„The role of the leader is to suck out the poison from the system“

In December, Csaba Tamas, principle solutions architect at AWS will be speaking at Leaders in Tech | Berlin. The talk “Cultural ingredients of high performance, innovative teams” will bring together Csaba’s experience starting his own company, working in the finance sector (both Mittelstand and in startups), and now at Amazon. Based on this real-world experience and a robust theoretical framework on motivation, Csaba will share why it’s crucial for leaders to rethink how to build and scale organisations. In particular, for technology companies and knowledge workers, what does agility and flexibility look like? How can organisations structure themselves to provide autonomy to teams, without descending into anarchy and losing focus? 
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be where you are now.
I started my professional career as an anchorman on Hungarian national television, but very quickly switched into computing, which was my other love and hobby. I started building digital television studios in early 2001-2002. Digitising analog studios had a huge advantage for companies because they could reduce their studio costs from literally millions to hundreds of thousands. I then created a small company but I burned through all of my money in one and a half years. I was this tech guy who had great ideas in his garage (actually it was in the attic) but had no clue on how to sell it, how to position it, how to do marketing, how to do communication, PR, anything like that.
This was the reason why I teamed up with a guy who sold physical security for banks. He had relationships with banks, but he didn’t have the knowledge or know-how for the IT security part. During this cooperation we got to know an Austrian company of banking and service automation. Eventually the Austrian company said they would like to start a subsidiary in Romania with us. This was a company where I needed to learn to trick a lot of the system to deliver the service levels which banks were used to getting from bigger enterprises with hundreds or thousands of employees. We needed to be very efficient all the time. We couldn’t have any waste because we were only a few people.
When did you get interested in how organisations are structured and can transform themselves?
[The Austrian banking company] invited me to become part of the management in Austria and guide them through a so-called digital transformation. At that time, I approached it in a somewhat technocratic way, more from the process point of view. I knew how a well-oiled Swiss clock should work, so this was the original idea. I thought that in a few months I will just reorganise them, and I will show them how to deliver more with less. This turned out to be a three-and-a-half-year very hard-learned lesson for me. It was also a very hard time, understanding a lot about human nature and human psychology, about how much people are influenced not just by the facts, but also by fears, their impressions and their emotional side.
By definition I’m more driven by facts than by emotions but on the other side I needed to understand how to persuade people to change old habits and the old guard to give up some things. I did an MBA in Romania and the most interesting classes where around organisational behavior, organisational design, so the human aspect of business. It also opened my eyes in the direction of Simon Sinek or Daniel Pink.
You talked about the acronym VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. What can you tell me about these types of environments and the types of teams that are working in them?
The type of work in digital innovation is not very repeatable, it’s not very predictable. We have a lot of companies who try to be agile, who try to be fast moving reacting to the customer needs. They’re still applying a lot of old-world reactions or muscle memories on how they should structure teams, how they should manage teams, how they should lead teams, how teams are motivated, or what motivates teams. In this new world, nothing is really fixed, no two days are comparable. Every day you do something different. How can you build an organisation and how can you scale an organisation in a way that you become successful? 
What is an example of these old-fashioned team structures?
We can look a little bit at how different companies are achieving success and see it also through the cultures of these different companies. Looking at this Austrian Mittelstand company, these kinds of companies are very strict and very hierarchical. You always need to request or ask for permission to make a decision and move something forward in the organisation.
At the same time what we see at Amazon is a concept of two-way door decisions and one-way door decisions. What the management says: the majority of decisions are two-way door decisions, meaning that you open the door, you make the decision. It’s like you opened the door and you cross the door and you look in the other room. If you like the result, you stay there. If you don’t like the result there, you just turn around and you come back right. 
There are some decisions of which you cannot turn back. For example, if you make a PR mistake, that’s super hard to be turned around. This is typically is a one-door decision. The organisation says whatever decision is a two-way door decision, it’s yours to make. This gives a lot of agility and edge to the organisation, because each and every employee can decide.
What about motivating people? How do companies differ in this area?
Daniel Pink in Motivation 2.0 says that in order to have motivated people, you have to have three major cornerstones defined: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. You give autonomy for decisions. For your employees, you give them a reason, you give them a vision, you give them a direction where to go: that would be purpose. Mastery is the skills which have to be there, and you need to scale up your people. Only when these three things are altogether, can you have a team which is really performing well. If you just have the skills and you have the autonomy, but there is no purpose, there are false starts. People are frustrated because they don’t understand the direction. 
We see this very frequently in startups and not just startup organisations, also in Mittelstand and enterprise companies where the C-level somehow locks themselves into an ivory tower and forget to communicate the vision to the rest of the departments. Then they are wondering why people are not behind their decisions.
Why is this important? What is the sort of greater social context that this is taking place in?
For me the starting point is that the complexity of our businesses is growing. By having higher complexity, there is no one person who can oversee everything and who can follow up on everything. The role of the C-level is no longer the all-knowing sage who receives all the input data and calls all the shots. Because this would definitely slow down the organisation just by the simple fact that you need thousands of decisions to be made every day. What you need to do to enable an organisation to evolve quickly is to give them the ability to make decisions by themselves.
How does this fit into your own personal journey as a leader and a manager?
When I went to this Austrian company, I told my wife in the first year that I was so frustrated. It’s five o’clock now and I couldn’t work yet. I just had meetings and I was just speaking to people — nothing useful. I did nothing useful! She said, “Have you considered that from now on this is your job? To align with people and help unlock the bottlenecks they have?”
This resonated a lot because a few years back, my organisational design and behavior professor said that the role of the leader is to suck out the poison from the system. At that time I kind of understood, but not really. It really took me some time, some years later, when it started to make sense. People, when they interact, people, when they have different motivations, especially when organizations are bigger and especially if performance and meritocracy are not in place, and it’s not clear what good looks, then there is a lot of poison in there.
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to include for people considering coming to the talk?
Any type of leader who is in the tech business and are wondering how they could inspire their colleagues to succeed together, how they can improve the togetherness, how they can create glue in their teams to create this feeling of belonging, to create this feeling we are one family, we are marching towards one goal and to have people who a bunch of people who believe the same things and they move mountains. How do you unlock the potential in the good intentions of people, and how you can transform your organisation into a better performing organisation at the end of the day. This is the story of creating a cult, creating a culture in your company of performance, a culture of belonging, a culture of changing the world together.
Learn more about building innovative technology teams and structuring for uncertainty from Csaba, join Leaders in Tech | Berlin on Wednesday December 11th, 2019.  To join contact [email protected]