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Top 7 International Employment Lessons from AMA with Tim Burgess, Co-Founder of Shield GEO

As the co-founder of Shield GEO, a global employment organization that helps companies who want to hire someone in a country where they are unable to employ them directly, Tim shared his expertise and international employment lessons in our leadership community, The Watercooler.

Tim Burgess, Co-Founder of Shield GEO on international employment lessons.

Every month, we invite one of the 1,000+ managers who are a part of our leadership community, The Watercooler, from all over the world to participate in an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session. It’s an opportunity for managers, executives, and business owners to gain in-depth insights into management and leadership lessons. This month, we were curious regarding international employment lessons.

Last month, we had an AMA with Sara Sutton, CEO, and Founder of FlexJobs, the leading service for professional remote and flexible job opportunities.

Other past guests have included Natalie Gould, CEO of Balsamiq, Valentina Thörner, Happiness Team Lead at Automattic, and David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH), CTO at Basecamp.

Without further ado, I would like to tell you about our December AMA guest, Tim Burgess, co-founder of Shield GEO. Tim had a lot of international employment lessons to share since every month this company administers the employment and payroll of 550 employees in 60+ countries. Every month on average, they onboard 30 new employees and terminate 15. This is handled by their team of 35, mostly remote staff who are spread across nine countries. Shield GEO is also 80% female, including their whole leadership team, except for the two founders.

Tim is based in Sydney, Australia and started his career as an IT recruiter. After 18 months, they transferred Tim to the UK to run a tiny satellite office that hired contract software developers to work in the UK. He was in a serviced office by himself. His nearest colleague was in Chicago.

In 2001, Tim set up a company with a friend of his to help foreign workers work in the UK. They are now on their third venture together, all of which have involved international employment. In 2009, Tim moved back to Australia, and their other business – helping international contractors with payroll and tax – wasn’t growing fast enough to support his family. He had to get a “proper” job so he spent an intense 18 months doing sales for an IT consulting company. While there, he won a staff voted award that got him into the Business of Software conference in 2010. Listening to Seth Godin, Rob Walling (who has been a guest on our podcast, The Heartbeat!), Eric Reiss, and Peldi Guilizzoni (another Heartbeat guest as well!) changed Tim and opened up a new path. He realized the value of trial and error. Tim started to look at failure differently and developed an acute interest in being a leader.

Tim told his business partner that he wanted to scale back his part-time involvement in their business and manage the team he was working in. Within months he’d misread the CEO and gotten fired. Tim went crawling back to his friend and their business.

Tim came to understand that he cared deeply about people and how they are treated at work. The pain of that experience is at the core of how he deals with his staff today. Much of his early views of leadership were trying to treat people better than he’d been treated. Tim’s own experience and some messes he has cleaned up for clients has given him strong views on how to fire and hire people with compassion.

I learned so much following Tim’s AMA. Here were the top 7 international employment lessons I learned from him:

Question #1

“How do you ensure that international workers are fairly compensated? Do you pay in local currency or USD?”

Tim’s Answer:

We always pay in local currency and respect local employment requirements. But in some countries where the currency fluctuates a lot, we tie the local compensation to the USD. So we set a salary in the local currency, but we reconcile it against a USD amount. If the employee ends up receiving less than the USD equivalent, we pay an FX bonus in the next cycle to make them whole. Currently, we’ve done that for our people in Argentina, Mexico, and Nicaragua. Honestly, this is the easiest part of the problem.

Fair compensation is a much trickier problem to solve. I’m working on this right now. I had a great chat a few weeks back with Natalie Gould, of Balsamiq recently as she’s also thinking about this same problem.

We have a set of compensation principles. Here they are:

  • We have a transparent, fair and equitable remuneration process
  • Your location determines your remuneration and statutory entitlements
  • We have market rate salary levels for all roles and locations
  • We provide monthly and annual allowances to enable our team members to work flexibly (Telecomm), support their wellbeing (HWBA), and an annual travel allowance (“work-ation”)
  • Everyone shares in the company success via an annual profit share based on tenure and seniority.

Pay raises are based on:

  • Progression through role levels in the competency framework
  • Promotion to new or different role
  • Annual pay raise to reflect market adjustment or CIP/WPI/inflation

But we’re still working on putting them in place. Principles are great and all… but living up to them is much harder.

I’m getting challenged by some of our staff on this. Money is a big thing! The principles have been helpful to give me guidance. For example, some people are really fixated on pay for performance. That’s not us. We don’t want to measure people too closely. We don’t want to compare them or make them compete against each other. We are resistant to bringing in metrics and measurement, which we just don’t want right now. And it would bring a lot of subjective judgment and opportunity for bias.

The hardest part for me right now is that we don’t really know what is a market rate for all our roles in all our locations. Market data from companies like Radford is expensive. Some of our jobs are a bit niche. And some of our hiring locations are unusual for those jobs. Which means the data might not actually be that helpful. But we do need a way to identify a fair salary and make it suitably transparent, so our people agree or propose improvements. What I’m leaning towards is picking one location where we can get good publicly available data, where we can hire for all the roles that we want. We are confident that our compensation is fair in that market — and then building a formula to localize in other countries/cities based on the comparative cost of living. It won’t be perfect, but it should give us a big enough pool of folks we could hire and retain.

Question #2

“Tim went crawling back to his friend and their business.”

“How did this conversation go? What did you say to your business partner, and how did he receive your apology? Was there any awkwardness, or did things just go back to normal right away?”

Tim’s Answer:

HAHAHA. I wasn’t sure anyone would pick up on that. It was so embarrassing. Looking back, I really took a vote of no confidence in the business… and fell flat on my face. All within a couple of months. And yet he accepted me back.

He’s a really amazing friend, and he was so matter-of-fact about it. I mean, obviously, he laughed at me for a while. But it got back to normal very quickly.

I’m sure in some small way he was relieved. It’s not that he wanted me to leave. And it’s a lot to run a business by yourself. It’s much more enjoyable and less stressful doing it together.

Question #3

“Could you share how you deal with timezone differences between 9 countries? Do you require a minimum overlap?”

Tim’s Answer:

Timezones are a pain, but from the beginning, our clients and partners have been all over the world. So it’s part of our DNA. Communication has been an important part of making it work. But first, I’ll cover the logistics of how we are constructed.

Our biggest team is nine people located in Spain, the UK, Mexico & the USA. That is a 7-hour spread, but they get enough crossover to have their weekly calls. This is the only one where we’ve consciously hired for timezone because most of our clients are in the USA and Europe.

Our second biggest team is eight people based in Sydney, Singapore, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. That’s only a 3-hour spread. (Fun fact: 25% of the world population is within 3 hours of Sydney where I am based.)

We have some small teams like terminations (three people in Argentina, the USA, and the Philippines) and implementation (four people in Italy, the UK, the Philippines, and Sydney), which have a broader spread already. It works great in terms of client services because they cover almost 24/7. But the team members suffer a bit. They don’t spend much time together. And they don’t get as much opportunity to work collaboratively. Which impacts on process improvements.

I look forward to those teams growing so they can have a little more regional cohesion.

We are planning for scaling teams into new timezones. We will try to keep some overlap as we do it. So we just hired a finance person in Portugal. And we chose an experienced generalist who can help with training new finance folks in this new timezone. And with her experience, she’s also going to be more comfortable interfacing with other teams. She’s an early riser, and one of our managers in Asia works late. So they will get a few hours per day together.

But whether there is overlap or not, we have a real focus on written communication and over-communicating in general. By overcommunication, I mean giving extra context when writing to someone. For example, when answering someone in the UK, I’m going to try to anticipate any follow-up questions they might have and answer them in advance. I’m not just giving them an answer; I’m also explaining how I made the decision. And hoping that saves them needing to ask more questions because every additional reply means another 24 hours of waiting.

We put things in public (i.e., Salesforce, Slack, Notion) so that knowledge isn’t stored in silos. We are slowly getting better at documenting decisions and taking notes from meetings.

For a while now, we’ve been filtering applicants on this, so we only add people who default to written communication. And we’ve been coaching the folks that we hired before we realized how important it was.

And then we supplement it with lots of social interaction, so we get a richer picture of each other. Sid Sijbrandij from Gitlab says it so well when he talks about the need to be intentional about informal communication. 

We use Slack, Know Your Team, Donut.ai, and we run regular regional Zoom chats. We also have a weekly internal newsletter, an ongoing series on how people structure their day. Over the last few months, we’ve been recording AMAs, like this, but on Zoom with our journalist asking the questions, with our internal staff. This means there are a whole bunch of ways that our people can interact with each other. And those connections are super important for empathy and trust.

Question #4

“Could you share more about your growth, sales, and marketing strategy? How do you acquire new customers? I see that you have a sales and a marketing team, with about five people on each team. How are these two teams organized?”

Tim’s Answer:

Growth, sales, and marketing. That’s a big question, but they are all so closely linked! But I guess our foundational strategy could be summed up as “provide the best service we can, and good things will happen.”

Our sales are founded on inbound web traffic from organic content marketing. And it basically always has been. We had a crucial partnership in the early days of the business, but we outgrew it. And haven’t had much success building other partnerships.

We don’t do any outbound sales. I’m sure it could bring revenue. But Duncan, my co-founder, and I have done that in previous careers, and we hated it. So we’ve not done it up until now. Instead, our four-person sales team (we call them customer success) handles inbound leads and works to understand what they need and whether we can help. It is high touch consultative work. They want to make sure the client knows exactly what is involved. If the client agrees to go ahead, they get handed over to our onboarding team. The sales team is pretty flat and currently re-organizing as it grows. But it’s basically a manager, two sales staff and a trainee. We will add sales operations early next year.

We do need to do something to broaden where leads come from. We’ve dabbled in SEM but never had great returns. That’s a background goal for the next year. We’ll probably start with drilling more into our existing customers and trying to get referrals.

Marketing has shifted over the last few years. We’ve always done a lot of writing, mostly using freelancers and interns. But this year we hired a journalist on staff, and that has been amazing. I cannot recommend this highly enough; journalists are the best. We also found a freelance illustrator whose work we love. And that has changed how we view our brand. So the team is now a product marketing manager, journalist, freelance copywriter, freelance illustrator. And we are in the final stages of hiring a digital marketing person.

Marketing initially focused on explaining our service. Looking back, we started off insecure and wanting to show or build credibility. Then we shifted to what does it do for the customer, what the benefits are for them. This was much better. Customers don’t care so much about the details of what we do; they want to solve their problem and get on with their own stuff.

And over the last year, we’ve shifted to also incorporate who we are and what we believe. We understand that we don’t want all customers, just the good ones that value similar things to us. So we are sharing those values and building our brand as a way for customers to self-select. We want it to be easy for them to know who we are and whether they want to use us. If you like the things we like, we should be really attractive. If you don’t… you’re going to go elsewhere.

There is a ton of luck and privilege in this position. And we might be making a terrible mistake! But it feels right for us at the moment.

Part of the privilege is tied to growth.

Growth is not something we’ve worried about that much. We are lucky in that we’re in a market that is growing of itself. And we have some larger competitors who are spending money and effort to raise awareness of the service. That is difficult and expensive marketing. We are grateful they are doing it. So we figure we can, to an extent, ride their coattails. They do the heavy lifting, and we can spend our meager resources on brand and how we are different. It means we don’t grow as fast as them.

But also as a bootstrapped company operating in a complex service, we want to grow in a constrained way. We are a service business built around people. If we grow, we have to hire.

We’ve had a couple of times that our growth has gotten away from us, and it has led to so much stress. Teams have gotten overloaded, people have worked overtime, processes broke down, there was infighting and resentment. And we made mistakes, and our service level dropped. We eventually dug our way out of that by prioritizing colleagues first, customers second, growth third. And by being more clear on who we wanted as customers. We’re not perfect now, but so much better.

It’s been interesting reading the Away article

I relate to their overload in CX. Those mistakes of overstuffing your funnel are really easy to make. I’d imagine this would be increased with the pressure associated with VC funding. I don’t want to dump on Away or their leadership. That is a really tough spot to be in, especially early in your leadership journey. The one thing I will say is that if when we experienced the stress of uncontrolled growth, we eventually turned the tap off a bit, which slowed the onslaught of new customers. And it bought us some breathing space.

Question #5

“What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned this year?”

Tim’s Answer:

Great question. It’s really hard to cut it down to just one thing.

The biggest thing was realizing that every opinion, blog post, article, etc. is just a data point. And that trying to apply things verbatim will often fail because every situation and company is a little unique. This was a source of frustration to me for the longest time. I’d read something and try to apply it straight away, it wouldn’t work, and then I’d think it was because we were terrible. Or I was terrible.

But actually, it’s better to take all the data and go back to the underlying principles of what we’re trying to do. And then think things through from there. That leads to answers which match our situation and company. And that has been working much better so far!

Question #6

“I was moved by the idea of firing people with compassion. How do you do that?”

Tim’s Answer:

I would say that it is a work in progress. But over the last few years, I’ve been involved in quite a few situations where people have been fired. In particular, I’m considering being fired for performance. A few times internally and much more with our clients as part of our service. For a few years, whenever there was a termination for our clients that was going bad, it would get escalated to me.

I think other types of terminations like economic redundancy are much easier for everyone to process. Even gross misconduct is arguably more clear because there needs to have been a big incident.

But performance is more nebulous, more open to interpretation. And it is never one incident. It’s the buildup of many small things over time. So it is especially complicated and filled with emotion.

Early on, I felt compelled to inject myself into the situation. To talk directly with the people involved, especially the employee, and find out what is going on. It started, quite honestly, from the point of managing risk. I wanted to make sure that if we went to a labor tribunal that I’d had a chance to solve it first.

Once I started talking to the employee, there was always a lot to unpack. They haven’t been happy. They have lots of frustration. They feel misunderstood and rejected. Sometimes they feel outraged. And I wanted to move them away from those feelings if I could. I realized over time that it wasn’t really about “moving them away from those feelings” but acknowledging them. And admitting they were valid. It really helps if I’m not the line manager in this type of conversation because I don’t want it to be an argument about what happened, just acknowledging how they feel.

But ultimately, I want them to think about the future because they have responsibility for their life, career, professional (and personal) pride, and happiness. And I think it is hard for them to focus on those if they are stuck with something that is now in the past.

It has happened.

They have been fired.

That cannot change.

A lot of this stemmed from my own experience of being “managed out” of a role. And that helps me relate to people. I think it builds some credibility. I don’t talk at length about my experience, but it means I am very honest and transparent about their situation and their options.

Over time this has become a clearer set of principles. We want people to feel understood. To still feel valued as a person even though they might feel rejected. To give them chances to preserve or regain their dignity and sense of control.

And if there is any kindness or concession that we can show them, we do. Sometimes even the most trivial things make a difference. For example, I recently fired someone for performance, and I made sure they saw our internal announcement before it went out. They wanted to remove a sentence, so we did it.

It’s never going to be a great experience. But our aim is that by approaching this with an open heart and humility, coupled with the strength of knowing what we need to do and what the boundaries are, that we can give them the “least worst” experience possible. It’s really hard but rewarding.

It’s been fairly successful so far. There’s one time we haven’t been able to bring it to an acceptable conclusion. It still bugs me.

Question #7

“I know from our conversations that you also are working on updating your salary system. 

One element we didn’t speak about much was how an individual employee’s levels/skills in the competency matrix are evaluated and updated.

Can you tell us more about things like who is involved, how often it is done, and any methodology you have for this?

I know you are in transition, so it may be a mixture of what you have done, what you are doing, and problems you are still trying to solve!”

Tim’s Answer:

The competency matrix is still early in its implementation. We’ve rolled it to just over half the company so far.

For our main roles, we’ve created three competency levels (1,2,3) to recognize increased mastery of the role.

The employee does a self-assessment against the matrix. It’s an excel file, and they mark each cell with green (mastered this), yellow (working on this), or white (not thinking about this yet).

At the same time, the manager does the same process.

Then once the manager has completed their assessment, we give them the employee version. The manager compares them and then talks about the differences in the next 1:1. We’ve only done this once so far, but it has been really powerful. They can share expectations and have a framework for clarifying them!

Then if there are areas in the current level that need improvement, the manager can put them onto the agenda. If the person wants to develop to the next level, they mutually agree on what areas to prioritize. And then talk about what they can do to learn or demonstrate that competency.

Sometimes it is a new skill. Sometimes it is a skill they haven’t been able to show with us yet.

We plan to revisit these every three months. Not to do the whole assessment every three months – just to check in on the areas they are working on and how they are progressing. But that’s just our plan for now. We’ll see how it actually plays out.

Some detail on the levels and how we created it:

Our HR person built an empty template based on our technical skills, communications skills, and our company values – and then worked with three of our managers to help them map it out. There was a lot of back and forth about what the difference between the levels was. And what level of granularity to use when describing the individual competencies. We did some test runs. And continue to fine-tune it.

In essence:

  • Level 1 is focussed on the individual and their tasks. They can do the job, but their attention is focussed just on doing their job. They can flag areas for improvement.
  • Level 2 is where the individual starts to become more team focussed in their role. They are confident in their own tasks and can interact more with others; they don’t need as much direction. And they understand how their role interfaces with their direct touchpoints. They can flag areas for improvement and are expected to be able to make suggestions on how to improve them.
  • Level 3 is where they can’t really get better at the tasks within the role. They understand everything. Not just their role and the team, they also see the big picture of how their role interfaces with the overall process or company. They mentor Level 1 and Level 2. They can make decisions on improvements.

We looked at a bunch of other companies’ frameworks for this, and they were pretty similar. Some were really detailed. Some very complex (like 12 levels of engineering!). Three levels feels right for us for now. And for our junior roles, we’ve only got 1 level.

Lastly, we’ve currently only done this for the areas where we have multiple people doing the same role. I’ve got to start on my team, which is mostly people who are the only ones doing their job at the company. Creating the levels based on what we want from the role, instead of based on the person doing it, is going to be challenging.

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