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Soft skills for leadership: Movable Ink co-founder Vivek Sharma (podcast recap)

It’s nighttime at Vivek Sharma’s home in Brooklyn, and the co-founder and CEO of Movable Ink is winding down his day. His next stop will be putting his kids to bed with a story. That’s when he caught up with John Henry for WeWork’s Up At Night podcast to talk about his company’s amazing story of growth, and why he thinks Movable Ink’s people and culture are critical to its success. 

Movable Ink uses customer data to personalize visuals across email, web, and display, working with brands like Nike and the NBA. Last year alone, the company drove 500 billion emails. From two employees in 2010, they’ve grown to over 300 working out of WeWork offices in San Francisco, London, and Chicago

For a business that relies heavily on hard data for their customers, it’s surprising just how much Vivek relies on softer people skills for his own company’s success. In fact, he says hiring the right people with the right qualities is critical.

“Intangibles like empathy and curiosity don’t just support the company’s success. They’re critical to it.”

Vivek Sharma, Movable Ink

Over time, Vivek and his team have identified three key qualities that make for superstar employees: curiosity, grit and empathy. “We want to send a very clear signal to the company that these are extremely valuable to each of us,” says Vivek, “And to me personally.”

Movable Ink looks for and measures these three qualities in interviews with job candidates, as well as recognizing them in current employees on an ongoing basis. Vivek says, “We do a founder’s award once a quarter where I talk about the values, people are nominated around those, and we pick a winner and celebrate them in front of the company.”

Why empathy matters more than being a top performer

Recognizing empathy as an essential people skill initially caught Vivek by surprise. He admits, “If you’d asked me on day one of the company, it wouldn’t have occurred to me.” Now, he equates a person’s empathy to their ability to genuinely work with others and collaboratively problem solve.

But it took a few mis-hires for Vivek to learn this lesson. He says, “I’ve even mis-hired people where this person was a high performer. They were so intelligent, so articulate, seemed like they could do all these things. But that empathy bit was completely lacking. And they were managing up to me, but treating their own team and their peers with contempt.” These “toxic” hires seemed to amplify negativity, while hires that were empathetic decreased stress in the company.

Scaling culture and transparency at Movable Ink

Hiring the right people has only become more important to Vivek as Movable Ink has scaled, and learning to delegate has been key. “It simply isn’t possible for you to hang on to every little thing in the company. If you want to build something that is really going to be monumental, (that) is going to stand the test of time—it’s about the people. It’s about the culture.” 

Trust is essential to this approach, and Vivek attributes that trust to the open, two-way communication and a “culture of transparency” at Movable Ink. He believes employees need clarity of direction in the long term. Vivek explains, “People really need to know where they’re heading, because the biggest decisions aren’t being made by me. They’re being made by the people in the front lines… It helps them get motivated, and it helps them make smart decisions about how to invest their time.”

But that transparency goes both ways. Movable Ink employees are strongly encouraged to provide feedback either directly or anonymously, so the lines of communication stay open. “And it’s not always easy,” according to Vivek, “There are some really uncomfortable questions that we get. But you know, you’ve got to bite the bullet, because people are talking about it or thinking about it, even if it isn’t vocalized in that way. So, better to just get it all out in the open.”

“That was a moment for some people in the company, they thought ‘Wow, we’ll get a direct answer from our management team.'”

At this point in the podcast, Vivek’s children can be heard getting restless for story time in the background. Before saying goodnight, he shares one unusual practice he has for clearing his mind and getting some sleep: Filipino martial arts. He says getting in a great workout elevates his mood and takes his mind off the day’s problems. Meditation is also on his list to try. 

To learn more, tune in to episode two of the Up at Night podcast. You can also read the full transcript here.