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Alex MacCaw: Cultivating the Best-Managed Company

How Alex MacCaw is building an organization that empowers managers to do their best work and succeed.

Alex MacCaw is the Chairman of The Board at Clearbit, a company that has developed stellar management practices and training programs that are now accessible through The Manager’s Handbook. Alex’s management training and insights have helped Clearbit scale from a team of 30 to over 200 in just under a year.

Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn more about Alex MacCaw’s management journey as he transitions from coding to leadership.

1 How did you decide that you wanted to focus on being the best-managed company in the world at Clearbit?

If you told me five years ago that I would be writing a book on management I would have told you that you were crazy because it was never really an interest of mine. I used to be very introverted, and I ended up being a CEO of a tech company and realized that I needed to stop coding and start leading. It was a really long process but the turning point for me was when I started to work with a CEO coach named Matt Mochary. Matt taught me the Mochary methods, and we ended up writing a book together called The Great CEO Within. At Clearbit, I essentially took his methods and elaborated on them to create what we have today.

2 How far along were you in building Clearbit when you started writing The Great CEO Within?

We were roughly two years in and had about 25 employees. I think with any startup you get to a point where you have to stop building and start leading and by that, I mean you have to start building the machine that builds the machine and I think it’s better to do it earlier rather than later. I’ve worked at places in the past where they’ve added management when there were already hundreds of employees and at that point it just started to get painful.

3 What are the differences between what is talked about in The Great CEO Within and The Manager’s Handbook?

What really excites me about management is the amount of leverage. Improving management, even by a small percentage has a massive ripple effect both in terms of output and employee happiness. If you ask someone if they’re happy in their job, their answer most likely depends on who their manager is, and most people tend to leave a company if they don’t have a good relationship with their manager.

There is so much room for iteration within management. Companies and startups, in particular, don’t make investments when it comes to management, and they normally don’t have any management training programs. Normally when someone gets promoted to being a manager it’s because they did a good job as an individual contributor, but it isn’t really a promotion, it’s more of a career change and they generally don’t receive any training and that’s exactly why I wanted to write The Manager’s Handbook. It’s free and you can find it at themanagershandbook.com.

My main prerogative with the book is to share some of the things that we’ve been doing at Clearbit so we can work together to improve the state of management. The main difference between the two books is that the first one, The Great CEO Within is written for founders and The Manager’s Handbook is written for managers.

4 Can you explain the zone of incompetence/competence and the whole framework and how it works at Clearbit?

I take inspiration from The Big League by Gay Hendricks and the zone of genius framework is quite simple and very powerful. The idea is that there are four zones, the zones of incompetence, competence, excellence, and genius. 

The zone of incompetence is pretty clear to most people. What a zone of incompetence is, is stuff you shouldn’t have and if you have work that you’ve been given that is in your zone of incompetence, you shouldn’t be doing it. It should either be delegated to someone else, or you should be in a different company.  Next is the zone of competence. These are tasks that you’re good at, but other people can do better. The tasks under this category should be delegated or redistributed to people that are more suited to them. Next is the zone of excellence and this is where most people get caught up. This zone is when you might be really good at something, but it doesn’t give you energy and that’s the difference between what we call the zone of excellence and the zone of genius. When you’re in your zone of genius, you are uniquely good at whatever it is you’re doing, and it gives you energy.

5 How can people identify what their zone of genius is?

There’s a framework for finding it and the first method is to do some form of self-diagnosis but I think the most effective way to do it is to ask other people. We aren’t really reflective enough to be able to determine these answers ourselves and we need third party feedback to actually be able to figure it out. If you find yourself worn out or burnt out, then that’s a sign that you’re not operating in your zone of genius.

6 What is an impeccable agreement and how can it help different groups within a company get along better?

Communication problems between teams are common and classic issues that companies face as they scale. Teams tend to get territorial, and it becomes less about what is great for the company and more about what’s great for the team and generally, when there are communication problems, it means there are underlying planning problems. What I’ve learned over the years is that any time there’s intra-team communication issues its usually because we haven’t planned something properly and impeccable agreements are definitely something that helps with that.

Every day at Clearbit, hundreds if not thousands of agreements are being made and this happens hundreds and hundreds of times a day and in most companies, a lot of these agreements get lost. An impeccable agreement is created to try to eliminate the risk of agreements being lost. So basically, whenever two people actually have an agreement at Clearbit, it needs to be impeccable. What that means is it is recorded, and we use Asana to make sure all of the details are written down and agreed upon. Every impeccable agreement is recorded, well-defined, and has a specific due date and owner.

7 What have you learned while managing a hybrid remote company?

My first piece of advice would be to read my coach’s book The Great CEO Within because it details all the systems that you can set up, and you will need incredible systems to thrive. If you’re running a distributed company, then systems are the things that make you work. Everything needs to be documented including every process and every area of responsibility.

My second piece of advice would be to combat loneliness which is something I’m currently trying to tackle at Clearbit. We’ve started orchestrating social events twice a week where we do a company-wide breathwork meditation session and presently about 30% of the company attends. We also do things like yoga, trivia, and specialized zoom breakout rooms and it really helps connect people and bring teammates together.

We also use a tool called Donut that randomly connects people and initiates a Zoom conversation and we’ve found that it really helps to break down barriers in the company. Essentially, you want to try to recreate some of the watercooler chat like elements that teammates would experience in the office.

8 What has been a major win for you in terms of your own personal productivity?

It’s very difficult to manage other people if you’re not emotionally stable and emotionally intelligent in your own presence. The first thing you have to do to be an amazing manager is to take care of yourself because you have to be healthy and self-aware.

The first step is understanding yourself and taking radical responsibility for your life and your emotions. We use a framework called conscious leadership and it really helps you understand yourself so you can learn more about what really drives you.

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Konstantin Tsiryulnikov

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