Two powerful tools to lead your team to success

Florian Ellis
The Qonto Way
Published in
8 min readSep 6, 2022

I joined Qonto in June 2021 and then took charge of the Web team, responsible for engineering all of Qonto’s web apps. The team grew from 40 at the start of this year to 60 today. How do you drive the performance of such a team while scaling it?

In this article, you will read about two powerful tools that can have a sustained positive impact on your team’s success. And who doesn’t want to be part of a successful team?

Tool #1: success metrics

Paul Graham said it best in his article Startups in 13 Sentences:

You make what you measure. (…) Merely measuring something has an uncanny tendency to improve it.

A typical case where we harness this simple principle is in focused improvement initiatives we call “kaizens.” You can find more details on kaizens in this article written by our CPO Marc-Antoine. Kaizen originates from the Toyota Production System (TPS) and can be described in many different ways, but I am convinced its power resides in this simple principle of “you make what you measure.”

By going through the trouble of setting up the metric and displaying it, you are sending a powerful message to your team: this matters, folks. We’re not where we should be. We’re too complacent on this issue.

Just display the metric and see how your teammates come to you with ideas for improvement — you’ll be surprised.

Marie-Camille, Alexandre, and Cyril during a kaizen session

In the first quarter of the year, one of our Leads at Qonto, Djamel, led a collective effort to reduce the number of errors that pop up in our monitoring tool, Sentry. This is the result:

That’s a 70% decrease in less than six weeks. Imagine the impact of this graph on the team’s pride and motivation.

Kaizen aside, here are some that we look at on an ongoing basis in the Web team:

  • regarding the quality of our production: Number of production incidents generated by the team, Number of new bugs, Inventory of open bugs, Number of QA returns;
  • regarding the team itself: Team size vs. hiring plan, Churn rate, Share of women in new hires (because yes, we are working towards gender equality in Fintech).

Here is how we visualize these last three indicators — as plain old charts in Google Sheets:

(Yes, we went from 0% women hires in Q2 to 80% in Q3 to date 🤩)

The recipe is always pretty much the same:

  1. Craft a good indicator and define the corresponding target.
  2. Display the indicator’s value evolving in time against the target, with a color code or a similar visual cue indicating success vs. failure.
  3. Include this display in some sort of ritual where it is going to be looked at, commented on — and ideally acted upon.

(Point 1 sounds pretty straightforward, but a whole article could be written on what a “good” success indicator is and how to define one together with your team.)

As you can guess, however, there are risks to this habit of “seeing the world through metrics”:

  • Metrics are always aggregates of some sort, masking the complexity of the world. Metrics won’t allow you to build an accurate causal model of what drives success or failure, which limits your capacity to act on the underlying root causes.
  • More insidiously, metrics can turn you into a bureaucrat. Before you know it, you could be spending your days updating Excel sheets in your ivory tower, impervious to the issues your team members are struggling with — some of which are caused by your past decisions, or lack thereof.

You don’t want to lead your team from a surveillance aircraft, you want to lead it from a helicopter, as described by Régis Médina in his book Learning to Scale:

Régis Medina, Learning to Scale: The Starter Guide

Sharing your team members’ daily reality and helping them with the concrete obstacles they face is the only way they will keep their esteem for you as a leader.


Tool #2: Gemba

As explained by Régis Medina in his book Learning to Scale:

Going to the gemba means getting out of your office and visiting either your customers, the people who create value for your customers, or those who support them. Going to the gemba is no mere tourism, it is a learning expedition. You go there with the intention to learn something.”

Fairly basic things can go wrong in an organization that grows quickly. You’d never hear about them because no one wants to report stupid simple problems. By going to the gemba, you can see and solve stupid simple problems, which can be a very profitable investment of your time and energy as a leader.

In practice, gemba means scheduling unstructured time in a team member’s calendar, starting the discussion with seemingly innocuous questions such as “what problems is your team facing at the moment?”, and then digging in as deeply as necessary to understand what’s really going on. Gemba will typically lead to looking at one “piece”, meaning one unit of value that is being produced — or has just been produced — by an individual or a team.

Marco (Senior Frontend Engineer), Denis (Senior Lead) and me during a gemba session

By looking at one single piece in detail, you break the curse of the metric I mentioned above:

  • It’s a single data point, so by definition, it’s not an average. You’ve narrowed your focus on one single data point, so now you can go deep instead of going wide. With a bit of time and attention, you can build a fairly accurate model of what went right or wrong in this particular example. If you just look at the last issue or at what someone is currently doing, you’re more likely to see frequent problems than infrequent ones. The risk of putting your energy on something that hardly ever happens is low.
  • You’re literally sitting side by side with your team member, seeing the screens they see, facing the complexity of that damn “special case” you happened to pick. But hey guess what: they’re dealing with special cases every day — so how can you help them? Can you give them mental models to help them think about the situation? Or can you just unblock that one particular situation, by calling someone you know could solve the issue in two minutes..?

Beware, you will sometimes feel stupid when facing the complexity of your team’s work on the gemba. But this is an excellent antidote to the manager’s hubris!

To be fair, gemba is also a way to challenge your team members’ ways of working and to set expectations across the team, one interaction after the other. Sitting with an engineer to discuss how to fix a bug is another way to tell the engineer that you care about bugs, probably just as resounding as displaying a chart of the bugs inflow, and definitely more relatable.

“But wait”, you might say, “my team members are competent, reliable professionals whom I carefully hired for their experience and skills. Why not trust them to do their best work on their own?”. I find that this quote of Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday is a perfect answer to that objection:

An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.

Challenge and learning are actually retention factors, and even more for those team members you want to retain so badly, as emphasized by Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor:

The best way to keep superstars happy is to challenge them and make sure they are constantly learning.

To me, gemba was like starting to wear glasses when I was a teenager: before I did it, the idea seemed unnatural, slightly embarrassing. But once I started doing it, I wondered how I ever managed to survive without it.

Gemba is a key practice to nurture the bond between engineers and managers, discover what is slowing the team down on a daily basis, and set the right level of ambition across the organization. That is why every Lead on our team is expected to go to the gemba at least four hours every week, after being coached on this exercise by a more senior manager.

Now what?

I shared two complementary tools that we use at Qonto in order to drive a team towards success. To summarize, metrics align the team on a shared definition of success and give you the signal on potential issues, while gemba allows you to build a causal model of the issue and act upon it locally.

Imagine you’re fighting deforestation. You need satellite images to measure the issue and broadly locate where it’s happening, but then you’d want to get down on the ground and understand why this particular piece of the forest has just been cut down.

Of course, this hardly makes for a comprehensive theory of management, and you can read this article written recently by our CPO to describe Qonto’s work culture from a broader angle. As explained by Marc-Antoine, formal training is also key to driving mastery inside a team, and we know that we are not at the right level of maturity inside the Web team on this front.

If you want to try those tools, I don’t really have better advice than: go ahead, try, and seek feedback from your team members. One important thing that our Head of Mobile Guillaume pointed out in a previous article about the performance metrics he defined for his team:

Over-communicate your intentions to your team.

You’re not trying to pressure them with KPIs or to inspect and criticize every detail of their work. You are building a team of professionals who are aligned on what success is and curious about how to best achieve it.

Think about it this way: not caring about the work of your team is the cardinal sin of leadership. There are many ways to be a bad boss, but what’s worse than saying to someone, even implicitly: “your work and how you do it don’t really matter to me”?

So read through a few articles or books, take the leap… and witness the combined power of success metrics and gemba. Good luck!

And if you want to learn these skills at the company that is creating the best finance solution for European SMEs and freelancers, then join us!