31 May 2024

Redefining leadership: What Exness managers have learned at Stanford University

Smart investments lead the way to a better future, as long as you invest in the right assets.

At Exness, our greatest asset is our people. It’s a statement we firmly stand by as we keep investing in our people’s personal and professional growths.

While individual seminars, workshops, training courses, and other learning activities are a regularity at Exness, it’s not every day that a group of our employees goes to Stanford University for a custom-made educational program. And yet, that’s exactly what 30 talented Exnessians did last Summer.

So why Stanford, how did we pick the participants, and most importantly – what did we aim to learn in one of the world's leading research and teaching institutions? Our Global Head of Learning and Development Anastasia Adcock kindly answers all of these questions and sheds some light on the tough challenges of middle management.

We wanted to equip our middle managers with the toolset to facilitate their teams’ work, while remaining on the same page with senior management, understanding the reasoning behind decisions made at the top."

Anastasia Adcock Global Head of Learning and Development

Maintaining the gravity of passion

It’s been a year since we’ve partnered up with Stanford University as part of our Management Excellence Program. This enormous collaboration is more than a bragging right though – it’s a project born out of necessity to tackle a serious and unavoidable challenge of a successful growing company.

We adhere to a simple but effective principle: hire people better than us. This has worked out very well for Exness over the years, as the company attracted great talent with invaluable experience, which helped us grow professionally and stay ahead of the competition. But long-term success and stability aren’t predicated on impressive hiring numbers alone, as a perpetually increasing headcount can have a detrimental effect on the company.

An ambitious startup usually has a leader with a vision, whose determination and contagious energy attracts like-minded and diversely skilled people who form the core of the company.

At this stage, organizational management almost happens on its own: everyone is on the same page because everyone is literally in the same room, creating the perfect conditions for the cross-pollination of ideas and concepts. This approach works as long as the organization’s total headcount remains within a hundred or two. But continuous success brings growth, as increasingly numerous and tough challenges require more brain power to tackle them.

Too many to manage

2020 saw Exness grow from 800 to over 2000 people. While this helps cover many of the company’s operational needs, it also makes staying on the same page with everyone almost impossible.

  • Concepts of who we are and where we’re going become washed out and less specific.
  • Messages get misinterpreted, lost in translation, or fail to reach all intended recipients.
  • Ideas devaluate and distort as the word-of-mouth approach loses its consistency.
  • Without the guidance of clearly defined policies, each individual manager has to rely on their own individual approach to their people-related responsibilities.

The list of issues grows larger the longer they remain unattended, and people grow increasingly distant from the upper management without understanding why decisions are made and how they’re implemented.

That’s where middle managers figuratively don their superhero capes and come to save the day. But they should come prepared.

Manageable expectations

Becoming a manager is no walk in the park.

You have to not only deliver top-down directions to your team, but also represent it when negotiating with the higher-ups. It’s a tough balance that requires being aware of both where the company is and where it wants to be.

Knowing this, we’ve developed educational programs for leaders on each level of the organization. The Middle Management Excellence Program in particular, or simply MMEP, aimed to equip our middle managers with the tools to facilitate their teams’ work and remain on the same page with senior management.

Since we were looking only for the best knowledge provider for our candidates, the choice of Stanford University was an easy one. Organizing the collaboration was anything but, though. It took us 4 months of careful negotiation with Stanford to develop custom-tailored learning modules, interview and select specific professors for certain topics, organize a learning platform, and make sure the participants were properly accompanied throughout the course.

Speaking of participants, choosing the right people for the program has been a process in and of itself. We’ve identified the top talents in each Exness location, approved the candidates with their managers, and called a separate board meeting to double-check and finalize our selection with the CEO’s blessing. It’s a group of highly qualified people with unique expertise occupying critical positions in the company. People who we believe are truly capable of bringing to life the ideas they were about to learn.

The pillars of knowledge

The custom-made program featured 3 main directions, each aiming to cover a specific goal:

1. Strategic Leadership The goal here was to teach middle managers how company strategy is built and how to approach it effectively. This allows them to legitimately challenge senior leadership’s decision-making and suggest relevant changes based on their unique perspective. Being vocal and asking the right questions helps prevent the spread of the dangerous ‘yes-man’ mentality and positively affects two-way communications.

2. Organizational design and innovation Understanding the stages of a company’s development helps a manager see logic and structure in what otherwise may seem like a chaotic growth process from a small start-up to an industry leader. When this understanding becomes collective, the company management becomes aligned in both its vision and action, establishing rules and structures that are beneficial for everyone. These rules have to be carefully designed and implemented so as not to stifle the flow of innovation. Generation of innovative ideas never stops, but these ideas need room to flow freely and platforms to be heard and tested.

3. Managing managers An in-depth look at the core of being a middle manager. Various ways to approach networking, useful techniques worth adapting and harmful ones worth avoiding, and of course managing managers. Understanding the definition of a Middle Manager and why it’s a crucial role in the living organism of a company — like the spinal cord responsible for sending signals from the brain to the muscle and back.

Each part of the program involved separate steps: from reading educational materials to online lessons to individual or group assignments and feedback, followed by the actual trip to Stanford University for live lectures, and a tour of Silicon Valley being the final, exhilarating steps. Steps that have become imprinted in every participant’s memory as a highlight of their personal and professional journey.

There’s no better way of explaining how the Stanford program affected our participants than having them share their impressions:

"The Stanford Management Excellence Program was a truly enriching and transformative experience. Having the opportunity to engage with peers and industry experts in such an immersive learning environment was priceless. The tools, materials, and practices we went through helped sharpen my skills as a middle manager and improved my confidence when applying them. It was an honor to be part of such a transformative experience. I am positive these learnings will allow me to keep driving change and our organization's growth." - German Olivares, Senior Business Improvement Manager in Customer Support Shared

"The Stanford MEP program was a great opportunity to collaborate with my peers from across Exness and discuss solutions and approaches to common problems. The case study approach allowed us to collaborate on challenges faced by other companies, which in turn challenged us to look at similar issues in Exness. It showed that we have many opportunities for teamwork across departments. I particularly enjoyed the module on innovation and design thinking. In my role, we have to find new ways of doing things all the time. This module highlighted the importance of maximizing idea generation. It also showed that innovation is not just about creative solutions, but also a bias towards action - getting things done!" - Maz Makwembere, Head of Training and Quality in CIB Shared

"It was a difficult yet simultaneously wonderful time, with night studying that reminded me of my university days. The program allowed me to improve horizontal connections. I’ve met several new colleagues, discovered their contributions, and established friendly relationships thanks to the team projects. It felt equally as, if not more important than the learning itself. I'm very grateful to Exness for the possibility to participate in this program and visit Stanford University. L&D makes beneficial investments in our future. The Stanford Program might be what empowered me to get more recognized and become promoted to Head of IT recently." - Sergey Baskakov, Head of IT

"The most impressive concept from Stanford to me was that it's dangerous if all my teammates always agree with me, as this means the team is not creative. Be patient with the disagreement and listen to it. It may help you to minimize the risk of your own idea. Instead of denying any idea, we could think, "What can we do to make it happen?". In this process, perhaps the idea owner realizes the infeasibility. I followed this concept during the past year, and many creative ideas and actions were taken in the CS team, which helped us improve the stability of our operation." - M Liu, Head of Customer Support in Customer Support Shared

"It's challenging to pinpoint specific knowledge gained from the program that's been instrumental for me this year. I'd attribute my growth to the entirety of the program, which has offered insights from various angles, shaping my present self. If I were to highlight one aspect, it would be the performance appraisal system. It constantly reinforces the importance of prioritizing team success over individual achievements. Overall, the program has been an invaluable experience, enriching my knowledge and thought processes, while also fostering deeper connections with other colleagues." - Kevin Tan, Finance Team Leader in Statutory Reporting

"Studying, solving issues, and working on business cases with colleagues has been a brilliant experience, especially when you collaborate with people outside of your regular circle of communication. Two ideas from the program reshaped the way I work:

  • the ‘working backwards’ approach when you visualize the final product and find the way to get there.
  • design thinking - when you analyze how users will apply your product to solve their questions/ issues.

These seemingly obvious ideas had left a profound impression on me, and I’m trying to integrate them into my team’s way of work." - Dmitry Sladkov, Head of Corporate Analytics in Corporate Analytics

The positive feedback is mirrored by Stanford professors who reached out to Exness, praising all participants for their talent and enthusiasm to achieve only the best for the company through freshly obtained knowledge while sticking to the established goals.

We’re already observing maturity growth among middle managers who have become more accurate and balanced in expressing opinions, evaluating ideas, and developing concepts. Even bigger and more impactful changes will flourish from the MMEP in due time, as middle managers get to perfect and enjoy the privilege of leading people.

Our work never stops, as there’s always something new to learn.

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