This week, I spoke to the awesome Alyssa Percell!
Alyssa is Community Experience Manager at Meetup, the platform for finding and building local communities. People use Meetup to meet new people, learn new things, find support, get out of their comfort zones, and pursue their passions, together. Alyssa has worked there for a year and a half, and has been in leadership about two and a half years altogether.
Hi Alyssa! Thanks for “meeting up” with me! (Sorry – couldn’t resist!)
Can we talk about the early stages in your career first? How did you get into Customer Support?
Sure! I was working in retail selling shoes after finishing grad school and couldn’t find a job. A friend referred me to the company she worked at. The role was a support associate position, focused on primarily email support with some phone support.
Like many support people, the career kind of chose me! I started in CS to make an income post graduation and I fell in love with what I was doing.
What did your move to leadership look like?
I was a senior associate on my support team and was promoted internally to be the supervisor of the team. Things happened quickly – I had only been on team for just over a year by the time I was promoted. I started as an associate on leap day Feb 2016, promoted to Senior in Oct 2016 and then to Supervisor by April 2017, just over a year altogether from starting day to leadership!
I was growing fast and it was a combination of my drive and political circumstances at work. It wasn’t ever smooth, I worked hard and sacrificed – on top of having to learn quickly.
The one thing I knew was I cared deeply for my team and I was the right person to become their leader at the time. The rest was history.
You said it wasn’t ever smooth. What was particularly challenging in those early days?
When I took on my first direct reports they previously had a manager who was not supportive. Taking them on (as a first time leader) was challenging because we were starting from scratch – them with a new leader and me understanding what it meant to be a leader.
I had to learn to not only lead them but to build trust in a way that hadn’t been done before. They had been “burned” by leadership before so I couldn’t be traditional in my approach – which set an extremely high bar for a first timer.
What makes CS leadership special?
The people. Agents in support are some of the most passionate, driven and emotionally complex workers you will ever lead. They are typically at a growth/transition time in their career and they require a lot of hands on attention and understanding of their individuals needs in order to remain challenged and engaged – but in that way it makes them amazing!
If the role is so special, what makes a good CS leader?
Someone who understands individualism, has a mind for strategy and data, compassionate, strong communication skills, self-awareness, a willingness to be humble and learn… I could go on forever!
Can you describe your leadership style more generally?
Yes! “Radical Candor” – I believe in trust and transparency, and that if you can build a strong foundation with your direct report – their coaching, their development, providing them feedback, etc becomes a partnership. The bond becomes about the success of you both and it’s an equal stake.
And how do you measure your team’s success?
Multiple ways – daily metrics, monthly performance meetings, attributes rubrics, quarterly engagement surveys. Metrics are great – they can add so much clarity and help support accountability that ultimately feeds into the health and growth of the business.
How do you define professional development for agents in support roles?
Diverse! If you ask every agent on your team to define professional development (which I’ve done) each of them will define it differently – that is so important to understand.
What you may consider development may be different from your directs – but it’s your job as their leader to understand how they look at development and either tailor your approach to that definition or teach them to expand that definition.
I think most typically, in support, agents define development as growing into the next role (being promotion) but that is a very shallow way to look at development and if you are a leading/manager and that is what you consider to be the definition of development – stop what you are doing right now and focus.
You will need to change the way you think of growth and development immediately – because the reality is that the majority of the time there won’t be a role to promote into – so all you may be doing is encouraging anxiety or dissatisfaction around development (which then creeps into engagement) – instead redefine it.
Development should be happening every day – find opportunities to reposition day to day responsibilities or project opportunities as moments of development and expand them using conversation in 1:1s.
Challenge yourself as a leader – to think bigger.
What’s been the hardest thing you’ve had to do or learn?
Dealing with an uncoachable direct report. The first direct report I had to let go was someone who trained me and was the spirit of our team… but time and time again no matter what support we offered him to be successful, his performance remained inconsistent. It was impacting not only our team but our customers.
Deciding to let him go was the hardest decision I’ve ever made as a leader/manager – I realized I could’ve given my whole self to supporting him and it still wouldn’t have been enough in getting his performance to be what we needed.
Have you found leadership to be different than you thought it might be?
I thought leadership would be more transformative than it is.
I’ve seen in more than one workplace (since becoming a leader) that many cultures still have leaders who fixate on “Categorizing” or putting agents into a “box.”
I understand that sometimes a “box” exercise can be helpful in understanding performance, but to paint your direct report as a certain type of professional and believe they can be ONLY that type of professional going forward is a huge mistake and I see it all the time in leadership.
A manager has “decided” that their worker is a type of person – this idea is so destructive. They are literally putting their direct report in a box and limiting their future potential.
As leaders we need to believe that our direct reports are capable of accomplishing more than we could ever imagine – uplift them, inspire them, motivate them – be a transformative leader not a “traditionalist” who paints them into a box and damages their potential.
I’ve also heard people comment that CS leaders can be narrow minded – focused on just customer complaints and against growth of the product. We love product evolution! Just let us know how we are evolving as a product so we can appropriately support our team and our customers.
What do you wish you could go back and tell an earlier incarnation of yourself?
That organizational skills and professional brand are key to success.
Breathe and learn to prioritize based on business & team needs, control your controllables.
And what advice would you give to another new leader in support?
Don’t do it all alone!
Find other leadership – look to your boss, other managers, your HR partner, networking with other support leadership, articles, books, etc. The more perspectives you account for, the more research you do, the stronger you are as a leader.
Understand that you should always be growing and developing and just because you are a manager doesn’t mean you have to always have the right answer. Be vulnerable as a leader and don’t fixate on power dynamic – just do your best to understand your directs as people and always push yourself to learn.
On that note, do you have any favourite resources you can recommend?
Harvard Business Review! Sign up for their Management Tip of the day – it’s free and a great way to stay on top of great leadership strategies.
Last one…. What’s your favourite way of signing off an email? 🙃
Thanks so much, Alyssa! There’s so much inspiration here, it’s difficult for me to pick one favourite point… but I think I might just have to say I love your thoughts around individual professional development the most!
Come back next week for more inspiration and development ideas from another great CS Leader!