This week, I spent some pleasant time talking Customer Support with Jay Padzensky!
Jay is Customer Support Manager at Abstract, which builds a design workflow platform for teams to version, manage, and collaborate on Sketch and Adobe XD files. Jay has been there for 2 years, and in CS leadership for about 6 months.
Hi Jay! Thanks so much for spending time with me today! When I asked how long you’d been in leadership, you said there wasn’t a simple answer – what’s the long version there?
Yeah, this is a funny question. I’ve only been a manager in Customer Support for about six months now. However, I feel like I’ve been developing and honing my leadership skills for much of my career, in tech or otherwise. The manager role now enables me to house all of the various aspects of a “leader” under one roof now.
And how did you get into support in the first place?
In undergrad, I studied psychology and sociology because I wanted to “help people.” At the time, I had a very narrow view of people who needed help – largely, those who had already been prescribed a label by someone or something – for example, at-risk youth, developmentally delayed students, etc. I worked as a counsellor for kids “in the system”: a teacher’s aide for youths with special educational needs, an English teacher in Japan, a teacher trainer in the Peace Corps, and a program manager for at-risk 8th graders.
Into my young adult years, I told myself I’d never work for for-profit companies because I didn’t perceive the free market as caring for folks who needed help. I felt satisfaction in my professional life – mentoring in youth; coaching adults; teaching new skills; building up and empowering individuals.
I was also stressed, broke, and disillusioned. Non-profit and education are not easy for the career-minded individual. My hat goes off to folks who make a career there.
Slightly devastated to go back on my word to myself about working in private companies, I began considering tech as a way to become more financially stable. A good friend worked at Treehouse, an e-learning platform, and informed me they were hiring a Support Specialist. Years of work with troubled youth and considering myself a good writer, I felt that this role would make use of my various talents. Additionally, Treehouse was part of the unschooling movement, and it helped me swallow my pride about working for a for-profit company. My Support career was thus born.
That’s an awesome story! So you said your move into CS leadership was a recent one. How did that happen?
Abstract and our Support organization saw a bit of transition and change. After one particular event, the CEO came to me and asked if I could lead the Support team.
I never wanted to be a manager. I felt incredibly uneasy about being directly responsible for things outside of my control. I enjoyed the comfort of being held responsible solely for responsibilities tasked to me.
Additionally, I’m not one for “power.” Until that point, I had associated “manager” with a particular level of power, enough at least to introduce power dichotomies between parties, regardless of any relationship or rapport previously built. Since then, I’ve learned that these excuses I pitched myself to avoid becoming a manager were bogus. There are always solutions out there.
Are there any challenges that you’re still figuring out? What’s been difficult?
I think the hardest thing was… No, still IS, feelings of imposter syndrome. While I could piece together “what a good manager is,” without any direct mentorship or close guidance or training at all, it’s incredibly difficult to know what I should be doing week to week, day to day, even hour to hour sometimes. Routine self-doubt, confusion, and utilizing a skillset vastly different from what made you successful as an IC can really cloud your perception of your own abilities. However, on the flip side, it’s this grit and self-reliance that makes you stronger.
On top go that, I think a good CS leader relies on the “soft skills” considerably, as their team’s success is the leader’s success. As such, compassion, ability to listen, engaging in true dialog, empowering others, and serving the team are all equally critical. As leaders are immediately responsible for their direct reports’ satisfaction and performances, my personal belief is that a strong rapport between manager and IC results in strong motivation and efforts. My “north star” for leading is to treat those who report to me directly first as humans and second as employees. I’ve found this to be invaluable for leading a team because it demonstrates your compassion, investment, and support in who they are and who they want to become. Trust is not freely given, and as leaders, it’s our job to earn it from our respective teams.
And how do you measure your team’s success?
In a variety of ways. Of course, there are always metrics. For them, I place a much heavier weight on the metrics as a team overall than individual metrics. The team metrics can be a baseline against which you look at IC’s individual metrics. Assuming they’re not egregiously different, I consider each IC’s efforts as a contribution to the team metric/goal. We win as a team and lose as a team.
I think a lot depends largely on how they’re being used. Since Support metrics inherently are not 100% controlled by the team or their efforts, these metrics are sometimes just numbers. Additionally, without context, they can decouple the work from reality and even lead to wrong conclusions. I think metrics are useful as a way to help gauge team and performance health, which then may assist in iterating on successful processes or problem-solving on a specific level, but they certainly are not the end-all, be all for Support goals.
Perhaps more important are the contributions that ICs make to the team goals, outside of the inbox, that ideally map up to organizational goals. Support is a (rather tricky) balance between reactive and pro-active work, but without the latter, a Support team will never evolve to meet the growing and changing needs of their customers. As long as folks are constantly pushing towards improving themselves, our team, and organization as a whole, I think we’re on the right track.
That evolution in Support is difficult to achieve, for sure. How do you nurture development in your team?
To begin, it requires trust between a leader and direct reports. This trust is the foundation on which the relationship is built. As a leader, it’s critical to empower ICs by giving them work that’s slightly above their self-perceived abilities. As they routinely strive to achieve the bar the two of you have collaboratively set, they’ll continue to level up. Additionally, I find it important to constantly talk with the ICs who report to you to understand what their career goals are, what motivates them, and routinely share constructive feedback with them. As this mutual trust is developed, this dialog becomes more honest and impactful and the two of you engage in a mutually beneficial collaboration.
How have things changed for you over time?
I’m still trying to reconcile the advice I hear constantly that “No one knows what they’re doing” and observing that some people really do have their shit together. That is to say, I still feel like I’m the former camp than the latter and have yet to consider myself part of Support thought leadership!
My perennial last questions… how do you sign off an email?
Thanks so much, Jay! It’s always good to get a new manager’s perspective, and your story is an unusual one!
Watch this space for another CS Leadership story next week…