How to grow your tech leadership as a CTO with Francis Nappez, CTO of Blablacar

Francis Nappez has had three experiences with high growth companies: Iliad, Meetic and most recently Blablacar. For the past 10 years, he’s had a hand in making it a unicorn. Blablacar is is now Europe’s #1 ride-sharing service used by 12 million people every quarter.

Leadership is a very important subject for engineers and CTOs, and one that’s rarely-to-never mentioned in their careers. This is what Francis is now advocating, as he himself “went from being a tech guy to a tech leader” fairly recently.

During a talk given at STATION F in front of hundreds of CTOs and entrepreneurs, he shared his vision on how to build leadership as a tech leader.

Why it’s important to be a Tech Leader

Tech people usually underestimate the value of being a leader. They are expected to deliver things, build a stack, build a company. According to Francis, CTOs then have to build leadership. It is of utmost importance that the tech leader is involved in the company’s broad strategy.

Indeed in any company, a team will go through a lot of change: changes in organization, hiring of new people, greater / different competition, etc. It can influence the way you drive the company as a co-founder.

“You need a strong leadership to make sure your people follow you through adversities” warns Francis. And you need to invest in leadership before problems happen.

The 3 pillars of being a tech leader: trust, vision, and people’s growth

Francis Nappez summarizes some techniques to be a better leader around 3 pillars:

1. Inspire trust.

You need to create a sense of belonging:

  • Always say “we” instead of “I”
  • Listen and act. Always be listening and once you gather information, be confident and make decisions
  • Be exemplary (in terms of behavior, ethics, etc.). People will look at you and mimic what you do. If you do weird things, your team will do weird things!
  • Communicate about your company to a lot of people; in large groups, one on one conversations… Communicate all the time.

2. Have a clear vision

  • Every company has a mission. This mission allows your company to define what you’ll be in 3 or 5 years and how to build a path to get there. It becomes a roadmap… and day-to-day tasks.
  • Be focused. If you go in different directions, your team doesn’t know where to follow you
  • Make decisions and once you’ve made them: stick to them.
  • Communicate the vision, the context, the company: the devs should know that, this is the base of everything they code/ build.

3. Grow people around you

  • Know your employees. When you hire engineers you focus a lot on IQ (skills, experience…) but you need to focus on EQ (emotional). At Blablacar there are happiness surveys (2 reviews per year and 1 quick one each week).
  • Empower people: encourage initiatives. You can’t do everything: if your teams know the mission of the company, they will make good decisions that match the mission
  • Create paths for people to grow. At Blablacar there are 2 paths: “Expert Paths” (they have a different kind of leadership: they know how to do things) and “Manager Paths” (they know how to grow people)
  • Be optimistic and authentic: it’s contagious. You can’t cheat with tech guys: always tell the truth.

Build your own experience of leadership as a CTO

What Francis Nappez has learned over the past years of experience as a tech leader is that first, you discover leadership. It’s not something you learn at school: you discover it everyday. Second, it’s ok to improve. You can always learn from books, coaches, etc. Finally, Francis sheds the light on something pretty optimistic: this role will give you a lot of energy and motivation! As you’re working on leadership you’ll become more motivated to do your job!

Extra nuggets: Q&A with STATION F entrepreneurs!

How do you cope with hiring people that are more of an expert than you on some topics?

Francis Nappez: “When you realize that people are better than you technically, you have succeeded! They won’t replace you as a tech leader — you have to invest in that all the time. They will look at the vision, the mission. This is being a tech guy at the beginning and a tech leader at some point.”

You have an international tech team (in Paris and Warsaw), how do you manage leadership with remote teams?

Francis Nappez: “A lot of companies have tech teams in other cities and they have the same issues as me: if you don’t see people, it’s harder to have leadership. Here’s my advice:

  • Authorize people to travel a lot (we have flats in Paris and Warsaw): fix the logistics
  • Give very strong ownership to the remote teams and give them recognition
  • It’s a work in progress: I don’t have the magic recipe. You need to work on it continuously.”

What are Blablacar’s projects for the next years facing growth, competition?

Francis Nappez: “You have to build your own future: anticipate adversity. We went through years of international expansion, and now we are focused on product, enhancing the product experience. You need to reinvent yourself all the time!”

What are the examples of bad consequences of a lack of leadership?

Francis Nappez: “One person resigned in my team and we didn’t have an opportunity to talk before. It made me feel very upset: in my theoretical mind I said to myself “listen” but for that you need to create opportunities to listen. This person left and when I asked “why didn’t we talk about it?” he said “I didn’t know we could talk”. I implemented regular 1:1 meetings and clearly stated that people could talk to me.”

Have you ever felt dependent of an expert in the team?

Francis Nappez: “You have to make sure the knowledge is circulating in your team. You need to make sure your people share about what they do.”

What kind of relationship have you built with your co-founders?

Francis Nappez: “I have known my co-founders for 10 years, we are very good friends. For a long time, I was very discreet, whereas Frederic Mazella was very exposed. I was in charge of tech: we each have roles, and you need to have them very clear on that. We are all aligned on what we have to do, our vision: we work in the same way.”

I’m looking for a CTO: if you were in my shoes, what would you look for in the candidates?

Francis Nappez: “The first question you have to ask yourself is: what do you expect from this person? Most of the time CEOs look for an engineer, a tech person to execute. If you need someone who is involved in the strategy, the product: hire a CTO.”