Jeff Wichman of Semperis: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team
Empathy: I believe authentic leadership is founded on compassion for the team. We need to understand what struggles people have within the workplace as well in their personal lives. Everything should not be 100% work in my team’s life. They may have spouses, kids, elderly parents, or any other type of personal matters in their lives that is impacting their ability to focus on work. It is not important that I know details, but we as leaders must consider what someone else may be going through.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Wichman, Director of Incident Response of Semperis.
Jeff Wichman is an experienced Incident Response Practice leader with a demonstrated history of working in the computer and network security industry. At Semperis, he leads a team of six incident response employees. Before Semperis, he held senior leadership positions at Palo Alto Networks, Optiv, FishNet Security and more. A graduate of Norwich University, Jeff knows what it takes to scale, manage and lead a team effectively.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Thanks so much for having me take part in this.
My backstory is typical from a career progression perspective. I had a mix of managers and leaders throughout my career. I have learned something from every one of them. There were micro-managers that could not let their team thrive, grow, or get recognition. And there were leaders that encouraged, challenged, and believed in their team.
One of my favorite leaders from my past, I think, really gave me my first break. He, SS, did not have a background in digital forensics or incident response but was brought in to help build the team. He did not pretend to know heads from tails of what we did. SS didn’t hide it, let us teach him, and gave us feedback on how to improve.
Honestly, I think this was the best thing for the team. He didn’t have expectations for the team other than to build us up. He would find what was working and exploit that to improve the areas that were not. When it came time for recognition from the company leadership, SS would step aside and give recognition to the team. Most importantly, when someone messed up and a client or internal leadership was upset, SS would step in front of it and take responsibility for it. Sure, we would have a discussion afterward, but he never let anyone feel like they were ‘the problem or cause’ of the issue.
Looking back over my years, SS in practice was honestly one of the highlights of my entire career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting stories from my career always seem to come from the managers that believed they were leaders. I had one VP call me into the office for three days of meetings. Even though I worked from a home office for over five years at this point, the trips to the office were normal. I packed my bags for the next week, got on a plane and headed to the office. I was not entirely certain what we were scheduled to talk about. This VP did not know my service lines or business, so I thought I would be educating him on everything we did.
Monday morning, when I got to the office, I did my usual rounds, just walking around to chat with as many people as possible . It did not matter what their role was at the company; I just really enjoyed chatting with people on a personal level. I truly believe this simple act of kindness helped me clear obstacles and advance my team faster.
After my rounds, I headed to the office I labeled as my traveling office. I worked until lunch and had not heard anything from the VP. I double-checked my calendar to make sure I had all the specifics right. I was in the right place at the right time, but I had not heard from him. Around two in the afternoon, I emailed him to find out if everything was alright. Maybe he was delayed on a flight and would be in the next day? I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt.
The response told me everything about his leadership style: “I did not feel like traveling.” I vowed I would never do that to one of my teammates. It is important to respect your team and their families. This VP completely disregarded that I had to rearrange family schedules and commitments. To this day, I always make a point that family comes first with everyone on my team.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made after taking a leadership role was related to a project manager (PM) that was joining my team after the previous PM left the organization.
Based on our work, the PM was a critical role and was often one of the first people my clients would meet. The company posted the position internally, and an intern, JP, applied for the role. My two service managers interviewed him and provided me with feedback.
When I finally had a video chat with JP, I was worried he would be over his head and drop the ball on engagements. I even recall telling both of my service managers that he would not last. JP was still in college and had zero knowledge of my business line, much less technology. If I recall correctly, his job before joining the company was as a tennis instructor. He was young, green, and about to get in way over his head.
About a month after he joined the team, I went into headquarters and officially met him face-to-face. JP’s desk was covered in Post-It Notes. He was tracking everything related to our business that he had access to. Every current engagement was listed on a Post-It Notes. JP had even found engagements that were still open, but technically completed well before I took my role as the director, which meant we had never officially recognized the revenue. He was hungry to learn our business line and quickly became one of my trusted advisors.
I don’t think I could have survived if JP had not joined the team. During this time, we had awesome revenue growth, new ideas for our services, and standardization of project management was critical to our success. I firmly believe the success of my time in that position was the direct result of my entire team, specifically my managers and JP. That experience solidified my belief in giving everyone a shot and not judging a person by their looks, experience, or background.
I think that was the funniest mistake when first starting because I thought I knew it all and could tell JP wasn’t fit for our team. I was dead wrong. In fact, JP went on to further develop his career and prove he was a leader in incident response at other companies.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?
I would 100% agree with that statement. I would leave an organization in a heartbeat if the management were lackluster.
In my opinion, the best way to retain great talent is two-fold. The first thing is to respect your team/employees. I can tell when a manager/leader respects their people, and most employees can tell too. Toxicity will invade your team once people believe they are not respected.
The second is to believe in them and challenge them. Everyone’s challenge will be unique and requires effort on your part to build their confidence, take on a new challenge, take constructive feedback or help them with something else in their personal life.
I also only believe in retaining talent to a certain extent. When my rockstar employees come to me to tell me they are thinking about leaving, I work with them to weigh the options if the move is better for their career or if they are just frustrated with their current work-life. If the next position is a career launch point or the right next step, I fully support them in their transition.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
That can be difficult, especially when large teams are located all over the world and there are different cultures at play. There are likely multiple forms that synchronization can happen in a situation where it is a large team or, for that matter, a global team.
However you chose to sync, there are three key factors at play. First off, it is important to know your team. Not from just a business level but from a personal connection. Do they have a family? What do they do for fun? What do they want to do this weekend? I like to have my first meetings with my individual contributors specifically focused on getting to know them. After that, every 30-minute meeting with them, the first 15–20 minutes is about them and what they need.
The second is to communicate with the team. Your team needs a clear direction and set of goals to understand how they fit into the company’s or your department’s visions and goals. From my past employers, the ones where I heard the most from leadership on the true goals, status, struggles, challenges and needs of the organization, I felt more engaged in how I could help the company achieve our goals.
The final factor is listen to your team. What do they feel they are doing well? What are they struggling with? How can you clear roadblocks for them? Listen before you do anything.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)
- Empathy: I believe authentic leadership is founded on compassion for the team. We need to understand what struggles people have within the workplace as well in their personal lives. Everything should not be 100% work in my team’s life. They may have spouses, kids, elderly parents, or any other type of personal matters in their lives that is impacting their ability to focus on work. It is not important that I know details, but we as leaders must consider what someone else may be going through.
- Trust & believe in each of your team members: As leaders, we need to trust the team we assembled and believe they are working their best. I always trust and believe that everyone is giving 100% to the team until proven otherwise. Until a distinct pattern indicates an issue, I try to forgo any rash decisions. In my first leadership role I completely had it reversed. I thought most people were slacking to some extent. I had a couple of guys that really put a lot of effort into what they did but others seemed like they were not pulling their case load. I had grand expectations for the team and our services. I did everything I could think of to push them harder. This is one of my biggest regrets. I was lucky and had another great advisor outside my team that made me do some critical thinking and had discussions with me on the entire topic of performance variations between people.
- Regular and open communication: This goes for everyone on a team, not just the leader. Communication is a must for organizations and individuals. I like to provide information to my team once it has been cleared and authorized to be shared. Obviously, sometimes as leaders, we are unable to share details, so there is a right time, right place that must be considered. I have worked for companies that share monthly, quarterly, and semi-annual updates. Based on what I like and hear from my employers is we need, at a minimum, a monthly update on how the company is doing, what the state of the economy looks like, and general areas we might need to focus on or improve. The worst communication I have seen from companies is the “everything is great” and then a week later, a reduction in force of any type.
I prefer to have a team meeting once per week and direct one-on-one meetings with my individual team members on a weekly basis (if possible). There are always things that need to be shared with the team. If there is nothing company related during the team meeting, I like to have teammates provide updates on items they are working on. It helps paint the larger picture for everyone to get an idea of where our specific branch is going.
As for my one-on-one meetings, 80% focuses on what the individual needs and 20% on feedback for them. I would rather allow them this time to speak freely while I actively listen. I think it provides a better engagement model since no one wants to listen to their leader/manager/boss ramble on about nothing but work. There are days when we may even never talk about work during a meeting. I prefer that unless there is an obstacle, they need help with. Leaving that 20% remainder is important, though, so I can help them develop their longer-term career/goals.
- Ability to delegate effectively: In my opinion, having the ability (and confidence) to delegate can be a challenge for new leaders. I continue to see leaders delegate some tasks and then continue to micro-control the path to the objective. The only way we can build the next line of leaders is by setting examples, letting them take control, and monitoring the progress is. If it gets off track, simply work with the lead to refocus on what the original request was. A great example of a successful delegation from my experience was in upgrading one of our service offerings. One of my teammates, MD, really thrived at providing clients tabletop exercises for incident response. We were originally less structured on running these tabletops, and everyone followed the basic structure with their own details. Since MD was strong at everything and great at documenting, he was tasked with rebuilding the offering with much more structure. I cannot recall if I asked him to do this or if it was something he came to me with. If I had to guess it would be the latter. MD was great at leading people, clients, and documentation. This was one of those easy ones where I could trust him to get it done.
- Willingness to ‘go to bat for’ your team: If you are not willing to go to bat for your team the moment a complaint comes in, you are doing things wrong. When I was still early in my leadership journey, I had a new boss join the organization. Almost immediately he was looking to reduce the workforce across our entire services organization. I was a small part of that organization with close to ten people. Other service lines had hundreds of people. Everyone on my team was busy with work and performing up to my standards. He pulled me aside and said I needed to put someone on the list. Being somewhat new in my role, I immediately said no without taking even a moment to think about it (which looking back might have been a little too direct). However, after a little research, I was able to show my team was increasing our revenues, we had a list of projects to complete across the entire group and no one on my team was underperforming. Other service lines had staff sitting on the bench, were reducing their revenue forecasts, and had some of their team that were not performing to that team’s standards. Within a day of my blanket “no,” I followed up with this manager that it was not advisable to remove anyone from the incident response team along with my justifications.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
This is something that I got to experience when joining Semperis. When I originally met with the CEO, we spoke about the position that needed to be filled. However, the main focus was more on who I was, my interests, and what I did for life outside of work. This was refreshing because I felt the tone was being set from the top that who I was, was more important that what my resume/LinkedIn profile said.
When looking for leadership for an organization, I think it’s important that leaders go beyond looking at resumes, information from recruiters or what is on LinkedIn. The time spent getting to know your leaders from an individual ‘fit’ perspective is just as important as their experience.
The leaders/employees you bring in will be a direct extension/reflection of your company. Once they are in, give them the direction you want them to take things and allow them the space and opportunity to build it. Sure, sometimes you will need to course correct them or make changes, but guide them on the journey so that they can make a difference in their career and life. The dedication they will give your company will be tenfold.
I also think having a mission everyone can get behind is very important. Semperis is a mission driven company that helps organizations, and society, fight back against cyberattacks. We understand that cyberattacks don’t just harm companies, they impact people. Combining a desire to protect people — our customers, employees, and communities — while being a force for good in the world, that’s a mission we can all get behind.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I believe simple acts of kindness is the easiest to bring about change. Next time you’re ordering a coffee, buy one for the person behind you. Don’t do it every day, do it randomly. I like to do the surprise pay for someone’s coffee in line or the drive-thru. The impact on their day can be profound. I have seen people come into the office after something as simple as this, and they have a happy step to their stride throughout the day. Even going as far as saying hello to someone while walking down the street. That might be all they need to turn their day around. Everyone deserves happiness and each person’s version of happiness is unique to them. You will run into individuals who might seem angry or unaccepting of your kindness, which is okay. Simply move on and do not allow them to control your happiness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
From “50 Life Lessons from an 80-Year-Old-Man” — Never deprive someone of hope; it might be all they have.
This goes back to simple acts of kindness. I always try to see the good in people. In today’s world more and more people are struggling. You don’t have to be rich, wealthy, or well off to have a positive impact on someone. I also try to keep it real with anyone I am trying to help. The ball is in their court to move forward. I can help line them up to hit the target, but they need to be the one to hit the target.
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Thank you for these great insights, and for the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success.