12 lessons learned in helping your talent thrive

12 lessons learned in helping your talent thrive

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Looking back at 2014, it was quite a fruitful year in terms of funds announced and investment deals closed. But one of the biggest challenges that entrepreneurs in the region and the world still face is managing teams and retaining talent. Not excelling at this can keep startups from growing to the point of attracting big money.

We spoke to some of the region’s most noteworthy entrepreneurs about the main challenges they faced this year in keeping their teams inspired, and the lessons they learned along the way.

Challenges faced

Abdallah Absi ZoomaalAttracting talent is where the challenges begin, says Abdallah Absi, CEO and founder of Zoomaal, a Lebanon-based crowdfunding platform that serves the Arab region. “Good talent is hard to get a hold of when a seasoned entrepreneur with a lot of experience and potential is launching a startup. It’s even worse when you're a young entrepreneur and you have to attract the seniors who are betting their career on you.”

But the challenge isn’t over once you’ve hired a great team; you’ve still got to manage them. Mehdi Karoui, the Strategy and Organization Partner of Chifco, a Tunisian startup that allows users to monitor and manage connected home appliances from anywhere, stressed the role managers have to play in keeping their teams inspired. This comes from understanding their concerns, ambitions, and how to mobilize them around a common vision. “Developing these talents is a daily challenge,” he said, and is crucial to a company’s growth.

Similarly, for beauty e-commerce platform Glambox, the biggest challenge was learning how to get the most and best out of each team member. “We often find that activities that might have made perfect sense in theory actually failed in practice because they consumed too much time from several team members and only yielded very little (whether that's leads, conversions, awareness or any other form of value),” said managing director Nada Zagallai.

Evolving one’s business model, which should be a constant process, also has the potential to put strain on a team. According to Mahmoud Shattel, founder of Jordanianrenewable energy solutions provider Taqetna, having to learn and implement new skills necessitates “going back to the drawing board to solve the project's problems and deliver on time.”

Although Saphon Energy ended the year with a bang, putting the right team together was a major challenge for the Tunisian based green energy startup this year. “It’s a killer when you know that you have in hand something revolutionary, but you don’t know [which team configuration] you will take it to the next level,” said Hassine Labaied, the startup’s co-founder.

As the ecosystem grows, we see more startups facing challenges related to scaling and expansion. “When you expand,” asks Hind Wassef, cofounder of Egypt-based Diwan Bookstore, “how do you divide the company into management-friendly compartments that can be quantitatively monitored without taking away from the initial energy and spirit that previously drove the company?”

Dealing with these challenges day in and day out for years has taught our entrepreneurs the following 12 lessons for team building and maintenance.

Lessons learned:

  1. Have a strong belief in your vision, says Hassine Labaied. “Our situation required an effective mental exercise and a deep emotional adjustment. Despite the fact that such entrepreneurial venture are very risky and a kind of a race against time, we had to consider it as just an adventure, a journey where we have nothing to lose and keep a firm belief that everything will happen on due date.”

    Mehdi Karoui concurs, further emphasizing that entrepreneurs should make it clear to the team that a company’s vision is (i) the outcome of their efforts and daily work and (ii) that this vision can not be achieved without their contributions and talents.

  1. Implement collective and individualized skills management plans: team and/or individual training, individual interviews to identify personal aspirations, coaching sessions, and especially daily management self-examination in order to raise skills and empower members. Ask them to present the startup’s overall strategic vision, organization, and new operational tools. -Mehdi Karoui

  1. Work on team building activities with various stakeholders (partners, experts, references in the business sector) in order to strengthen the team around the company's success. Push them to share their own vision of the company and how to reach it. Ask how they see themselves in one, three, and five years with the objective to agree on tools and strategy to reach their goals. “The best way to reach an objective or a vision is to adopt a Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive [MECE] vision in order to create a synergy between these different profiles.” -Mehdi Karoui

  1. Raise your exposure. Zoomaal tried many channels to raise the company’s profile, from Facebook ads to mail shots to university career services, and others. “We did a lot of PR.” -Abdallah Absi

  1. Create a unique company culture. Zoomaal, featured in our list of 7 coolest offices in the region, boasts a gaming room and flexible work hours. -Abdallah Absi

  2. Be creative in your hiring process. “Send broadcasts asking for people who are passionate and believe in the company's vision and don’t focus solely on CVs. If someone is passionate about what they do, they will learn the required skills to achieve the company's goals.” -Abdallah Absi

  1. Manage your expectations, given your team’s strengths and weaknesses. If your expectations are clear, your team can have something to work towards, and better plan their weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals. -Mahmoud Shattel

  1. Embrace risk. After the many challenges associated with offering new services, the Taqetna team decided that risk taking, however dangerous, was necessary to achieving their global targets. -Mahmoud Shattel

  1. Adapt constantly. “We had no choice but to adjust our perception and always try to see the bright side of the story and connect the dots in a positive way.” -Hassine Labaied

  2. Quantify, quantify, quantify. Evaluate your activities and outcomes. Look forward as you chart your path and consider if an initiative is worth the effort that goes into it. It sounds simple, but if you don't ask yourself first, you might find yourselves doing things you didn't need to.” -Nada Zagallai

  3. Make sure team members are suited to their positions. As a company grows, managers assign team members to different sectors based on their experience and skill sets. But for Hind Wassef, cofounder of Diwan Bookstore, another challenge arose. “Caliber is one problem; the qualifications and managerial abilities of each person vary, especially in positions of responsibility and accountability.” -Hind Wassef

  4. Prioritize business streams. “There must be a comprehensive study of revenue for each strand, as if you are carrying out a separate business plan for each one, to assess the efficacy of the new department you are setting up. Sometimes you create a certain structure and the return on that investment takes longer to be realized than other areas.” -Hind Wassef


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