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If I Knew Then: Nick Parker, uShip CTO

By Mary Ann Azevedo, @bayareawriter, Crain’s  /  In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy:  Nick Parker / Chief Technology Officer / uShip Inc.

Nick Parker, CTO, uShip

About the company:

uShip aims to bring greater automation, transparency and efficiency to freight transportation by moving it online and mobile. It primarily serves the commercial freight, vehicle and household goods markets.

The Mistake:

Not taking into consideration the importance of relationship-building.

When we first started 12 years ago, we had a really tight-knit group. There were four of us together in the same room all the time. We would know what the other person was thinking. We could say about 40 words in one look. We spent time together outside of the office, and just knew each other very well. We would even argue, yell at each other, figure out some resolution and make up over a game of ping-pong.

Fast-forward 10 years. A couple of the founders had left and we put a powerhouse executive over every department. It seemed like things should be clipping along and moving quickly. But they weren’t. Things were taking much longer than you would expect them to take, and were harder than expected, too. When reviewing our annual strategy document, we found that we had to put huge chunks of time on the calendar to make less progress than one would expect. So we tried to figure out what was going on.

The Lesson:

We came to the realization that we didn’t know each other well enough. We knew how each other worked professionally and we were working on a team, but not working together as a team. As the company grew, we didn’t recognize how important those stages of key development are. The closeness we shared in those early days was not happening on the team at all.

So we realized we needed to spend some time actually getting to know each other. It started with an offsite (meeting) about two years ago that wasn’t focused on our strategy but mostly on really getting to know each other. We talked about things like where people were from, who had siblings, who had long hair and a metal band growing up – that might have been me. There’s a concept I knew pretty well but hadn’t yet applied to this group: forming, storming, norming and performing. Every successful l team really goes through these steps. But we had not gotten to a point where we could effectively storm because we had to build trust and feel comfortable in feeling vulnerable around our team. We had to be able to say things that weren’t necessarily super-comfortable but if people were tiptoeing around each other, we wouldn’t ever be able to do that.

That retreat we took was the first step in building those relationships. Over time, these efforts made us much more effective as a team so that we could get to the norming and performing phase. Once you get through storming, you start learning how to make those no-look passes. You can speak on someone else’s behalf, understand what they would think. We were able to fly through our strategy plan more quickly, and be on the same page in a way that we couldn’t if we were unwilling to go through that trust and vulnerability. We weren’t doing horribly before, but it felt like a molasses a little bit.

We learned that you can get a team to form much more quickly by not just throwing them together and having them start working, but allowing them to take the time to get them to know each other. We worked to break down walls so that people could have actively productive conversations because they were not worried how the other person was going to take what they were saying. One example is my relationship with our chief marketing officer. Before, I didn’t really have much of an understanding of what his day-to-day life was like. We set up a series of one-on-ones and just got to know each other. As a result, our ability to work together effectively has grown incredibly over the past year.

We have just over 200 employees today and doubled our dev team in the last year. This lesson has definitely come in handy with a growing team. We’re constantly disrupting teams when growing that fast so I look at this as a shortcut to get teams functioning better together faster.

Follow uShip on Twitter at: @uShip.

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