Skype Journal Interviews Josh Silverman: The Way Ahead – Righting the Ship

skype_logoThis is the second in a series of posts resulting from in interview last Friday with Josh Silverman, Skype’s recently appointed President. In this post we talk about the key issues Josh found necessary to address and establishing a framework for employee motivation and empowerment.

Over the past couple of years I have written many posts lauding Skype, largely for its conversation infrastructure technology; I have also, from time-to-time written posts about the need for Skype to address the business infrastructure surrounding the deployment and use of the technology. With 300,000 new registrations daily, 30 to 50 million active users within a given day, and demand in the small-to-medium business market driven by its inherent cost advantages, Skype needs to right the ship when it comes to all aspects of turning Skype into a business that delivers customer satisfaction while sustaining profitable growth..

Some have thought that Phil and I are Skype Cheerleaders and, in their simplistic world, want instant solutions to problems. Doesn’t happen in a business that has become as large as Skype. To take maximum advantage of Skype’s technology, Skype needs leadership at the top that delivers a sense of mission, a set of inherent values and and a management structure suitable to a business that has grown as large and as rapidly as Skype. Business processes need to become readily scalable. Within such an environment, the Skype team needs to execute; employees need to know their responsibilities, to be held accountable for them, and, most importantly, to be empowered to act in their area of responsibility.

joshsilvermanskypecomphoto2crop150pxWhen we asked Josh Silverman, who took over as Skype’s President five months ago, as our first question, :”What has changed at Skype in the past year (since Niklas’ departure)?” he replied that he could only speak for the past five months. He then confirmed my suspicion: he has used this time to delve into all aspects of Skype – involving internal team and individual employee meetings, learning more about customers and their needs, examining market differences worldwide, reviewing both current and archived Skype forums and websites and even surveying media, all as input to determine what management structure and what cultural environment were needed to right the ship. What follows is a high level view of his action plan. (Note: where appropriate he has already discussed these moves with the Skype team, so there are no surprises here for them.)

  1. Define a mission statement
  2. Establish a set of values
  3. Restructure for business success
  4. Improve the user experience
  5. Evolve the business model
  6. Develop a technology roadmap.
  7. Establish a framework for effective customer and partner relationships
  8. Build market awareness

In building out on his response, Josh identified as issues to be addressed:

  • clarify Skype’s mission and strategy going forward
    • be clear about what Skype is trying to accomplish
    • be clear about decision making
  • maintain an ongoing sense of momentum around building great products
    • the Skype 4.0 beta program
  • understand their customers and bring their voice into the company.
  • a big issue: organize the company structure to clarify roles and accountability for people
  • establishing employee accountability: define who owns what internally
  • add people skills and resources consistent yet scalable with the level of customer growth
  • grow internal talent while adding experienced management leadership
    • bet on the people who brought Skype to this point
    • bring in experienced outside help to scale

On the core subject of building employee responsibility and accountability Josh responded:

We need to clarify accountability and roles for employees … I’m a big believer that, if you take a small cross-functional team, give them a mission, a lot of room to innovate, they’re going to come out with fantastic products. So we’re moving our organization more in that direction.

Skype, I don’t think is different [from] a lot of hypergrowth companies, in that the business grows so fast that it is very hard for the organizational structure to keep up. What ends up happening is people just take on extra responsibility here and there as the needs come up. And pretty soon you find yourself in a place where it’s really not clear who owns “this” … there are some really important things that nobody owns and some things that two or three people all think they own it.

So we need to step back and say, ok, lets’ take a fresh look at this and make sure everyone is really clear about who owns what, what are you accountable for, and what resources do we have and then let them go forth and empower them. So that’s what we’re doing right now and I think in the coming months we’ll be in a much better place for everyone. … I’ve been very public with my team about it and they’re all very supportive …. and they’re quite excited for us to do that.

On building the right mix of people, skills, capabilities to execute:

I’m a big believer that, when a company is growing as fast as Skype, just keeping up with the scale and evolution of the company is a major promotion every year. So what we want to do is grow a lot of our internal talent and take bets. I’m also a big believer in taking bets on a lot of the people who have been with you from the beginning, who understand the business and culture. But I also believe in bringing experience from the outside … who have seen this before and had to scale this way before and can help us to figure out how, as we inevitably get a little bigger, to stay agile and, in fact, I think we can get even more agile as we get bigger, if we’re smart about it.

On getting employee empowerment right:

Everybody needs to know what their accountability is. I’m a believer that empowerment doesn’t mean everyone can do anything … because then everyone starts overlapping and, actually, you end up with a big mess. What empowerment means is everyone is really clear about what the company is trying to accomplish, everyone is really clear about what they’re accountable for and, within that accountability, they have the scope to make all decisions. It doesn’t mean they can make any decisions they want but they’re really clear about where their decision making begins and ends. If you do that everybody feels empowered and we grow much faster. By the way I also believe that the best decisions you make are almost always made at the level of the working team. So I aspire to a world where very few decisions flow up to the executive ranks other than “what are we trying to solve for?” and “how much resource are we investing in any given initiative?” and “do we have the right talent?”.

Next post: Managing the Skype team culture

About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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