A Conversation with Matthew Glotzbach
Moving from top-down silos to cross-functional teams
I had a chance to chat with Matthew Glotzbach, the CEO of Quizlet, the largest consumer learning platform in the US. I was intrigued by a quote I saw of his that reminded me of some of the ideas I was promoting in The Fall of Silos, The Rise of Self-Organizing Teams. This is his quote:
Collaboration makes it possible for skills to be shared and learned based on the strengths of each generation. With this, we’ll see workplace culture evolve to encourage more collaboration across every level and discipline. We’ll move from a world of siloed organizations that are organized top down to cross-functional pods or team attacking crucial business problems from every angle.
Stowe Boyd: I’ve seen a great deal of discussion about generational differences in using digital technologies. What’s your experience?
Matthew Glotzbach: In any workplace that employs a diverse range of ages, you may see noticeable differences in how generations use technology, and sometimes in which types of technology they prefer. We know Millennials and Gen Z have been immersed in personal devices and the internet since childhood, while Baby Boomers and Gen X have adapted to technology in adulthood. But remember who invented most of that technology — older generations. We share a lot of the same interests in innovation, especially when it comes to technology in the workplace and the efficiency it creates.
It’s important to note that tech-savvy or not, employing a diverse range of ages will always offer a more productive, well-rounded group of skilled employees. While younger generations may excel in mastering the latest digital technologies, Gen X and Baby Boomers have leadership abilities and a broader view of industry that can be equally beneficial to younger employees.
The key here isn’t to hire for one skill, but to look for employees of all ages that demonstrate an interest in continued learning and the soft skills to work well on teams. At Quizlet, this allows us to focus on collaborative learning, allowing employees to teach and learn new skills from each other based on their individual strengths and weaknesses because generational or not, this continued growth is vital to the success of any company.
SB: I’ve seen a number of studies that show that opportunities for personal growth are key to engagement at work. What’s your take?
MG: I couldn’t agree more. We actually offer an annual $1,000 stipend to our employees to “teach themselves something new” which they feel will enrich them. We see staff flourish, as they share back their experiences learning everything from graphic design to acting and improv. I think in the coming years we’ll see more and more companies offer employees a multitude of resources to explore, including more annual stipends designated for seeking out extracurricular opportunities to learn whatever new skills they need for their own personal growth and fostering that spirit of learning and curiosity which is so critical to success.
What I mean by empowerment is individuals at all levels in the organization having real decision-making autonomy over aspects of their work, while the organizational structure exists to support and guide them without getting in the way or slowing things down. | Matthew Glotzbach
SB: Are you seeing a transition toward less-siloed organizations? Are organizations becoming flatter? What about models like Spotify’s squads?
MG: In the technology industry, we’ve seen a lot of experimentation with organizational structures to determine what works best for reaching business goals. What I have seen create the most beneficial environment and business outcomes is truly empowering your staff. That doesn’t mean removing structure or mentorship, people thrive when they feel supported and there is a shared set of goals and strategies. What I mean by empowerment is individuals at all levels in the organization having real decision-making autonomy over aspects of their work, while the organizational structure exists to support and guide them without getting in the way or slowing things down. Keeping in that spirit, a company builds a culture where everyone is heard, and those individual contributions lend themselves to effective group problem-solving and innovation.
At Quizlet, even though we have 150 employees at this point, we are able to build pods of talented people focused on different parts of the business that then work together across teams in equal fashion to build great learning tools without unnecessary barriers. We also host company-wide “hackathons” with the purpose of uniting everyone, at every level and from every department, to brainstorm the next big idea. Everyone’s voice is heard, employees are aligned on the same mission and it has brought us some of our most successful ideas.
In workplace models like Spotify’s squads, with autonomous and self-organizing units, ownership and accountability can be clear early on. Once that trust is formed, it’s easier to ebb and flow with change according to what works best for your group. This should be the goal for any team, at any company, and ties back to the key idea that learning across levels and age groups helps to build an environment of collaboration and, ultimately, success.
SB: I’ve written a great deal on Spotify and similar approaches to supporting semi-autonomous teams, and it seems clear that such approaches require a great commitment from senior leaders to work, right?
MG: For these pods to work, it takes a great commitment from all employees, but senior leaders in particular because they are the driving force for their teams. They must trust in the model and truly empower their teams (which is a leap of faith) and remain committed to ensuring their teams understand the “why” behind what they’re doing. They need to also remain committed to ensuring the team functions as it should, that every team member has a say in how they operate, and that the team is aligned and works well together towards their shared mission.
The biggest challenge that anyone in a leadership position faces, it’s ensuring their organization is constantly growing and changing for the better. For an organization to be successful, it needs to continuously adapt as the environment changes, or it will fall behind. | Matthew Glotzbach
SB: What are the key points of leverage for leadership to attack the major challenges of our time?
MG: Before anything else, it’s important to ground ourselves as leaders in knowing that our jobs are not just about focusing on products and profit, it’s also about the people. Ultimately, whether you are a CEO of a Fortune 500 or you manage one person at a flower shop, it’s the people who are your biggest asset and your organization has a responsibility to them.
As for the biggest challenge that anyone in a leadership position faces, it’s ensuring their organization is constantly growing and changing for the better. For an organization to be successful, it needs to continuously adapt as the environment changes, or it will fall behind. Automation, cybersecurity, fast fashion, climate change, trade wars, you name it — there are inevitable challenges your company will face. This means taking advantage of resources and being cognizant of changing trends, while also staying true to the company mission and maintaining an encouraged workforce. It’s a big responsibility and has enormous effects on society as a whole, in terms of how we treat each other and how we handle problems that need to be solved.
Leadership can tackle, and sometimes preempt, crippling issues by giving employees opportunities to learn and explore their individual strengths. The ideal situation is to let employees choose their own learning paths, offering them a multitude of options with the ultimate goal of having every individual mastering new skills in the way that works best for them, whether it’s an online class, collaborative workshop, etc. Then these individuals can bring their expertise to their teams, offering new perspectives and teaching others in the process.
It’s crucial to set the tone and not only respect what diversity brings to the table, but also celebrate it. Different generations and individuals offer distinct points-of-view and skill sets that can be shared across an organization. This includes anything from soft skills like leadership abilities and collaboration to the hard skills of adopting new digital technologies.
At the end of the day, everyone benefits from learning from each other. Leaders should find ways to foster an environment that encourages employees to collaborate and, ultimately, innovate together to ensure a strong future. We only have one, and we share it.
SB: A great introduction to 2020, I think. Thanks for your thoughts.
MG: Thanks for speaking with me! I think we covered some great points and I am excited to see how the future of work is shaped by the next decade as companies take a more holistic approach to organization and strive to offer more resources for professional and personal growth.