace your limitations and just be present in whatever you’re doing.

Don’t hit send.

Much easier followed in emails than in person, but do try. Sometimes it’s tough not getting angry, seeing red and acting on it. I’ve yet to follow that course of action with positive results. Whenever you give into that urge you take so many steps back it takes you ages to recover. So when somebody ruins the work you’ve spent ages doing, when somebody infuriates you beyond belief, when somebody hurts you — sit back, take a breath, recover from it first and take actions once you know you can be calm and are able to listen and work through the aftermath of whatever happened together. There is no point in finger pointing, blaming one another, and generally having regrets — allow yourself some time to recover and re-coup, acknowledge what’s happened and try to move on. Make the best out of a bad situation, try to find new solutions to new problems. Nobody is going to give you a trophy for getting angry and blaming others, but you might be surprised how many advantages you come across if you rise above it and manage to make a right out it. Lastly, don’t forget, it’s exactly the most difficult situations that can be most educational — try to understand what went wrong and fix that too.

All of the above is much easier said than done; emotional intelligence, empathy, endurance, stress management, having a positive attitude, not giving up and finding humour in the unfunny are all difficult things, but that shouldn’t deter us from trying to achieve them.

About the author

Steph Fiala is the COO of Skucloud.co.uk which offers private discounts on Amazon.co.ukproducts, SKU Cloud also powers white label native e-commerce solutions to help large businesses further monetize their online audience. In her free time Steph reads, walks, listens to a lot of TED talks, occasionally cooks and if given the possibility jumps into water.