Hiring the right culture fit during a global pandemic:

an interview with Tasso Roumeliotis, Founder & CEO NumberAI

This year has proven to be an enormous challenge for businesses and business leaders globally. The COVID pandemic has significantly altered many workers’ daily experience of work. In this new remote workplace, every employee is facing their own unique challenges, whether that be the delicate balance of childcare, limited space, or isolation.

As a result, business leaders have had to be extremely adaptable and rise to the challenge of navigating a future full of unknowns. We wanted to know what leaders around the world were doing to make informed decisions, build trust, manage employee well-being, and embrace change. Below is an excerpt from our recent global eguide, Redefining the Future Business Leader, where we interviewed Tasso Roumeliotis, Founder & CEO of Bay Area startup NumberAI

Tasso Roumeliotis’ previous startup boasted a 95% retention rate from its founding to its exit. When Tasso subsequently co-founded NumberAI, members of his previous team joined him. People are at the core of NumberAI, and that is the same approach they have taken to navigate the pandemic. We speak to Tasso on how he and his co-founders have kept their team going strong and their approach towards the new normal.

A 95% retention rate is impressive, particularly for start-ups. Tell us more about your team, its dynamic, and how you achieved that?

Hiring the right people who are the right fit for your company is important. Of course, we’re a tech company and people’s technical competencies are important, so we have tests to ascertain that. However, that’s just a baseline test that employees need to pass.

We count on our people to drive us ahead, and this is why 70% of our interview process focuses on candidates’ fit for our organization, and whether their personal values align with our values as a company. Arguably, our most important core value is what we call ‘underdog grit’ – the ability to overcome adversity – and that’s one of the key things that I interview for. We did a study at our previous company and found that over 70% of our employees came from immigrant families, where they have had to work hard to get a good education.

We found employees who had all the right skill sets but perhaps had a smoother life journey that didn’t involve overcoming obstacles typically didn’t turn out to be the right fit for us. So when we hold interviews, we ask our candidates about their life stories, and we talk about the challenges they’ve been through. We typically only hire those that we feel have demonstrated grit and ability to overcome adversity. We are a diverse team but the similarity in core life values has helped us build a strong sense of togetherness. We have become friends, and friends don’t break up with friends. 

I’m sure this grit to overcome adversity has helped your employees during this crisis. How else are you helping your team to stay strong?

As an office, we’ve done what other companies have done – we’ve tried to keep our office traditions alive in different ways. We used to have cocktail Fridays in the office, and we have moved that online. I am also trying to branch into other things, such as a book club focusing on self-improvement, career development and personal growth. However, I must say I’ve found this period challenging. I’m a very personal leader, who prefers one-on-one interactions, so trying to maintain that same kind of engagement with my team has not been easy. Previously when we’re at the office, I would see someone and start chatting with them about their personal life and their work. With social distancing measures in place, my team is situated at home, while I come into the office daily.

I’ve found that while we do get on virtual calls and interact, it’s much harder to get that same level of mutual engagement. To overcome that, I’ve scheduled meetings in my calendar with my team members where we just hang out and talk about their life and what’s going on. Without scheduling these meetings, it’s easy to get carried away by work and forget about these important personal interactions.

In addition, I’ve noticed that some of my team members are often cooped up in their houses. Some are lonely, while others are just spending every minute of their day with the same few family members. To help them get out of the house, I’ll drive to where they live, and we’ll go for a walk in the park or in a big open area where we’re far away from other people. I think getting people out of their house to enjoy some nature and greenery is incredibly helpful to their mental health and well-being.

Your company culture is an integral part of how you help your team balance work and life. In hybrid work environments of the future, how can you onboard new employees and ensure they assimilate well into your team?

It’s something the leadership and HR team need to work much harder on, and I don’t have the answer yet myself. However, I do see it being similar to the classic growing pains that we experience in start-ups. A one-person company is very different from a three-person company, and as you continue to expand to 10, 30, and then 100 people, things are going to change at each stage. From what I observed at my previous company, at 30 people, we all knew each other. Then you go on to a hundred, and inevitably there will be people who don’t know each other.

What systems do you put in place then to make sure the company’s core values are diffused across the entire team, and the culture remains strong?

I think what’s going to happen is that we’re going to have to accelerate the systems and put them in place much earlier. Where teams of 30 in an office may all know each other, teams of 30 in a hybrid environment may not get much chance to interact with each other. We’re going to

have to perhaps start implementing the processes and support systems at even smaller scales to get people to talk more to each other, and scale up from there.

What other tips do you have for other leaders in helping their teams find that balance between work and well-being?

One thing I’ve learnt from the pandemic, in terms of operating a company, is that you can no longer assume everybody is in the same situation. During this pandemic, we have employees who didn’t have the luxury of living in a big enough house that allows them to work in separate rooms from their spouses; we have employees who have children that need their attention at different times of the day, and we have employees living alone without any company.

I think this is an incredibly important lesson that we need to bring with us going forward. As we transition into the new normal, we need to work with HR to construct solutions that can address many different problems instead of having a one-size-fits-all measure.

If you found Tasso’s perspective valuable, you can read more interviews full of practical tips that you can implement into your own evolving organization. We interviewed leaders from Schaeffler, Henkel Malaysia, HEINEKEN, McDonald’s, Nestle, Citric, & Stanley Black & Decker in the comprehensive eguide, Redefining The Future Business Leader. Download your copy now.

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