Employee retention in Silicon Valley is a notoriously difficult problem to solve for many companies.
At Brex, Art Levy has found success in this area by encouraging employees to grow within the broader organization.
Recently, Art took his own advice and transitioned from VP of Business Development to leading a new business unit as Senior Vice President of Brex Asset Management. Brex is a rapidly growing startup providing business banking services to companies. Brex serves thousands of companies, particularly in the technology, e-commerce, and life sciences areas.
As the VP of Business Development, Art led a team of 20, divided into sub-teams that were focused on specific target markets. Art also noted that his team had become a talent pool for the whole company, partially thanks to a “skip level” process he implemented.
At Brex, Art has built in a process so that everyone knows exactly where they stand in terms of their career progress and how they can make it to the next level.
“The great thing about leading Business Development was that I made it into a talent center for other parts of the business,” he says. “I had three people leave for Product over the course of last year.”
Although he didn’t state it explicitly, this kind of attitude is great for both employees and the company, but it requires managers to take on an ego-less approach. Rather than obsessing with keeping the best employees on your team, managers center around what is “best for Brex” as a whole.
As one of the processes that reinforce this mindset, Art implemented “skip-level” meetings with all members of his team that aren’t direct reports. Skip level meetings are scheduled every six weeks and the agenda is set by the team member, not by the manager, so they themselves are the guides of their career path.
The whole purpose of the meetings is to assess where they want to be in a year or two years and help them get there. The agenda is completely up to them and I had people cancel on me all the time, which I’m fine with. If you have nothing to talk about, great. It means that either you're either super engaged or you're quitting tomorrow, because there's no in between.”
Skip level meetings also give team members the opportunity to air any concerns or obstacles they might feel uncomfortable bringing to their manager.
This allows Art to keep a finger on the pulse of how things are going throughout the department.
Art further emphasized the importance of making sure that people have a sense of purpose in what they are doing, as well as knowing and reiterating their specific objectives.
“Every two weeks, I repeat the company goals for the quarter, and then repeat how our team goals fit into that. You have to hammer the top down message again and again: This is why what you're doing is important and that is how it fits into the bigger Brex vision,” says Art.
Art emphasized the importance for Business Development teams to be disciplined when it comes to targeting the customers that are strategic for the business. There can be a tendency for sales people to bring in any possible customer, but by keeping them focused on core channels, it helps the company stay on target and prevents overlap from one team to the other.
If this team is focused on accountants, they are focused on accountants and the other team is focused on investors,” said Art. “I made it clear that nobody is to work on other types of partners. Agencies? No. Law Firms? No. Focus on just these two.”
Each team was specialized and understood their specific target market and outcomes in detail.
One of the pillars of the Brex company culture is that they do a tremendous amount of their communication in written form, something their CEO had adopted from the best practices of Amazon. Written communication has a number of benefits that Art mentioned:
There’s no need for discussing the status of each project because it’s all visible. The team can focus on identifying problems rather than status updates. More writing not only means more transparency, it also enables more ownership for responsible employees.
It’s easy to give lip service to trust and relationships because the results are hard to measure. But what would it look like to build a team that has quadrupled the median retention rate for talent in the technology sector?
As a startup guy, my world is full of buzzwords. We’re disrupting a space, have pivoted, got our minimum valuable product (MVP) out to our total addressable market (TAM) and even had a ‘.ai’ domain name. Undoubtedly, one of my ‘favorites’ is ‘team alignment’.