Vendasta’s Shakya Abeywickrama on taking a data-driven approach to leadership in fulfillment

While the people who know her would say Shakya Abeywickrama has always been a leader at heart, she wasn’t always Vendasta’s Vice President, Divisional General Manager of Marketing Services.

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She didn’t start at the top.

A born and raised Sri Lanken, Shakya moved to Saskatoon with her immigrant parents when she was 19. She graduated from the University of Saskatchewan and then started working at Vendasta, where she built her career from the ground up.

She’s a home-grown leader at Vendasta who started off doing frontline work and eventually moved to a team lead, then to a manager, and then director. Finally, Shakya began leading the Marketing Services division. She now leads a diverse and growing team that currently has close to 170 people. How does she do it? What is her key to success, and which leadership qualities can you implement in your own business to improve fulfillment and outcomes?

In large part, taking a data-driven approach to leadership in fulfillment services has helped her build a team that is constantly improving and seeing success regardless of the changes and disruptions that occur in the industry and the larger business environment.

We sat down with Shakya to get her valuable insights on taking a data-driven approach to leadership in fulfillment services.

The difficult (but necessary) transition to metrics-driven leadership

When Shakya received the opportunity to work in a role that would allow her to lead a division, it was a difficult transition. She reflects, “It was very daunting. I am very much a type-A person. I like lists, I like knowing how things get done. It was very hard for me at the beginning to comprehend how I was going to be available in these micro-decisions that make up the success of Vendasta and its Marketing Services. That’s when I started heavily moving into metric-driven leadership.”

Shakya used this data-driven approach to leadership as a technique to not only find work-life balance but to allow her leaders to shine at what they are great at doing. As she explains, as long as the metrics are going in the right direction, she can trust her direct reports to do their job.

When discussing the critical experiences that shaped her leadership style, Shakya says, “I have moved from community to community, and everything I have is because of the people who supported me and allowed me to be who I am. Someone gave me a chance to prove myself, and I want to give everyone else that chance. That’s why I think many of the leadership techniques I use include facilitating—not micromanaging.”

She continues, “I grew up in a country that was unstable with a civil war. For a long time, I often found myself not in control in my childhood. Now, I like being in control, and metrics help me do that.”

How to move towards a data-driven approach to leadership

Shakya believes that, most of the time, the way to become a metrics-driven organization is to work backward from the customer. Understanding what’s important to the customer—and at what time—is critical when you determine what metric you should measure.

It’s important to remember that what you measure drives behavior in your teams. People like to win, and they should be able to win with what you measure— and win at the right things. This ultimately allows them to deliver the right products and services at the right time and with the right value.

The right metric to measure

Often, people think there’s only one metric to measure and that it’s the right metric. It’s not.

Leaders should focus on the right metric at the right time.

“Previously in the website team, a lot of focus was on quality. We went through many, many iterations until the client was really happy. Then the pandemic hit, and this wasn’t an option. People had to shut down their doors and open their virtual doorways. They needed websites in hours. Quality was still a priority but it wasn’t the most important one: A virtual doorway was more important. Their income depended on it. We quickly changed our metric to days to deliver a website. We went from several months to five days and, in some cases, two days during the pandemic,” Shakya says.

According to Shakya, adjustments like that are critical when you’re using a data-driven approach.

What is important to measure right now? That question is critical because it drives what your team delivers. This should be based on market needs, customer needs, and, in some cases, even business needs. Think: At the highest level, when do I care about top-line revenue vs the margins I make on that revenue? One might trump the other.

Scale fulfillment: Measuring performance from two angles

Often, local experts end up making expansion, hiring, and operational decisions on gut feel rather than letting the numbers guide them. Maybe they don't know where to start, the data overwhelms them, or they just don't have the numbers they need to make an informed decision. Operating this way is what keeps leaders up at night.

Shakya’s advice when scaling fulfillment? As you grow and scale teams, you need to look at it from two angles: the operational side and business/financial side. Simply put: You need to look at both effectiveness and efficiency, especially when it comes to fulfilling marketing services.

Shakya shares how this strategy worked in her division: “What we did in Marketing Services was we matched our organizational structure to what we were measuring for the teams. What that means is that our senior managers who owned the revenue lines focused on the high-level metrics. They were concerned with whether we were bringing in the right number of revenue, partners, and small and medium businesses (SMBs) at a profitable level. These are often known as lagging metrics because you only see the results at the end of it.

“On the other end, the operational managers were more concerned with the leading indicators. They focused on customer satisfaction scores, first response time, resolution time, and days to deliver. Measuring the leading indicators drove the lagging indicators. That’s how the organizational structure connected with metric-based leadership.”

This type of strategy gives everyone ownership of their part of the business. Everyone knows exactly what they should be working on and what they need to focus on, rather than having everyone focus on everything.

Shakya offers a valuable tip: Let people take credit for the work they do.

She explains, “We started Business Reviews, which changed ownership. We schedule one hour every month for operational managers to talk about their most important metric. They were able to present their tactics, movements, and metrics to the company leadership, and this drove a strong sense of ownership. It helped me understand if things were going well without having to tell the leaders how to do their jobs. I tell them what and they decide on the how.”

The key to staffing for a scalable future

It can be difficult to scale a services business like a marketing agency. When do you hire? You don’t want to overwork your team, but you also want to take on more clients without increasing your costs significantly.

For Shakya, measuring utilization is the key to staffing for a scalable future. Utilization is a big part of any marketing services agency, and it can be measured in many ways.

She discusses how utilization is measured in Marketing Services: “We strive for efficiencies, but, first and foremost, we try to make sure that our teams are always at 80 percent capacity. So, if there’s an influx of orders, there’s a little leeway to get people up and running. To measure utilization, we start each day with a daily stand-up, where we discuss how many tasks people have.” This can help determine whether team members are at above 80 percent capacity, which could signal the need to scale the team.

Other methods to keep in mind when ramping up include keeping freelancers on file in order to temporarily outsource work when required. Leveraging students and interns can also help meet client demand until you can find the right full-time candidate.

In the Marketing Services division, utilization is ultimately measured using the forecasted revenue and capacity of the team, along with the target north stars like the number of SMBs or the number of partners they want to reach. This ultimately determines their hiring needs.

Shakya shares a part of her strategy, “We do people budgeting a year in advance and tweak it every month as we go.”

Restructuring your team to allow your company to scale

When it comes to restructuring, Shakya says it’s all about the signs. When she started at Marketing Services eight years ago, they were a team of eight people. They didn’t need a structure. Everyone did everything. But as they started adding more partners and different types of partners, the cookie-cutter way of doing things didn’t work anymore. They ultimately determined that there were specialties that they needed to segment for within the teams.

Shakya shares how she restructured her teams to better meet their partners’ fulfillment needs: “Our teams are structured today into two main areas: 1) client communications, who represent the partner and local business, and 2) fulfillment, the subject-matter experts doing the work.” The former is focused on true customer success while the latter is focused on effectiveness.

“Having every team member do everything didn’t work for scalability. Marketing Services serves close to 7,000 SMBs a month, and the segmentation approach really works for us,” says Shakya.

3 Common mistakes in the data-driven approach to leadership in fulfillment

1. Measurement without action

Oftentimes, measuring something is just telling you how it’s going; it’s not telling you what to do. That’s all human. That’s the decision-making that you do.

Just measuring something doesn’t mean you’re a metric-driven leader if you’re not going to do anything about it. It all lies in the tactics you use to change that metric to what you want it to be.

Shakya Abeywickrama

Vice President, Divisional General Manager of Marketing Services., Vendasta

Shakya goes on to explain that this is a step that often gets missed. People start measuring, but they don’t do anything about it.

2. Keeping metrics at the high level

Many leaders make the mistake of thinking metrics are only seen at the highest level. In contrast, Shakya says every person could and should have something they are working towards. It helps motivate people to do their best.

Her advice: Review your metrics daily, weekly, and monthly. Have your team constantly working towards the numbers you want to see. It will help drive those changes rather than just keeping it at a high level.

3. Relying on vanity metrics

According to Shakya, some leaders unintentionally end up measuring vanity metrics. She explains, “A lot of the time, we start measuring lagging metrics like revenue and margins, but the input metrics or leading metrics are often missed. Those metrics are the ones that you can influence that will end up giving you the right output that you are expecting.”

Metrics can be daunting. They were to Shakya at first, too. However, taking steps to become a metrics-driven leader can not only enable you to better manage large teams as you scale, but also help you more effectively and efficiently fulfill orders and grow your service business.

About the Author

Solange Messier is the Content Strategy Manager at Vendasta. Solange has spent the majority of her career in content marketing helping companies improve how they connect with their prospects and customers. Her diverse background includes magazine publishing, book publishing, marketing agencies, payment processing, and tech. When she's not working, Solange can be found spending time with her family, running, and volunteering.

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