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From the inside

How to unlock your team’s creative potential

Posted by Marina Vinyes, Nick Merkel |

Finding effective ways to motivate your team and unlock their creative potential can be challenging sometimes, right? In this article, our Dev Lead in Paris Marina Vinyes, and Engineering Manager in Ann Arbor Nick Merkel, shared their management philosophy and explained how they work to lead their teams to success. Each manager has their own style, so let’s discover theirs!

Can you tell us a bit about your current role as Team Leaders at Criteo?

Marina: I am currently part of the CAML Incubator (Catalog and Applied Machine Learning), leading a team of machine-learning engineers. We research and develop AI innovation to improve existing and future Criteo products. It is my fifth year working at Criteo, and my third as a Team Lead.

Nick: I started as an individual contributor for HookLogic in 2015, and then Criteo when we merged several years later. Since then, I've gone from being an individual contributing engineer to Dev Lead and, more recently, Engineering Manager. I now manage several Web Apps teams in R&D contributing to the development of the Commerce Media Platform.

What makes a good manager, in your opinion?

M: It is essential to be clear when setting goals and explaining expectations, both individually and collectively. Good managers create a work environment where people can grow and feel free to share ideas, insights, and feedback. A good manager finds the right individual/collective balance, meaning they encourage people to get involved while ensuring each can focus on their tasks without being disturbed.

N: Good managers are people able to build long-lasting trust with their teams. It requires being genuine and listening to people with real empathy. When you show that you care for your team, you secure a healthier, more cohesive way of working. It is most likely that success will then unfold naturally. We need to focus on people's needs as much as tangible deliverables.

You have both ramped up quite fast since you started at Criteo. Have you felt supported through your journey?

M: Yes. Olivier Koch, my manager at the time, saw my potential for that career track and supported me to take that step forward. I found the initial three-week management training course and the Learning Quest Platform very helpful. And I can always reach out to my mentors if need be.

N: Absolutely! In the Ann Arbor office and R&D in general, I have always felt supported. You feel like the management team truly cares about your career ambitions. When I started as Dev Lead, I wasn't quite sure the management track was something I wanted to pursue. Being in a management yet still tech-oriented position helped ease my transition to management and, in the end, led me to take my next career step as an Engineering Manager.

Which main challenges have you faced since you started managing teams?

M: In my early days as a manager, getting the full picture and cascade it to my team was sometimes challenging. At Criteo, I've found people to be rather creative. I also know that dispersion is a natural part of creation, so I feel that my role as a manager is to channel all these ideas and ensure we are focused, organized, and see projects through.

N: A challenge that comes instantly to mind is how we adapted to the hybrid work environment. Understanding how to effectively manage people remotely while finding my own working pace and work-life balance took me several months, but I finally found a way. There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution. We only need to keep nurturing communication, ensuring information circulates, and reinforcing team building. Hybrid work has greatly emphasized the importance of such soft skills.

Unlocking a team’s potential for greatness; is it something that happens on a collective or individual level?

M: A little of both, I’d say. You must understand the kind of profiles you’re dealing with. You have those who come up with many ideas on their own and discuss them directly with you, and those whose creativity is triggered by the collective. First, you need to understand people individually to then design ways of working adapted to the team’s capabilities.

N: In my experience, tapping into someone's potential starts with an individualized approach. When managing diverse profiles, backgrounds, and personalities, you need a holistic approach to both career and personal growth. Everyone is unique, and, as a manager, understanding your people's needs and ambitions is the key. In my team, you'll encounter early birds, late owls, people who are transcended by collaborative work, and others who need their alone time to focus. It's my job to know and respect these specificities, so I can provide a work environment allowing them to be successful.

What does creativity mean when it comes to your own team?

M: People in my team are always bursting with ideas, so my role is to put a frame around it. We hold "official" collective brainstorming sessions once a quarter to define new projects as well as leave space for a lot of spontaneous "micro-brainstorming".

N: Creativity flows when you provide a safe space where people can try new things and challenge the current paradigm. When one feels supported and empowered to make decisions, chances are their ideas will flourish. For my team, it could mean trying new things in the web app code or experimenting with new ticket management processes. We hold recurrent team retrospectives where ideas can be shared openly without judgement.

In your opinion, which management skills are compulsory to stimulate a team’s creative capabilities?

M: The first thing is to provide a safe environment where people can express themselves and share their ideas freely. Communication is a key skill to ensure ideas circulate and this has turned into a different kind of challenge since the hybrid work environment. When someone has an idea, I encourage them to share it in the slack channel and to open a zoom session that any team member can join. We will then share a recap with the whole team. I feel having a technical background stands for a huge advantage to provide adequate guidance. In the end, management isn’t about approving or disapproving, it is about guiding your team so they can think out of the box.

N: Providing a safe and stimulating environment is the key. Everyone has a unique perspective when dealing with a challenge. As managers, we should make sure people have a voice and feel heard.

Any real-life anecdotes to illustrate this statement?

M: Just recently, we had to deal with a gigantic dataset and solve a “needle in the haystack” kind of problem. We were struggling at first but, after a collective brainstorming session, we found a creative way to reframe the problem and solve it much faster than we could hope for in the first place.

Any tips to help tailor management approaches to employees’ individual needs?

M: Ask open questions, but also listen. This may seem like stating the obvious, but you should start with the basics, right? I do regular one-on-ones where I focus on the person; how they feel, what's going on, how’s their work-life balance, etc. This is key to tailoring my approach later.

N: Yes, get to know the people in your team! It all goes back to ensuring you communicate with your employees and understand their situations inside and outside work. The wider the perspective, the better. You'll make better informed decisions when knowing what each person wants out of their career. Also, remember that each person, team, and situation is different, and accept that you may not always encounter a simple solution to a challenge.

Could you share a real-life example of a challenging situation you had to manage?

M: A while back, my former team merged with another, and a more senior Team Lead took over the whole leadership. I did not let that decision impact my engagement at a crucial time for the team. I made it my priority to accompany this change the best I could to help set up the new Lead for success. Team first! Everything went smoothly and I started a Team Lead position with a new team quite quickly after that.

N: Whether as an individual contributor or a manager, delegating has always been challenging for me. But when you fail to delegate, you steal someone’s opportunity to learn something new and take a step forward in their career. Learning when, why and how to delegate has been my greatest lesson as a manager.

Management is supposed to be a two-way street. Is it hard to implement a bottom-up approach?

M: Getting thorough feedback is always a challenge, I try to ask specific questions to get precise answers and catch the signals right away. The Annual Manager Performance survey is quite useful to clarify the areas of improvement. For instance, the last one highlighted a need for a clearer big picture for some team members. It gave me the chance to sit them down and address their doubts right away.

N: We have a unique culture, in Criteo R&D, that promotes change through a democratic approach; if enough people are consenting to some sort of change or process, we will move forward. We’re not going to stick with the old ways just for the sake of it. In that sense, Criteo empowers people to make the right changes from the bottom up. I believe our culture allows engineers to thrive and increases career longevity.

Is there one last thing you'd like to add to conclude?

M: Not much, just say that I feel I have grown as an individual contributor at Criteo, and this has helped me grow as a manager as well.

N: Just add that, in my case, mentoring has been incredibly useful, and I strongly recommend it! I lean on several mentors inside and outside of the company. Their advice has always proven to be effective.

Marina Vinyes

Dev Lead

Nick Merkel

Engineering Manager

The Future is Yours.

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