The smartest thing you can do is hire the right people — I can’t stress this enough. Surround yourself with people that make you better — a better employee, better boss, better teacher, etc. Hiring people that you trust and believe in, will make your day-to-day work life so much more efficient. Culture is so important to us at Plenty of Fish. We are very lucky that we not only have incredible talent, but lovely people that you want to “muck in” and put in the work with.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate Manolis.
A long-time employee at Plenty of Fish, Kate has spent the past 12 years helping drive the company to be one of the world’s largest and most popular dating apps, now available in 11 languages in more than 20 countries. She has held a variety of critical roles at the fast-growing brand, and as COO, she is proud to work with one of North America’s most talented engineering teams to drive innovation with creative strategies that have powered Plenty of Fish’s growth to a member base of over 150 million.
Dedicated to Plenty of Fish’s continued transformation, Kate and team embrace and invest in new technologies to help reduce the pressures of dating.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I fell into tech completely by accident, starting in a junior role at a small tech company in the early 2000s. It was at this company that I’d met the founder of Plenty of Fish, who at that time was a young developer. We connected mainly because we were two of the most junior people at the company and because we both struggled to understand many inefficiencies around us. I stayed and grew with that company for 5 years until 2008, at which point I was invited to join Plenty of Fish to help it scale.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are countless interesting things that have happened at Plenty of Fish since I began working here. I suppose the most interesting thing, looking back, is how we were able to run a company of Plenty of Fish’s scale with so few people. Over the past decade we went from a tiny company of less than 15 employees, to being one of the largest global online dating companies, available in 11 languages and more than 20 countries.
The online dating landscape has changed so significantly in the time I’ve worked for Plenty of Fish as well — back in 2008 there was still quite a bit of stigma associated with online dating. Initially, my friends and family responded to my new job with “Oh…why?” and now people respond with “Oh…WOW!”. To have lived and worked through that transition has been fascinating. Initially, there was a lot of uncertainty and judgement around online dating, and people who met their match online were often reluctant to share how they actually met. Now, meeting your partner online is more common than not, and people love hearing about others’ experiences and successes with online dating — every single day we hear about dates, relationships and marriages (and lots of babies, too!) that all began on Plenty of Fish. That’s why I love working here so much — our business is all about connecting people.
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?
In the beginning, Plenty of Fish was incredibly lean and every person needed to wear many hats, myself included. During my tenure, I’ve managed HR, Customer Care, Public Relations, Advertising, Marketing, Finance and Accounting, plus any M&A activity. I was always faced with learning some new skill and at times, it felt insurmountable. But I’ve always surprised myself with my capacity to learn new and complex things, quickly. Small mistakes are bound to happen, and did happen, but the overall growth has been incredibly rewarding. One fun example — since we grew so fast our onboarding process had to keep up. I don’t think our new hires expected it to be quite so “hands on” — we’d order furniture and ended up all pitching in to put it together! There is nothing like assembling a workspace (without an official IT Team) to unify a team.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful to the founder of Plenty of Fish for having trust in me and providing guidance during his tenure. I am also grateful to my husband who has been there as a support, a sounding board, and an advisor for so many years.
As I think about my career, I know things could have been so much easier and clearer if I had someone act as a mentor to me. Because of my own personal experience, providing mentorship to leaders at Plenty of Fish is important to me. Since day one we’ve worked tirelessly to make sure we have a strong, vibrant culture where people feel supported at all levels and all stages of their career development. We’ve built Plenty of Fish to not only be one of the most successful companies in Canada, but also a company that people stay at and grow their careers.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
If I have time, a good long run or a walk will get my mind in the right place. I find physical activity incredibly helpful in stress management. It is tough to find time to exercise with a busy schedule, so another thing that works for me is preparation and positive thinking. What’s the best way to approach the situation? Who are the stakeholders? What are they trying to accomplish, and how can I help them? Thinking ahead and preparing puts my mind at ease. Especially during these unprecedented times it’s so important to be adaptable — over the past few months I’ve focused a lot on ensuring all current employees are feeling supported, and that future employees think of Plenty of Fish as a place they really want to work at. I am also stimulated by a good discussion and I like being challenged, so as long as I’m prepared, I am comfortable.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Working with people from different backgrounds will ensure more creative, innovative ideas and approaches, while also helping to maintain or gain a competitive advantage. Although we’re headquartered in Canada, Plenty of Fish is a global company — with members based all around the world, it’s essential that our team is diverse so that we can provide the best member experience. There is heaps of data on how diverse teams make better decisions. I am proud to work for an organization that has strong female leadership — our CEO is a woman and the CEO at our parent company, Match Group, is also a woman. Having two women in very senior + public roles is something that I share proudly and continues to shape the organization. Our product also serves a lot of women — the fact that we have women at the top making direct product decisions is something that is really important to me and the larger Plenty of Fish team.
We also have members from all walks of life — we are not a one-size-fits-all company and our members aren’t one-size-fits-all either. In a recent employee engagement survey our focus on diversity and inclusion was ranked as one of the highest in relation to employee satisfaction. That’s something we really welcome and try to nurture — it’s what makes Plenty of Fish what it is today.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
A truly inclusive, representative and equitable society can feel like a distant dream, but I am hopeful that with ongoing learning and commitment, we are getting closer and closer to this dream becoming a reality. At Plenty of Fish we are continuing to learn, grow, and think critically on current events and our own values as a culture and a company. We’ve created a D&I (Diversity & Inclusion) committee to ensure we continue to learn about our employees’ experiences and to guide our policies and culture. We proudly run an annual engagement survey where we aim to identify things we do well, and those that need to be addressed. These confidential surveys are a great way to understand what our employees are thinking and improve on their experience.
For any initiative in this sphere to be effective and take a permanent hold, we need to create awareness and understanding. Prejudices have to be acknowledged in order to be overcome. Society must become familiar with people, opinions, and ideas that are not the same as their own. Enabling people to ask questions without fear of judgement, so that open and honest conversations can be held is critical.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A great executive is someone who is capable of recognizing opportunity and setting a vision for their organization or function. They are able to align their teams on a goal and motivate them to accomplish those goals. It’s less about monitoring work or assigning tasks, and more about empowerment.
Throughout my career, I’ve realized that the most rewarding part of my job is not about things like getting to inbox zero or how many items I manage to check off my to-do list — it’s about reaching collective goals and bringing out the best in my teams. A great executive is someone who has a vision but trusts their team to execute on that vision to make it stronger and even better.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth is that an executive is the “best” at everything. This is absolutely not the case with any executive I’ve ever met. An executive is a person who is able to derive the best ideas possible from the team of professionals they work with and properly empower and motivate them to deliver on goals.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenge remains that women still face gender roles and the difficult balance between work and family.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I started this job 12 years ago. I would say I did not imagine Plenty of Fish reaching the scale that it has. When I joined, it was a website run out of an apartment — and I was the first employee. Back then, online dating was barely a part of our cultural lexicon. We had a lot of work to do in relation to changing peoples’ minds (and hearts).
7 years later, Plenty of Fish would become Canada’s 4th biggest tech exit. And certainly, I would say at that time, I did not think I would end up being an executive at a subsidiary of a $30bn company. I still can’t believe how much the company has grown and how much our team has put in to make Plenty of Fish what it is today.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Anyone can aspire to be an executive — but skills like perseverance, integrity, intelligence and patience are the main qualities that an executive should possess in my mind. Often grouped together as “emotional intelligence”, these traits are what separate the good executives from the great ones. I’m thankful that in recent years, there has been a lot more of a focus on developing and praising “soft skills” when it comes to the C-suite. If someone is dishonest, self-serving and narrow-minded, or focuses only on the numbers and doesn’t care about people, they should not lead people and organizations. An executive needs to be someone that is both admired, respected, but also trusted — and they should be a true embodiment of company values.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Well to start, leadership advice for men and women shouldn’t be all that different. My advice to leaders or aspiring leaders, is to always try to understand the perspectives of others. Ideas shouldn’t exist in a funnel — that’s why we continue to see organizations discussing their “flat structure.” In my experience, some of the best ideas come from the least expected places. That’s why it’s really important, especially at a fast-growing company, to avoid the echo chamber effect. By listening to other people’s perspectives, regardless of their title, experience, etc., you are able to seek out new and different solutions that you may have overlooked. Problem solving is a truly collaborative effort — the best solutions come from an environment that not only supports other perspectives but is all the better because of it.
Any executive should seek out other people’s point of view. I try to have the finger on the pulse of my teams– not only checking in on their workloads but also on them as individuals.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
As an organization, Plenty of Fish has contributed to many people’s happiness by connecting people from all over the world. A lot of the work we do around ensuring a low-pressure, positive dating experience is what we are known for and why our members’ turn to us. Dating can be stressful and anxiety-inducing, we aim to take that out of the equation so our members’ can just focus on what matters: building healthy relationships with other singles. We also don’t take ourselves too seriously — online dating should be fun! That’s why we do creative activities with our members — like Would You Rather polls, virtual “happy hours”, and much, much more. At the end of the day, Plenty of Fish is really about people — people who use our services and people who make that service possible.
Additionally, Plenty of Fish has served as a launching point for many talented and successful professionals. I can think of many people who started out at Plenty of Fish in junior roles who today hold senior and executive level roles both here and at other world-class companies. I believe in developing people and I am proud of this.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Expect to work a lot — Some days, I still can’t believe Plenty of Fish is no longer the scrappy startup it was in the early days. The growth has been incredible to see and it’s 100% a credit to our team for making Plenty of Fish what it is today. The idea that startup growth “just happens” is wonderful, but that’s not the reality. We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this company and we continue to do so.
2. The job is never done — We are always growing and always building. In the past few years, we’ve added so many new product updates, with so much more to come.
At the start of the pandemic we decided to fast track a livestreaming product update that was originally slated to launch over the summer, so that we could provide a solution for singles looking to date while observing social distancing guidelines. We launched the product in under 48-hours and just about every department within the company was involved in the execution. We were very proud to bring something to market that positively impacted our members’ during a particularly challenging time.
3. It’s lonely at the top — Often, the gritty part of being in the C-suite is that it can be isolating. That’s why it’s so important to build your network — outside of your day-to-day team and company — that you can level with and know they “get it”. Joining networking groups, mentorship programs, and the like, can be a really helpful resource.
4. Learning never stops — I try to learn something new every day — whether it’s building out our diversity + inclusion practice or testing out new features, the learning I do never stops. I believe in constantly trying different things, testing limits, and seeing what makes sense for us as a business and as a brand.
5. The smartest thing you can do is hire the right people — I can’t stress this enough. Surround yourself with people that make you better — a better employee, better boss, better teacher, etc. Hiring people that you trust and believe in, will make your day-to-day work life so much more efficient. Culture is so important to us at Plenty of Fish. We are very lucky that we not only have incredible talent, but lovely people that you want to “muck in” and put in the work with.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe in kindness to ourselves and our environment. Kindness is always important, but now more than ever, being compassionate to other humans — regardless of race, gender, creed, etc. — is paramount. In addition to kindness to other humans, being kind to the planet is so important. I think being kind to each other and being kind to the planet actually go hand in hand. If I could inspire people to be kinder to each other and everything that surrounds us, that would be ideal.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I don’t have a favorite quote, but a few years ago, Plenty of Fish had undergone an expansion of our office. As part of that expansion, we created an “Inspiration Wall”. It’s basically a wall of crowd-sourced inspiration quotes that we got from our employees and put up on a wall. It is still my favorite part of the office and I am freshly inspired every time I walk by it. It includes quotes on everything from business, to love, to taking care of yourself, and I love every one of them.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I really admire Alexandra Cavoulacos, Founder & President at The Muse and Author of “The New Rules of Work”. I love her perspective on building a “whole human” culture at The Muse, which means knowing you can bring your full self to work and belong. The message of authenticity deeply resonates with how we have built our company culture at Plenty of Fish, and it’s reflected in our product, too.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.