Fresh Solutions New Challenges
Max Ekesi’s favourite phrase is, “I never made the mistake of taking life too seriously”. Max’s diverse multicultural and multiethnic background and experiences are proving to be core assets to his highly adaptable nature. “ I grew up in Nigeria, but my first language was Italian with a Roman accent. My adaptive mindset is my super power. I am fluid, respectful, able to connect with various cultures and have an ability to help people to feel at home. Integration helps the collaboration.” says Max. He has been a people’s manager, an agile coach, a Scrum Master, a programme portfolio manager. Now he is a senior manager over a team of Agile coaches in the engineering IT space of PayPal.
This team works on the technology side of a lot of the applications of PayPal that drive sales, marketing, and a lot of customer self-service applications, like Help Centre Chat. The Agile team is extremely valued in the company. Max values the autonomy he is given in PayPal, working with decision makers and able to influence by bring a coaching approach to the way the organisation delivers its services. Current issues such as wellbeing are high on the agenda, and staff even have wellness days to ensure they take care of themselves. This is ever more important as we live in a world that is changing faster than it ever has in human history, due to technological disruption.
Words of wisdom
- Feedback matters! Continuously feedback helps in developing products more aligned to customer needs. Customer expectations keep rising as they are able to get what the need within a couple of clicks. People to be brought along a journey to understand the need to adapt to changing times with a sense of urgency.
- Press pause and appreciate things about ourselves that we do well.
- See how can you leverage your skillset to further your journey and development as an individual.
- My energy, my positivity is positive. I empathize with people around me that might not be on the same level. I recognise that people might not be at the same spot of positivity, and I can come across as a little bit much.
Click on the timestamp in the transcript to go directly to that point in this episode
00:00:00 Paula: Welcome to “TesseTalks” with your host, Tesse Akpeki, and co-host me, Paula Okonneh where we share with your top leadership and management strategies. This is a journey of discovery. We are learning that leadership is personal and professional, and we hope you will walk with us in this adventure. The theme for today’s show is “Fresh Solutions, New Challenges”. Our guest today is none other than Max Ekesi, whose favorite phrase is, “I never made the mistake of taking life too seriously”.
00:00:40 Max: Oh, yes.
00:00:42 Paula: Let me tell you a bit about Max. He’s always super excited at the opportunity to serve in his Austin, Texas community and beyond. Presently, he is the president of “Agile Austin Association”. He’s also the president of the “Parents Teachers Association” at his children’s elementary school. And he’s on the board of a social justice and awareness organization called “Brave”. Max’s diverse multicultural and multiethnic background and experiences are proven to be core assets to Max’s highly adaptable nature. Professionally, he’s been working in IT Enterprise for 20 plus years in Austin. Oh my word, Max, you have been the people’s manager, an agile coach , a Scrum Master, a program portfolio manager. Wow. Well, I think I’ll stop here and let you continue.
00:01:39 Max: Excetera, excetera.
00:01:41 Paula: You’ve got that right. Presently, I can’t leave that out. You are the IT senior manager at PayPal.
00:01:48 Max: Full stop.
00:01:49 Paula: Okay, full stop. I’ll say Welcome to “TesseTalks”, Max. Thank you for saying yes.
00:01:58 Max: Thank you for having me again. It was such an exciting and growth experience last time. I’m looking forward to the same this time. Thank you for having me again.
00:02:10 Tesse: Wow. Max, You know, one of the things that you might notice, for people who are hearing this. Max is seeing us, and I’m actually in Maryland. And the first time I’ve come to the US since the pandemic. So this is fantastic. We promised to invite you back on the show. And true to our words, we are so delighted that you’re with us again. Since we spoke, you have had the opportunity of spending more time at your role in PayPal. So what does your role involve?
00:02:46 Max: Very good question. Tesse, Paula, as I said, great to be back again. And it’s very interesting that you asked me that question, because I was trying to explain my role to someone that was not very tech savvy, a few weeks ago, and it didn’t make sense to him, right? So what I do as a senior manager, I’m actually in the engineering IT space of PayPal. However, I am not a senior manager over IT engineering teams as developers and testers and architects. I actually, am a senior manager over a team of people that are called “Agile coaches”. So to paraphrase really briefly what my team does, we work on the technology side of a lot of the applications of PayPal that drive sales, marketing, and a lot of customer self-service applications, like Help Center Chat. All these inter highly interactive tools with our customers globally. PayPal has over 400 million subscribers, globally. PayPal owns a lot of companies like Venmo that has 70 million subscribers and a lot of products across the world. Including in China, in Sweden, across the world. And so, I work in an organization where my people help out the development teams to be a lot faster at their work. A lot more lean. To let the work flow through their teams in such an effective way that they can get work done in a matter of weeks, which would’ve taken them months in the past. And it gets a lot more detail and granular, but I hope that gives like a real good kind of a definition to the agile lean approach that we bring to all the teams that we work with in the technology space. Hence, my passion and the fact that I’m the president of the “Agile Austin organization”. I have the the honor and the pleasure of having my professional life and my life outside of my professional life, a lot of time have touchpoints which really is encouraging. And thanks to the work I do at PayPal, I have a lot of flexibility, I have a lot of autonomy. And when I get my work done and how that it allows me to do all those activities that Paula called out. I’m very blessed. And the time to be here with Tesse and Paula. Thank you.
00:05:38 Tesse: We are so honored to have you. And Paula, I’m looking to you, you know, I always said I have to give you the opportunity to have your voice.
00:05:48 Paula: Well, I’m happy you explained exactly what your role is. And how you impact the teams on PayPal. And we know that times are changing. Challenging time sometimes, especially in relation to agile development. So I know you probably have run into some of the changes and the challenges regarding that. Can you talk a little bit about that? Maybe the challenges first, then the changes?
00:06:14 Max: Yes. And by me sharing the challenges that we face in my work environment, it’s almost a two-sided coin where that is where the opportunity of what I bring to the table. And my team is extremely valued in my organization and my company. So it’s truly a very good position to be in. So talk about the challenges. Nowaday, I always like to say when I speak at conferences, or when I share my best practices and knowledge sharing. Is that we live in a world that is changing faster than it ever has in human history, due to technological disruption. The fact that you click something on your phone twice and a package is outside your door within a matter of hours. This is like the amount of technology, the amount of disruption behind that to make it happen, is something that just is, was unimaginable about 10 years ago. Well, now the change is just it’s exponentially like increasing. And so, even if my company, PayPal, is the top online payment provider and service in the world. We have more subscriptions than anybody else. We do more online payment transactions than anybody else. There are a lot of competitors. There are a lot of competitors that are smaller, maybe a little bit more nimble and are really ramping up. And so the challenge that we had, where I really help out too, is that there was a really slow pace for a lot of development teams and teams to react to the customer needs, to react to market trends. Because it’s not enough now to get products to market very fast. You have to listen to the feedback. You have to look at transactions on your website. You have to do this not only at the end when you deliver a final product, but even as you deliver a product in an iterative way. You give a certain part of the product out there, maybe just in Canada as a region, and you see how the end users are interacting with it. You take that feedback and you implement. You take that feedback into your next planning session, and you start to make enhancements to your product as you see that feedback. That was a big challenge at PayPal that my team is helping to drive. Having to, in an iterative way, gather the customer end user transaction feedback and integrating it into our product development cycle. There are so many layers to that, but I hope that conceptually it gives an idea that this is something that nobody was doing before, right? You just take a bunch of requirements and develop whatever it is, and you put it out the market. Now we are raising the bar and saying no. You have to continuously get feedback and develop the product according to your feedback, so you are more aligned with your customer needs all the time.
00:09:30 Paula: I think it does hand in hand with the fact that the customer is a lot more educated and informed.
00:09:36 Max: Yes.
00:09:36 Paula: Than previously. Would you say yes to that?
00:09:39 Max: Absolutely. And the customer has higher expectations now than before. Because before a customer might have been patient, might have scrolled around your app, might have, you know, clicked through various pages, whatever. Now we see attrition on the transaction after six or seven clicks, the customer’s done. I mean, we live truly. Someone told me once we live in an Amazon world where people can just do two clicks and a package is outside the door. So you have to think, how can this customer get what they want within a few clicks. If there is a problem with their payment, can they resolve it with an AI bot chatting to the bot instead of actually having to call up a customer rep? So more and more the customer expectations are really rising dramatically. So you, if you don’t provide that kind of service, customers will go somewhere else to get it. Absolutely.
00:10:44 Paula: Absolutely. You’re right. I mean, you’re right about the expectations being much higher. And also with the expectations being higher, there’s more of a impatience over, you know, you want nano speed, you know? Yeah. You want it now.
00:11:01 Max: Yes. And I’ll give you a personal experience. I always use Google search. Always. But my friend told me once, “oh, if you’re searching for this particular product, try to use Bing”. Microsoft owns Bing. A product that I hardly used to do searches. But it’s a very good product. But when I used it, it was giving me results in Seattle, in Washington. I am in Austin and as soon as that happened, I’m like, forget this. I don’t, you know, I use Google, it gives me results in Austin, close to me. I don’t have to specify that. Bing did not do that, and I, that was the last time, about six years ago, that I used Bing . Not to dis, I’m sorry, I’m not trying to dis Microsoft Products disclosure. I use Microsoft products every day and I love them. Disclosure. But that’s just an example that was just one experience, and I never bothered again. So that’s how a lot of customers are. If they have options, they have one experience that’s not that good. Why bother? Why bother? Right?
00:12:10 Paula: As you say, knowing your customer, the customer experience is very important.
00:12:14 Max: Bingo. And bringing that experience closer to your development teams.
00:12:20 Paula: Yes.
00:12:20 Max: Making them interact with that experience, allowing them to visualize that experience. That’s a lot of what we do now as compared to in before where a development team would just get a set of requirements and start to code. No. We want them to experience what the customer is experiencing. We want them to feel it, to hear it, and that is a whole mindset change. So we practically help people evolve their mindset also. And that can go into so many theoretical realms and everything. But as you can tell, I’m a bit too excited about what I do. Tone it down.
00:13:00 Tesse: That’s the kind of excitement that we love. You know, that’s such an exciting thing. It really ignites our excitement. We can see you very passionate about what you do. And actually you have segued into somewhere where we’re going to go anyway. Which is the use of coaching in environments such as yours and agile coaching as well. So, you know, it amazing that you have changed your role, you’ve changed your job. That’s so exciting. That’s so brave, I have to say, and bold. And so, you know the question, we are super curious about, how you are developing as a coach yourself, but also the teams that you support in this environment you’ve described. Talk to us about that.
00:13:44 Max: Oh yeah. The biggest development, not just an opportunity but the journey I’ve been on, is that now as a senior manager, I manage people that do what I used to do before. So now all of a sudden I have this opportunity to work more strategically to work across the enterprise. So I meet with people that are leaders, directors, and VPs in the project management organization. The product organization, the Enterprise Tooling Organization. And I say, you know what? We need to connect some dots. We need to do very things. And all of a sudden, I’m influencing at that VP level and higher up in the decision making process. So it’s been an evolution for me. Just a few years back, I was working directly with teams or groups of teams. And now it’s organizations and decision makers in these organizations. Which then exponentially increases the influence that I can have. Which you have to understand there are various things that change in this sphere that I’m in. Change can be a very hard thing for some people to do. I work with a lot of people that have been doing the same thing for decades. That have been very highly compensated for doing what they’ve done for decades. So to ask them to try something new, to look at their role from a different perspective and evolve can be very challenging. Because there’s really that fear of the unknown. So having to take a look at the coaching aspect and creating psychological safety. Creating things that don’t even have to do per se with agile practices. But just about the individual and how the individual has to evolve. You have to create that need for people to understand that you have to adapt to changing times. What Darwin said 150 plus years ago is still very valid. It is the most adaptable creatures, and you can even compare that to companies. The most adaptable companies are the ones that will thrive. So not to be so dooms day like, and if you don’t adapt, you will be extinct. But to give people the sense of urgency and to bring them along on the journey. I think that now that I’ve been doing that at a more decision making executive level, I’ve had to refine my approach. Cause the impact has impact on hundreds and thousands of people very much so.
00:16:47 Tesse: I’m really loving that kind of, you know, negotiation space, mindset shift, paradigm shift, as well as understanding where people are and taking them on the journey. Understanding the urgency, but also helping them to evolve into something else. And I love that. And you know, I get really curious about another piece which stands out for me, relating to you. And that’s your own multicultural, multiethnic background and experience. How do you leverage this as an asset in this environment you’re describing?
00:17:18 Max: Yes. No. And that’s really stood out to me actually last week because I feel that being the fact that I’m half Nigerian – my father’s Nigerian, my mother is Italian from Rome. So, I grew up in Nigeria, but my first language was Italian with a Roman accent. When I’m on the phone speaking someone will, and a Roman accent is very distinct. It is not the most refined, but it’s has its own character, right? Because us Romans have been around for 2000 years, so who are you to tell us anything? Right? That’s that kind of mentality. But that has shown me that I’ve been able to, because of this multicultural, multiethnic background. I have grown up in worlds that mix in that integrative fluid and so for me, even in my international background, that I went to an American international school. And I’ve always been mixing with various cultures. Last week, about 80 to 90% of our PayPal folks, I would say at least 80% are of Indian origin in Austin, in Austin. And I noticed that for me, like I just showed up and blended and my director from San Jose flew in and my VP from India flew in and everybody. And I was able to interact and host and connect people and everything as if we were all from the same place hanging out like altogether since who knows what from a cultural perspective. But you know what, I take that for granted. But not everybody has that ability. Some people that might have only lived in Texas and maybe not experienced, might not be able to be as fluid and respectful and be able to connect with various cultures. Because you know, there’s certain things you have to keep into perspective and how to approach and connect and how to joke about things and make everybody feel at home. And so Interesting how to me it comes second nature, and I don’t even think about it. But that is actually a skillset to a lot of other people. So I think that that is an advantage of my multicultural, multiethnic, multinational background. It has helped me out a lot.
00:19:53 Tesse: One of our guests, Melody Song, she reminds us that it’s value add as well as value fit. And we quite like that. And your ability to do the integration that helps the collaboration is amazing. So are there any kind of, we’re coming to the end of this, and I’m wondering whether there’s other words of wisdom that your key messages you have for people listening in, in your journey at the moment. Cause it’s fascinating.
00:20:21 Paula: It is. And in addition to what Tesse just said what’s going through my mind, is that your foundation of being an Agile coach, kinda blends in with the multinational, multicultural. It’s just so, it brings in the inclusivity of everything. And being able to sit, as you say, or work alongside with people from different cultures. As you said last week, it dawned on you. Wow. This is a skill set for some people, but it comes to you so naturally.
00:20:52 Max: Very much, and the one word that comes up to me every time, which is the one word I try to share with my eight and ten year old daughters all the time, is “adaptability”.
00:21:05 Paula: Yes.
00:21:05 Max: You like the world, it’s just your adaptive mindset is to me, it’s my super power. It’s my superpower. I have seen people that were side by side with me in agile career, and in an agile mindset, you have to be adaptable. But they got a certain certification and specialization and they held onto that and they stayed in that mindset. When that might have worked six or seven years ago, but now it doesn’t as effectively. And they have felt the consequences. I know people that have had to switch careers. Some people that have retired from doing agile coaching. But I have just evolved, and you know, I feel you take it to another level. So I would say if there’s something that has helped me out the most when I get involved in president of Agile Austin role, president of the Parents Teacher Association at my daughter’s elementary school, PayPal, and my IT professional career is the mindset of adaptability. And I look forward to the future when there might be some new adventures I take on and I can come here to share it on the podcast Paula and Smiley Tesse, scenario and experience.
00:22:31 Paula: That’s an example of adaptability.
00:22:33 Tesse: Adaptability.
00:22:34 Paula: Because we mentioned this to you off camera, or off podcast,Iguess is the word and you remembered enough to bring it.
00:22:43 Max: I’m taking the journey to the next spot. Yes.
00:22:47 Tesse: I can say that Max, you’re one of our special guests here. Is that,
00:22:53 Max: Oh, you don’t say that to everyone, right? You don’t say that to everyone, of course not.
00:22:56 Tesse: No. we have lovely speakers, lovely guests. But there’s some guests like you that bring a high element of fun, of adaptability, of competence, and just that excitement that ignites us. And we have to flag it up as you say, super power.
00:23:13 Paula: Yes.
00:23:13 Tesse: Cause it is.
00:23:15 Max: Okay. I’ll just conclude that sometimes it’s almost as if we have to press pause and appreciate things about ourselves that we do well. Because sometimes we might think, oh that’s just second nature to me, or is what I do. But sometimes that’s actually a skill set and then you can see how can I leverage this skillset to, you know, further my journey, further my development as an individual. And how can I help in my society, in my community with these skillsets, right?
00:23:49 Paula: Absolutely.
00:23:49 Max: It’s incredible. It’s incredible.
00:23:51 Paula: It is incredible. Especially if we live in a dynamic world. And you mentioned, you know, the certification, or some people find it hard to adapt with the certification they received like six years ago. Now it’s becoming almost like a month ago, you know. Because things,
00:24:06 Max: It’s obselete. Yeah.
00:24:08 Paula: And become obsolete almost in the blinking of an eye is like, wow. We no longer use this tool. We no longer. It’s amazing. It’s really incredible.
00:24:17 Tesse: I’m already having withdrawal symptoms, I don’t know about you Paula.
00:24:20 Paula: I am. I am. Oh boy. One last word for our audience from you. We know your superpower is adaptability. Is there any other superpower about you that you know, the next superpower or the sub superpower?
00:24:36 Max: The sub superpower and everything. My other superpower, which sometimes can become in an interesting way and overwhelming thing for others, is my energy. And my positivity. It’s almost as if I always go into a scenario thinking, ” Oh, well, you know what? Things could be worse. I might not be able to provide a home and shelter for my family. I might not be able to do this. Like, it’s not bad. Whatever the situation is that I’m going through, it can be fixed “. But as much as it’s a superpower and it always gives me a positive view in everything. And positive things do happen to positive thinkers. I truly believe if you start the, if you think positively, positive things happen to you. But almost as if I have to be aware that with this superpower of positive energy, I have to empathize with people around me that might not be on the same level. Might not be at the same spot of positivity, and so I can come across as a little bit much. So it’s a superpower that has to be directed appropriately, right? That whole positive energy and outlook in life.
00:25:58 Tesse: You just love her there. I’m, I’m still.
00:26:02 Max: And my wife can really talk to that. She can talk to that.
00:26:06 Tesse: What you’ve touched on is something which is very, very now and going into the future, about the importance of inside of wisdom, of empathy, of compassion, of care and of capability as well. And the wrapper up with agility. And I love that thing about not underplaying our strength. and because it comes easily to us, we need to recognize the influence and the impact we have and align that with our intentions. I love that.
00:26:38 Max: Yes. That is so important, that you only realize that when you really stop and think about the things you’re doing and the value you add and how you’ve add value. And then things start to stand out to you that you might not even have been aware of. About things you’re capable of doing and then you harness that, you develop that you increase what you can do with those skill sets. Well, I could go on and on, but in the interest of time.
00:27:12 Paula: We are sitting here intrigued, and we know we could go on and on. But, to our fabulous guests. I need to say that again.
00:27:21 Max: Calm down a second, take a deep breath, Paula.
00:27:34 Paula: Oh my gosh, right. So to our fabulous guests on “TesseTalks”, you just heard from the incredible Max Ekesi. One of the things he touched on was on his superpowers and a lot more. But what we would love for you to do is head over to “Apple Podcast”, “Google Podcast”, “Spotify”, or anywhere else where you listen to podcasts, and please click subscribe. If you like what you just heard about, who wouldn’t. Please write us a raving review. And if you, as our guests have any questions or topics you would like us to cover related to leadership or governance, please send us a note because it can be personal as well as professional. And last, but not the least. If you’d like to be a guest on the show, please head over to “tesseakpeki.com/tessetalks” to apply. Thank you Max, you did not disappoint.
00:28:34 Tesse: Always a joy Max. Always a joy.