Episode 40: Interview with Camille Fournier, Managing Director of Two Sigma, and Author of The Manager’s Path

Episode 40: Interview with Camille Fournier, Managing Director of Two Sigma, and Author of The Manager’s Path

 
 
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As the Managing Director of Two Sigma, and Author of The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change, Camille Fournier talks about making teams effective and delivering outcome for business, hiring and getting the right people in the door in the first place, and aligning yourself with the values of your company.

Every few weeks as part of The Heartbeat, I ask one question to a founder, CEO, or business owner I respect about their biggest leadership lesson learned. This week, I interview Camille Fournier, the Managing Director of Two Sigma, and Author of The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change.


CLAIRE: Hi, everyone. I’m Claire Lew and I’m the CEO of Know Your Team, we’re a software tool that helps managers avoid becoming a bad boss.

Today on The Heartbeat, I am truly honored to have a super special guest on the show. I have Camille Fournier who is the Managing Director of Two Sigma, this investment hedge firm that uses technology as a part of their platform in their investments. But Camille is probably best known for writing this amazing book, which if you haven’t picked it up, you can see my little tabs and notes. It’s called The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change. Prior to this, I was telling Camille that we’ve got this online leadership community called The Watercooler with thousands of managers, and Camille’s book is honestly one of the most recommended books amongst managers. I never stop hearing about it. And for good reason, there’s so many things I want to ask you about. So, we’ll talk about that. And Camille is also, this is pretty notable, formerly the CTO for Rent the Runway, as well. So, no shortage of experience and wisdom. So excited to chat with you today, Camille, and ask you this one question about leadership.

CAMILLE: OK. Let’s hear it.

CLAIRE: You ready?

CAMILLE: OK.

CLAIRE: The question that I’ve been dying to ask you is what’s one thing, or could be several things, that you wish you would have known earlier as a leader?

CAMILLE: There’s so many things.

CLAIRE: Yeah, you wrote a book about it, pretty much.

CAMILLE: Certainly one thing, I think, is that just because you are in a management position, in a leadership position, in a senior leadership position, generally speaking, you still can’t tell people what to do. If the idea is that if I just become a senior enough leader, if I just get to a certain point in my career, point in my leadership track, I will be able to control everything and make everything go and happen the way that I want it to happen.

CLAIRE: It’s not true.

CAMILLE: It’s not even not true. It’s like almost the opposite of true. You will get less control the more senior you become. Certainly, what control you have is still much more indirect than I think you can ever possibly expect as someone who’s earlier in their career.

So a lot of people say, “You should not go into management if you want to go into management only because you want to control things,” or whatever, which I think is true. But I also think there are good people who go into management for that reason. I just think that you will kind of make a lot of mistakes early on if that’s the reason that you go into management because you’ll be fighting this idea that you could just command and control your team. That your job is like telling people what to do, that once you have all these people reporting to you, you control their work, you control what they’re focused on, you control what they’re thinking about, and therefore, they enact to your will. I think what people find who have that belief when they go into management very quickly is that that’s not true. And so then, a lot of people say, “OK, that wasn’t true when I was a line manager. But then when I’m a Director of Engineering, it would be more true because I’ll be able look at this whole organization. I can’t quite control my team but I can’t control them because this other team is making their lives hard or the product team is making them hard. So, I’ll just go one level up and then I’ll have more people under me and then I control them better.” And then, “Oh no, it’s one more level up.”

CLAIRE: If only, if only.

CAMILLE: “And then once I’m an executive, people will have to listen to me.” And it just never actually comes true. In fact the more senior you go, the less individual control you have over any one thing. And the more your job is really nudging things into place and you can very, very occasionally exert perhaps a veto power to stop something from happening but it’s very hard to force something to happen. So yeah, that’s, I guess, maybe one thing.

CLAIRE: Yeah. Oh, my goodness. For folks who are just listening to this podcast, I’m over here smiling and kind of laughing because it’s a common misperception. How could it not be? It’s like, “Oh, I have more people reporting to me. My job description includes more things. I have access to influencing more stakeholders. Why wouldn’t control increase?” I think it’s a very common allusion. And what I think is so counterintuitive about what you shared is you actually said that it’s almost the opposite. It’s almost like the inverse is true. For you, Camille, when did you realize this in your career? Is this something that you fortunately didn’t have to sort of suffer firsthand learning or is it something that you sort of learned through the school of hard knocks? When did this realization happen for you?

CAMILLE: I would say it was slowly over time.

CLAIRE: Yes.

CAMILLE: I would say that I think when I started managing, I expected to have a lot more ability to control things. I had just been to quite a while kind of learning that that wasn’t true in various ways. So for me, I think sometimes, it was like, “Well, my team is just not good enough,” for example. Or they just don’t know a certain thing. They don’t know how to do a certain thing. And I just need to teach them how to do a certain thing and then they’ll be able to do things the way that I want them done. That’s one way this is presented for me is like it’s not that the team was not good enough. It’s just that they don’t know. They’ve never experienced this. They’ve never worked in a system like this. So, if they just know and I just teach them, then they will do things my way. Not true. They also think I’ve gone through the phases of like, “Well, if I just had the ability to kind of control more things, more people, more parts of the organization, I could align things so that people will be really working in this way that I think is most effective or focused on things that I think are most important. Not really true. If I become an executive, then people will really have to listen to me and they’ll really have to do things my way. In some ways, this is a lesson I’m still learning. For better or worse, part of the reason I got into management was that I like making things happen.

CLAIRE: Sure.

CAMILLE: I am not a person who got into management purely because I love the people side of things and I love thinking about people and their careers. I do like that stuff. I don’t want to pretend like that’s not part of it. But I didn’t get into management purely for people. I really did get into it because I’m interested in making teams effective and deliver outcome for business, and getting things done.

Even to this day, sometimes I find myself going back on why won’t they do things the way I want them. If I just was in a more senior position, I could force things through. I could force the company to do things this way. I have to remind myself, “No.” Does that work? It just like really doesn’t work. You watch your boss and he doesn’t do that for a reason. And in the few cases he does, he is very thoughtful about what he’s doing. And sometimes it works and sometimes it still doesn’t work. And he’s really good. He’s been there longer than you have. So, I think that that’s a lesson I’m just constantly learning.

CLAIRE: Yeah. I think so many folks can relate to that, Camille, in the sense that I think most people get into management because they want to get things done. I see that as a good thing. That’s why I sort of got into it, for sure. Like you said, I enjoy the people stuff. It’s also kind of what I do for a living. But the real sort of intrinsic reward or value is like, “Oh my God, we were able to accomplish something that I couldn’t have accomplished alone.” And so, it’s funny how that unintentionally sort of handicaps us in our ability to think more thoughtfully maybe about how to actually get the results that we want. It’s interesting. I always find it so perplexing and I feel flabbergasted sometimes because I’m like, “I want the result to happen.” And it’s like the more you want the result to happen, the more you end up doing all these things that aren’t really helping the result to happen. So, thank you for sharing that.

I’m wondering then for all the things that we do get hooked on as leaders and thinking, “OK, when I get the next promotion, when I’m managing more people, when I’m more senior,” if that doesn’t guarantee us more control, if greater scope and greater sort of positional authority doesn’t guarantee us better outcomes and a more effective team, what does? How should a manager be approached? You mentioned nudging. You talk about that in your book. But what is then the real role of the manager if it’s not “command and control” and tell you what to do, and, “I’ll just teach everyone to do it my way and then everyone just do it my way.” What is the alternative?

CAMILLE: I think there’s a few things, and it’s actually taken me a long time to come around on these things. Some of them you won’t find in my book because they’re things I’m still coming around on.

One of the things that I’ve been coming around on more and more over time, I hate to say it, it’s about hiring and getting the right people in the door in the first place. And I say I hate to say it because I’m not very good at recruiting. It’s not one of my strengths. I don’t cover it in the book because I find the whole process of interviewing and recruiting to be kind of exhausting. It’s just not my favorite thing. But I have started to realize more and more that life is a lot easier when you hire people who you’re on a pretty good wavelength with and share all of your values already and that you trust to do things that you care a lot about and have a lot of opinions about.

You trust them to take those things and do the right thing. I actually think like that is probably more important. Especially the more senior you get in leadership, then I probably gave it credit for even when I was writing the book because it a little bit conflicts with my strongly-held belief that people can plan change and learn. I’m a very growth mindset kind of person but I do kind of appreciate why a lot of people are really obsessed with hiring and recruiting and how you get great people in the door in the first place. And it’s really about like are you finding people who are kind of on your wavelength? Can you really feel comfortable trusting? Because that’s one of the important ways that you can really extend that influence.

The other thing as I think really is a lot of things are about the cultural norms that you create and reinforce and what you reward and you don’t reward. And I think that’s the other big thing that you can do. Again, when you start doing this, you very quickly realize the limits of this and how slowly it works. But you can change a group and you can get them to focus on new things by really changing the cultural values of that group. The way you change the cultural values of that group among other things is that you actually set goals against those values that you reward. I’ve run big platform infrastructure teams. That’s what I’m doing here at Two Sigma. And one of the things that I feel very strongly infrastructure team should do well is build operable systems and think about operational excellence. Are you actually thinking about the way that system is going to run in production? How is it going to scale? How are you going to respond to incidents? Things like that.

One of the things that I did when I came in was set goals around operational excellence because that wasn’t a strongly held value throughout the whole organization that I’ve managed. It’s been two years and things are definitely better. The team thinks about that a lot more than they did when I joined. But it’s still a work in progress. And so it’s like, do I have control? Yes, in a sense that I can say we’re going to think about operational excellence. We’re going to set OKRs around it. Every team is going to do something along these lines. But I can’t just say, “You have to operate your systems better, everyone. And I want to see it happen now, now, now, now, now.” No, we’re still doing it. We’re still working on it because it’s a process. It’s not snapping your fingers and all of a sudden people hear you say something and they do it.

CLAIRE: Right. A million things I want to dig into and ask you about. The first part, about hiring. Like you said, it’s something you didn’t cover in the book. There are a lot of books, obviously, that have been written about it. Could be its own separate book in many ways. So, it’s totally understandable that you would leave it out. It reminded me of something that, if anyone’s read Good to Great, Jim Collins, really famous manager book, he talks about this concept. Getting the right people on the bus before figuring out where the bus even needs to go. Because to your point, and I don’t think this is mutually exclusive from the fact that people can grow and change and growth mindset, but to the point that that process is a lot easier and more productive because everyone will change. You’re going to change. I’m going to change. Like everyone is naturally going to change but that change is more productive and more aligned if you can get synced up on what those goals or what those values are, which leads to the second thing of your wonderful wisdom around the application of values. Because I think it’s so easy to go into either a hiring process or to become the new manager in a team and say, “OK, here are the five or six values that we are going to execute on.” And like you said, snap of the fingers, “All right, here we go. Operational excellence. Where is it? Is it happening?” So tempting to do that. So, I love your examples of actually figuring out how to apply those values. One question I had is how do you figure out what those values are? And what are the right values?

CAMILLE: I think there’s two things you have to consider. First of all, assuming you’re not a founder.

Your company has values. They may be written down; they may not be written down. Aligning yourself with the values of the company is pretty important because if you got a set of values for your team and they are really not well aligned with the values of the company, you’re setting yourself up for failure. I think it is unreasonable to expect that you’re going to be able to be successful if you don’t echo the things that the company — companies whether they haven’t written down or not, they just have things in their DNA. They’re the way the company is. They came from the founders or the early executives or who knows what. But my observation in every company I’ve ever worked in, people who get the values explicitly or implicitly are more successful teams that are more well-aligned to the value do better or more rewarded.

So first of all, know the values of the company. Also, I think your job as a leader is to understand what’s really important for your team. And to some extent, you do get to set the culture yourself a little bit. Does operational excellence of Two Sigma-wide value? No. I mean, that’s way too specific a value, I think, for a company like this. It wouldn’t make any sense. But operational excellence needs to be an added value for an engineering team that is operating in large scale software. This is a little bit of a case of like, “I was hired in to make this team great. It is one of my views and something that I believe strongly. And the team will be more successful the more that I can get them aligned to my values and I will be more successful the more I can get them aligned to my values.” It goes both ways. So, I do think that you are allowed to, as a leader, have some degree of opinion. You have been hired to do whatever job here you’re in because people trust your instincts. So, the goal is to not stray far away from the company values but understand the things that you believe are fundamental drivers for excellence in whatever it is that you’re leading, and then make those explicit.

CLAIRE: Yes. I love that. I hope folks who are listening or watching this are writing that down because I think a common pitfall is to just not be intentional or to be extremely vague. I think actually the specificity of operational excellence, to your point, well maybe it’s too specific to be company-wide but team-wide, the specificity and also to your point of actually mapping out what are the observable behaviors for what operational excellence looks like. What that actually is the important piece because values only mean anything when they’re left out, when they’re acted on, when people are doing something tangible about them.

Camille, here’s the thing. I could literally talk to you for hours. I have millions of questions, truly, of things written down. One of the things I did want to talk to you about that you mentioned in your book that was maybe slightly referenced earlier was this idea of managers ultimately needing to really understand what is important versus urgent. And I would love to hear a little bit more about that and sort of your opinion and philosophy. Why that’s important? How that informs how you make decisions, how you spend your time, how you delegate as a manager?

CAMILLE: I think there’s a lifelong pursuit and figuring out what to focus on at any time.

CLAIRE: Yes.

CAMILLE: First of all, you have to have free time. If literally every second of every day is completely scheduled, you will never be able to figure out what’s important and what’s urgent because your whole life is urgent. And that’s not entirely true. One-on-ones, in some sense, are both important and urgent, right? You have to do them. You have to do them regularly. They’re really important. And if you’re not doing them, it’s very urgent that you do.

CLAIRE: Yes.

CAMILLE: So, it’s very easy for managers to get into a cycle of reactivity where your whole life is scheduled in meeting. You go to a meeting and you react to whatever is happening in that meeting and especially the more senior you get, the more of this happens because you don’t come prepared for the meeting, you’re allowed to just like come to the meeting and react. That’s OK for a senior manager. I spend a lot of my time doing that. I’m here to react and I’m here because people trust that my reactions are going to guide the conversation in the right way, or whatever. That’s sort of my job. But that reactivity cannot just turn into your whole life. And if you don’t have any time that’s kind of unscheduled for reflection and for pulling together all the threads that you’ve been hearing about and saying, “Wait a minute. I heard from three different people about something that nobody’s really thinking fully about. Nobody owns and yet it’s causing problems all over the place.” You need to have the time to be able to identify that because that’s something that’s important. That is probably not necessarily urgent right now, it will become urgent if you just ignore it.

So, that’s why I’m pretty sure in the book and certainly this is very common advice I give to managers is like you can’t be scheduled all the time. You need to still make time for yourself to think, to turn off the computer, turn off the distractions, look at the whiteboard and just think, go through the notes you’ve been taking all week about what’s been going on and kind of reflect to help you identify the important things. Because I think that urgency is something often people just put on themselves. It’s just so easier to just be reactive all the time.

Urgency sometimes happens when you’re not delegating effectively and you’re letting other people give you their problems and you’re dealing with their problems for them, instead of giving them advice or giving them the authority to solve their own problems. They come to you with something and you’re like, “Oh, I absolutely must solve this.” I still do that sometimes. There are times when someone comes to me and I just want to solve their problem for them.

CLAIRE: It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially if you’ve gotten to this role to help people solve problems, like it’s in your sweet spot and you’ve done the thing maybe a million times before and you know all the nooks and crannies. And you’re just like, “Oh, this is fun.” And to your point there, like that reactivity is self-imposed. I think that’s such a brilliant insight. We often think that we are at the mercy of our schedule and our one-on-one meetings and all these things that people are asking our input about because it’s other people putting them on us. But in fact, it’s so true that it’s actually self-imposed. That our inability to reflect to seriously calibrate and distinguish what is actually urgent versus important is based off the own expectations that we’re sending with our team. The way that we react to problems when they’re being brought to us. I so appreciate that insight, Camille.

So, here’s the thing. Like I was saying, I have hundreds of questions I could truly ask you. And so, what I would love to do is perhaps just end with one which is, what advice in particular would you have for brand new managers, first time managers? If there’s like one piece of advice where you felt you’re like, if there’s nothing else you listen to or nothing else you take away from my book or talks or essays or whatever it is, or maybe something that you haven’t even, like you were saying, you’re still coming around on and it’s just something that you really, really wish you would have known as a new manager in particular, what might that be?

CAMILLE: Is it a new manager of people or is it a new manager of a team?

CLAIRE: Either one. It could be one or two direct reports or it could be a 20-person team. And if the advice is different from both, happy to hear both.

CAMILLE: Because I think with new manager of people, I’m going to give the advice everyone gives – you have to do one-on-ones and they’re going to be weird at first. You’ll get better at it over time. And soon, they won’t be weird for you anymore. Hopefully, that is not ground-breaking advice to anyone. Even companies that don’t manage well, I think now are finally telling people that. Something that they aren’t telling people is for people who find themselves managers of a team, and I wouldn’t say a 20-person team, but like a three to five person team, you’re managing a team and you need to make them a team. That means you need to do things like meet with them together as a team. Talk about what the team is, talking about the shared goals of the team are, get people to work together on things, and get people to understand the team and who is good at what on the team. And that is actually something that people don’t hear. I talk to people a lot that are like, “I’m doing such and such. I’m your new manager.” When was the last time you had a meeting with your team? And they’re like, “A meeting with my team? Like all of us together?” And that is one of those things where I guess like it just — I didn’t even try to put that in my book. It didn’t even occur to me. I think I’ve been a senior manager for so long that that kind of thing just is unconscious that I do it.

CLAIRE: Sure, yeah.

CAMILLE: But I think that making your team a team is actually really important when you first start managing more than just like once you choose you people where you’re just kind of being an individual mentor and hopefully your manager is making you all a team.

Once you actually have a team of your own, you do need to make them a team. Engineers, I think often in a lot of companies is like, the way that work is scheduled is not very collaborative. So, it’s like, “This is my project and I’m going up and doing my project.” And she has her project and he has his project. And there are a lot of companies that that’s the way work is done. And even if your company is that way, still taking the time to make your team a team and bring everyone together to talk about what they’re working on, on a regular basis, is pretty important for having a healthy work environment and being a good manager. So, don’t forget that. And think about how you make your team a team. And part of that is getting them all together as a team. Let’s talk to one another on some kind of a regular basis.

CLAIRE: Sure. I think that’s excellent advice both, but I think the latter, in particular, because it sounds so obvious when you say it. And yet, like you were saying, in practice, it’s for someone who’s new, quite not obvious. I think the assumption often is when you’re managing people, that you’re managing people. So, you think, “Oh, Susie, Karen, Mark. Let me build my relationship, my rapport. Let me make sure they’re doing interesting work. But to your point, the whole purpose is so that the aggregate of Susie, Mark, everyone all together is actually moving everyone forward. And you can’t do that if you’re not getting everyone to meet together, if they’re not aligned around a common vision, if they don’t talk to one another. So, thank you for that wonderful reminder.

Thank you so much, Camille, in general, for your incredible insights, your advice, your wonderful book which again, I highly recommend for folks to pick up if you haven’t already. Thank you.

CAMILLE: Yes.

CLAIRE: It’s been a blast to have you.

CAMILLE: Thank you for having me. It’s been fun.

Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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