Docusign's founder on leadership, company growth & performance reviews

Since being founded 14 years ago, Docusign has come a long way. The San-Francisco based company with a digital solution to document signing has found great success, now being used by over 100 million users in 188 countries.

The concept is simple: replace printing, faxing and scanning documents for signing with an easier, faster digital solution that means no time is wasted and everything is simple and secure. We spoke to founder Tom Gonser, who shared with us his insights on leadership, the performance management process, and how he keeps team morale and engagement on the up, even when things aren’t going as expected.

Docusign: an introduction

Having launched his third start-up company, Docusign, Gonser has a fair few years of experience under his belt, and has picked up some knowledge when it comes to managing people. He describes his leadership style as collaborative, focusing on the importance of getting people excited about their goals, then delegating in order to achieve them.

After expanding from a small company with a few junior managers to one with over 2000 globally dispersed staff members, it’s clear that the management style in the company has needed to change with the times. Gonser comments that at this point the large, international nature of the company is their main obstacle. It’s necessary to have managers with experience who can deal with the practicalities of an international workforce with multiple offices both in the US and worldwide, and keeping them aligned and working towards the same organizational goals.

Growing company, international challenges

Docusign has however made huge leaps in terms of managing to move forward and develop; as Gonser describes- “it requires different leadership for different stages...and we’ve been able to bring in leadership as we’ve grown throughout those phases to optimize who we are [at that time].”

Gonser advises that smaller companies to not bite off more than they can chew in terms of expanding: he says one of his takeaways over the years is to not overbuild in new locations. He instead recommends first establishing how successful you can be there, do your research, test the waters and then expand accordingly.

When Docusign started expanding, they began using their international offices as outposts for their sales and support teams. After realizing this was a successful plan, they grew things from there, eventually expanding to full offices in various locations around the world, including Seattle, San Francisco, London, São Paulo and Paris.

Company culture, vision & mission

But it’s not just having multiple offices that takes some work. Gonser highlights the importance of the on-boarding process: getting new recruits familiar with the organization, its culture, vision and how things run across each department, keeping people fully involved in the day-to-day aspects of the organization. Fully integrating people straight away and keeping them excited about the organization’s work can have a monumental impact on people’s introduction to their role and their growth within the company.

He asserts, “keeping people excited about the company’s mission and vision is key to having a successful team.” When progress is slow, particularly in the initial stages, he mentions the importance of using the buzz and excitement around the company’s work to keep people invested in both their role and the company goals. Gonser stands by the idea that more energy is required to keep productivity and engagement levels up as the company develops. As the organization grows, excitement generally rises, and productivity goes up with it too; people are excited about the organization’s mission, progress and the processes along the way.

You have to continually reinforce your vision so everybody stays on the same page"
Tom Gonser
Tom Gonser

Being an open book

It’s not always easy keeping communication in check: it’s not always the first port-of-call for some managers to share developments with their team straight away. Gonser highlights the importance of celebrating the small successes and accomplishments of individuals, teams or the organization as a whole.

However, it’s not all about success: he also firmly believes that an honest organization is a successful one. Being candid about failures or less than perfect moments is equally, if not more important than celebrating wins. He argues: “people appreciate authenticity; if at some point in time things are going badly, it’s okay to say so- just open up about how you’re going to overcome things.”

He even puts a positive spin on ideas that haven’t worked as expected, taking the view that these learning curves are “small wins,” which simply mean no more time or energy will now go towards the same mistakes. This is something Docusign strongly focused on as they expanded. Gonser shares how people appreciate this sense of candidness; instead of avoiding or trying to distract people from issues, it’s something which opens things up for discussion and allows people to find solutions and collaborate on the next steps.

From a management perspective, if you have any employees that don't know how they're doing then you're not doing your job...if they're wondering how they're doing they're not being empowered to do their job."
Tom Gonser
Tom Gonser

The performance review process

Unlike many organizations publicly having been seen to revamp their performance review processes, ditching old school processes like the annual performance review wasn’t necessary at Docusign. They never followed the traditional yearly review format, having always had what Gosner refers to as a “continuous” feedback culture in place right from the offset. He explains that performance review meetings have simply always been seen as a process which helps formalize what people are already aware of--opportunities to go over any topics that have already arisen. Gonser firmly believes that all employees should be aware of their progress and how they’re doing day by day, not just on a periodic basis.

Review meetings are also viewed as an opportunity for the employee and their employer to have an open conversation about their career and progression. For those who feel they’d be better placed in another department, the Docusign way is not only open to this possibility, but actually views it as a positive; Gonser describes it simply as letting people “shine” in another department. The organization would prefer the opportunity to keep on someone who is an asset, works hard for, and is knowledgeable about the company by transferring them to another department, rather than losing them and their expertise to a competitor.

Gonser’s outlook

As a market category leader, he comments, “it’s hard, as competitors could start doing the same thing as you, and, in the beginning it’s not always clear how best to go about things.”

But he doesn’t dwell on this too much. Instead, he sees making mistakes as a positive. Due to his experience with start-ups, Gonser is all too familiar with the issues that can arise, and is adamant that making mistakes “on the way up” is more valuable than making none at all and not learning from these experiences.

It’s clear Docusign is a company which understands its employees, and goes to lengths to ensure maintaining both a happy and successful workforce. From a meticulous on-boarding process and constantly flowing feedback, to ever-evolving management styles, to just keeping people excited to be working towards company goals, Docusign is doing more than one thing right.

If you are interested in learning more about developing and engaging managers, be sure to download our Guide on How to Develop Your Managers.

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