Communication: The Key to Team Management

Part 2 of An Executive Summary of my experience of managing a team of 25 at Zomato


An Exciting opportunity for me very early in my career, when I was given charge of a team of 25 Sales & Operations Executives. The Responsibility of course was to guide this team to onboard a target of 2000 restaurants in a 6-month timeline. The Team would have to be directed on first signing restaurants for the new Online Ordering Services, after which Documents certifying their credentials and their menus would have to be digitized for the Zomato Application. Once the online profile was ready my team would have to spread out across Dubai, Abu Dhabi & Sharjah to install the physical hardware at the restaurants for receiving orders, Train the restaurant staff on accepting and delivering orders, and finally the nuances of Customer Service according to Zomato Guidelines.

While having all this in place I would also have to break the team into different specializations namely 1) On-Ground Operations 2) Customer Service 3) Inventory Management 4) Account Management.


The Challenges

In a fast-paced, high-energy environment like the one at Zomato, the challenges were aplenty making this a trial by fire for me:

Challenge 1: Managing Team Expectations

Unmet expectations were aplenty for a large part of the team, with many executives being shuffled across various roles during their tenure at an ever-evolving start-up like Zomato. Sales executives would have to move into an Operational role, while others would be moved into customer services. Moreover with an overall team size of nearly 300 personnel hiring was largely a result of availability rather than hiring the right match. And thus the team was largely unease with the roles being allocated post-facto to what they were hired for.

Challenge 2: Long Work Hours

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Working Long hours was always going to be expected at a high-growth start-up, but the task given to the team was quite extraordinary. What Zomato was trying to achieve in 6 months of Launch, had taken many other incumbents in the market nearly 2-3 years. My Team was required to work 6 days a week and had to begin from around 7:30 - 8:00 AM to about 20:00 - 21:00 in the evening. An effort weighing heavily even on the most passionate of executives.

Challenge 3: Lay Offs

A changing market scenario and a requirement to show profitability required Zomato to conduct multiple rounds of layoffs, and so growing discontent in the team was another factor in play considering the challenges above.

The Routine

Onboarding Restaurants and getting them live is a process termed as Deployment which comes after the Sales, Content Digitization processes.

Deployment a process still used by many marketplaces is the process where Physical infrastructure such as Mobile Devices with the Vendor Mobile App, pincode scanners, BTL marketing material, and perhaps delivery packing material are all "Deployed" physically at the restaurants. Along with the deployment of physical infrastructure, the restaurant staff would have to be trained in using the application, basic features like How to manage Restaurant Inventory, Toggling their Online and Offline Status, Updating their Delivery timings, etc.

Thus with a staff of 25 executives and a target of 2000 in six months, I had to break this into 3 phases:

Phase 1: 3 Months: Begin accepting orders with 800 Restaurants Live.

Phase 2: Split the Team up into 1) Deployment 2) Customer Service 3) Vendor Support 4) Inventory Management.

Phase 3: Move to introduce Strategic Accounts & Services like Last Mile Delivery Services.

Phase 1 & 2 were a Blitz! No divergence from the day a rigid and tough routine would have to be followed to ensure the most amount of restaurants were deployed and ready to go live as soon as possible.

The Team Dynamics

The rapidly evolving situation and fast-paced work culture, along with the myriad challenges that came along with it had a lasting impact on the Team Dynamics.

Team Bonding: For one, the Team had no opportunity to bond in the early days as a result of being consistently on the field for 6 out of the 7 days in the week. And hence most inter-team communications would only occur via WhatsApp groups. 

Department Splits: Splitting the team into various departments had the further effect of isolation, also creating in effect new team leads within the existing team.

Clear Reporting Structure: The creation of new teams and team leads led to an ambiguity in the team reporting structure, causing larger issues of unmet expectations.

Mistrust: By far the biggest blow to the team dynamics for the mass layoffs that created a wave of paranoia and mistrust among the team. In its first year of operations Zomato had undergone 3 rounds of layoffs beginning with the associate level, the mid-managerial level, and finally the Senior Director level. The second round by far had the largest impact on the team as assurances given after round 1 had to be backtracked upon. 


Retrospective: My Learnings

In hindsight, summing up major learning is relatively easy. As a lasting lesson of experience in a highly chaotic environment, my learnings through this would undoubtedly be the biggest learning lesson in my professional career. I would sum it up as follows:

  1. Communication is the essence of Company & Team Culture: In talking about company culture, realizing that its most essential aspect is good communication is key. And in doing so it is essential to be as close to the person in your charge and be a support arm.
  2. Absorb the Pressure, Don't let it trickle down to the team: With such enormous targets understanding that pressure is the ultimate undoing is key to a successful operation. Hence as Team Leader, absorbing the pressure instead of having it trickle down to the team is essential.
  3. Creating the right mindset: Zomato in the early days was for most the greatest learning experience of a chaotic startup, while many begrudgingly accepted it, others rejected it. Regardless of where one was on the spectrum the best way I could have kept the team motivated was by instilling the right mindset. A mindset in which the unexpected and unpromised was most likely going to be the outcome. A mindset that a layoff was always going to be an outcome of working with a startup.
  4. Always keeping the mood light: Ultimately it was the responsibility of the team leads to keep the mood light and happy to endure through what was a tough time for many in the company.
  5. Breaking A large team into Sub-teams: Operationally trying to manage a large team in one go is rather difficult, managing them into sub-teams would have helped a great deal in addressing concerns, and feedback and also in maintaining one-to-one relationships.
  6. Keeping the team Engaged via competition: Large teams need a distraction from the pressures and rigors of the work. Incentivizing them to compete with each other would not only build a healthy team spirit but would also allow incentivization.
  7. An Ability to Forsee the Future: It is always important for every leader in any walk of life to have the ability to foresee future outcomes. This ability not only helps in dealing with planning well in advance but also in war games.
  8. War-Gaming: The undeniable truth about startups is that always expect the unexpected in a start-up and or in a new business and so learning how to analyze scenarios and outcomes is an essential aspect. A failure of imagination is often the most underrated cause of the fall. While this is often learned through experience, an ability to analyze is at the core of being a great leader.