Make yourself redundant: Steve Shelley, Executive Chairman at Deputy

Copy of Management.Disrupted. (1)

Steve Shelley has a fascinating career as an entrepreneur, manager and racing car driver.

Steve’s current business, Deputy, started life as the in-house rostering software at Aerocare (Steve’s first business, which he grew to employ over 1400 people).

Deputy has now become a standalone product and company, employing over 100 people and recently securing US$25m to attack the US market.

Some of the highlights of the interview include:

  • Pivoting from a services company to a software company: “we were able to grow and scale the business was because of this beautiful systems that we were inventing on the way.” (Video from 01:01)
  • The biggest lesson Steve learned in management: “People love to be trusted and have an autonomous approach to achieving goals.” (Video from 4:11)
  • Making yourself redundant to grow both yourself and your business: “to be successful you need to make yourself redundant to move onwards and upwards.” (Video from 5:09)
  • The differences in managing businesses of different sizes throughout Steve’s career: “[If] the people are approachable, and they are friendly, and they are respect to each other I don’t see why you need to have a different style when your business grows.” (Video from 10:01)
  • Seeing Deputy as a family: “You instantly consider trust and respect, loyalty, responsibility, these are traits that you would have for people that you do genuinely care about.” (Video from 12:43)

The video:

The interview:

Steve Pell: I’m Steve Pell from Management Disrupted. I’m here today with Steve Shelley from Deputy. Thanks for joining us today. Could you start and tell us a little bit about your background and the company?

Steve Shelley: My background is soft drinks of all things, I was born into a soft drink manufacturing family. I did that for 12 years before I stepped out of that and went into the wide world of aviation ground handling services.

That was a bit of an unusual step I had no idea what I was doing, but I saw a great opportunity. Before I knew it I was an employer in an industry I had no idea about. That was in 1992.

So, it took me a few years before I started to find my feet and develop some business processes and employ people and scale the business. It was a really exciting time, there was nobody doing anything like that in aviation. There was no such thing as contractors or outsourced labour solutions at all.

But I found myself with a very multi-skilled workforce. I was a very busy guy, a typical small business. I was doing administration, the hiring and the firing and the hands-on. I was providing a service, I was negotiating with customers. I was doing everything I could to build my business.

It took me about 11 years to build the business from myself to 220 staff and that was in three airports. It was around 2003 that I had the good fortune of meeting my now co-founder and business partner in our new company called Deputy.

I approached Ashik at that time and told him I was considering moving out of the aviation industry and selling the business and focusing on the product which we have been working on to help us manage our decentralised workforce.

At the end of the business we had 1400 staff in 17 airports. The exciting thing about that was that I realised the reason we were able to grow and scale the business was because of the beautiful systems that we were inventing on the way. Allowing us to know what our staff were doing, and who they were doing it with, and when they were doing it, and were they doing it appropriately in a timely fashion and in accordance with the needs of the customer.

And that was when I really decided that it was time to move on and start getting involved in the cloud software era and building ourselves a truly scalable business.

Steve Pell: What’s the elevator pitch for Deputy today?

Steve Shelley: That’s a good question, we still haven’t really honed that down. But we are a workplace management solution, so we’re kind of a toolkit for providing business owners and managers with all of the tools that need to manage their workforce.

We do that in a very very mobile way, it’s very specific to five or six different core functions of:

  • Scheduling staff,
  • Rostering staff,
  • Time and attendance,
  • Performance management,
  • Communication, and
  • Aggregating all that data and simplifying the payroll process.

Steve Pell: How many people are here?

Steve Shelley: We have got about 100 staff now globally, we have obviously different managers for different departments and depending on where we are in the world we have different levels and layers of managers as well there.

We have about 65% of all of the global workforce here in Australia, and we are proud to say that all of the development from day one has been in-house. We own all of our development and creative.

We have a team of people in Atlanta which is our headquarters in the States. We also have a couple of people in LA, we have an office we’re building out in the UK, and we have a significant workforce up in the Philippines to help us with all the online support and customer experiences.

Steve Pell: What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from your people along the way?

Steve Shelley: The biggest lesson I have learned from my people is that people love to be trusted and have an autonomous approach to achieving the goals to which they have been hired to achieve.

If you hire somebody for their skills and their abilities and their attitude, and then you constantly try and tune that then you’re not really giving them the opportunity to thrive and add their best to the company. So I think that one of the key things that I’ve been good is allowing people to be autonomous. I allow them to make decisions and empower them to make those decisions and stand by those decisions, whether they be right or wrong.

Obviously we learn by those mistakes if we do make them as a team, but I’ve learnt to truly to allow people to have ownership in the decision-making process.

Steve Pell: Steve are you someone who believes that you need to be actively trying to replace yourself as a leader?

Steve Shelley: Yeah, I do. I have a philosophy that if you are happy doing what you’re doing, that’s fine. But in my view to be successful you need to make yourself redundant to move onwards and upwards.

You need to replace yourself, you need to bring people in behind you and teach them how you do your role and make them even better at what you do than what they do. Or recruit people that do your job better than you do, so that you have the opportunity to rise up. If you don’t do that you’ll just say in the job that you are doing.

I like to think that for everybody in our company to be successful they all need to rise up and bring more people behind them to assist them climb that ladder.

Steve Pell: When did you first start thinking about the idea of making yourself redundant?

Steve Shelley: Probably when I was midlife cycle in my first business and I realised that I was becoming the limiting factor.

I was doing everything, the things I talked about before, the hiring and the firing, the administration, the negotiations. I was out at the tarmac doing 15, 16, 17 hour days sometimes.

And there’s a point where things start to fall down. Culture starts to be upset, or I become upset, or family life starts to suffer.

Certain things start to happen that if you don’t change it, there will be problems. I knew that because I was so entwined and so hands-on with so many aspects of the business I had become that bottleneck.

So, I realised then that the best thing that I could do is to find great people, encourage and foster them into certain things that I was doing. As I made myself redundant in those things, the more I realised that I was actually enjoying my business a lot more.

Then I through some deep contemplation, I worked out that for me to truly move on and recognise other opportunities I would have to make myself truly redundant, and the only way I was going to do that was to backfill all of my roles and responsibilities. So it’s probably about 18 to 20 years ago now that I have been spruiking about making myself redundant.

I think some people that have taken that on board have been able to prosper from that as well. I still truly believe in that. In those businesses that continue to flounder I think that there is probably somebody in that business that is creating that problem where they are not making themselves redundant and allowing others to rise up in the business.

Steve Pell: When you look back over your twenty-year management career any regrets?

Steve Shelley: Yeah of course, there are those times where I was probably harder on people than I may have needed to be. And when I think back about those, I think I had expectations of people before I had actually clearly communicated what my expectations were.

And over the years I’ve recognised that you can’t possibly expect people to perform until they are clear about what you want, what you need, or what the business needs. I think we have gotten better far better at communicating that at every level of the business and I find that were much more aligned these days and have far less people problems because of that.

In the early days when I think back it was a challenging time trying to recruit and train and manage people in the environment that I told you about before. I probably could have been a little bit better — not much, but a little bit.

Steve Pell: Any tips for getting that alignment?

Steve Shelley: I think when you identify that there is a need for your product,spend time on making sure that you bring people along with you that truly understand you, your goals, your aspirations and why the customer needs your product. Have them clearly understand what you are trying to deliver to the customer, and once everybody is aligned, then back those people and move forward together.

Steve Pell: Steve there’s a lot of research out there that would say that you need to be a different style of leader or manager at up to 150 people, 150 to 500 and 500 to 1500. Those scales all take different styles and different skills. You have done two of those stages twice and all of them at least once. That’s not common. What is your view there?

Steve Shelley: Some people might say that, but I actually think that most people just want to talk to a normal person about normal needs, desires, wants, challenges, on one-on-one and breakdown all that hierarchy or structure that might get in the way.

And if you can just have a mutually respectful relationship with everybody in your team I don’t know that you need to change your management style when the business grows. You obviously have to have more managers or layers of management, but if your culture is like what I just described, the people are approachable, and they are friendly, and they are respectful to each other I don’t see why you need to have a different style when your business grows.

Steve Pell: Steve any hiring advice?

Steve Shelley: Yeah recognise that people’s ability and their attitude are probably equally as important. I think a lot of people are employed because of their special skill or ability, but if their attitude isn’t in the right place, then they might be a bad hire.

I’d prefer to have somebody with the right attitude over their ability that might be able to be tuned or honed in on or improved. We’ve always been that way, particularly when we were in the aviation industry we didn’t care what your working history or your skills or ability were.

We could train you into doing that job, we just wanted to make sure you had the right culture and attitude and fit for our company. So, I think that spending enough time before you actually agree to employ somebody, possibly off-site over a coffee getting to know that person. Spending that hour two with them before you employ them, and try and understand what sort of person they are.

People can’t act that well for that long that you can’t work out whether they are a great person or not. And if they are really a great person you can probably do worse than hiring them.

Steve Pell: Do you see Deputy as a family?

Steve Shelley: Definitely, yeah we spend probably as many hours together as we do with our other family, our real family, our blood family.

We’re here for 9, 10, 11 hour days, 4 or 5 days a week. So, we have a lot of fun together, a lot of enjoyment, a lot of conversations and a lot of mutual time spent just getting to know each other.

It’s defiantly a metaphor, they’re not blood, and some of them might eventually move on, but we all do fondly refer to the Deputy family.

Steve Pell: Fantastic. What implications does it have when you start thinking about your company as a family?

Steve Shelley: I think you instantly consider trust and respect, loyalty, responsibility, these are traits that you would have for people that you do genuinely care about. I think a lot ofvery successful businesses in the world have those traits as well.

I think that they are great values to have, they certainly help form the foundation of a wonderful working culture and a working relationship with each other.

Steve Pell: How many kids have you got Steve?

Steve Shelley: I’ve got three, and my wife has got three, so we have got six kids between us.

Steve Pell: Fantastic. I’m going to ask you a question I have never asked before in this series, so we’ll see how we go. It sounds that your values for your family are almost identical to your values for the company. Is that right or is there differences?

Steve Shelley: Well there is obviously different nuances and different levels of trust and love that you have for various people, and you can’t truly compare the love that you have for your blood family to a working family. However, there are certainly some very strong synergies when it comes to having faith and trust and loyalty and respect

I think there are so many cross synergies there – sometimes those cross the boundaries between whether they are true family or not. There are different strains – I can put it that way, different strains of those feelings you might have for your different families, but I think there are a lot of synergies there.

Steve Pell: Steve the last question, the final one what do you wish you knew back on day one of Aerocare?

Steve Shelley: Probably how important it was to truly trust and empower people to be autonomous and to ensure that they clearly understand what you have as an expectation for them and then allow them to go and do it.

If people are truly trusted in that way, they will do the right thing. If they are left in charge and are able to make decisions and they truly understand that they need to live by the consequences of those decisions I think people genuinely try and make the right decisions.

I probably didn’t do that for some years until I started to recognise the importance of that. At Deputy we do that now, we do it well, and people rise up to that challenge whether they are in the States or in the UK or up in Philippines or Singapore. They are helping us grow our business and we all sing from the same song sheet. It is a wonderful thing to be part of.

Steve Pell: Steve thank you so much.

Steve Shelley: Thank you, Steve, thank you for your time.

Share your thoughts. Be kind & play nice.