Recently, I have been thinking about the role of the executive in a scaling startup.
As a senior leader in a growing company, you need to be scaling faster than the organization. You grow by scaling yourself and the leaders in your team more quickly than the business. This fact is well known and is covered excellently in such books as Zero to One and The Hard Thing About Hard Things.
Even if you are aware of this fundamental requirement, it is still challenging to recognize when you are starting to fall behind on that scaling. The people on your team, the people that got you to where you are today, who are working as hard as ever, should be doing better than they are. You may start seeing the signs: teams falling behind, tensions between groups or functions, team leaders beginning to struggle with their work, and increasing responsibilities.
You might not know what these scaling problems look like because you haven’t seen them before. Maybe you do recognize them, but your loyalty to your team lets them go on longer than they should. You can get away with that for a while.
Eventually, your boss (the CEO, the board) or your peers start to recognize the growing gaps in your organization between where you are and where you should be. In a company with a good culture, they will let you know. In a company with a less-open culture, your peers may notice but not feel like it is their place to say.
By the time the problems are apparent outside your team, it will be nearly too late.
When these problems first arise, you need to put together a plan. If you missed the early signs and the challenges are visible outside your team, you need to act immediately.
You need to bring in new talent who can help close that gap. It will take time to do that. If you choose to re-double your efforts to mentor the existing folks, you will only fall further behind. Either you missed your window to mentor, your leaders need more mentorship than you can provide, or they are not yet ready to take on the new responsibilities in their role even with mentorship.
Replacing people who have historically done well in their roles can seem cruel, and this is why it is hard. It feels disloyal to the people that have been loyal to your company and have helped to build it along with you. It is not their fault.
If you don’t make those hard choices, though, they will be made for you by the person whom your boss or the board hire to replace you.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We have an assumption that in a growing company, people will remain in the roles they have had, and newer employees will come in below them. This assumption is one of the exciting incentives of joining a startup. It can be a career accelerator. Indeed, there are many stories of early employees at startups remaining in their senior leadership roles through rapid growth and past the point of going public. Very few people are capable of this kind of personal development, however.
Instead, we should be explicit about this challenge of growing a company. We should build a culture that acknowledges and celebrates this fundamental fact. Let people your hire know that you will support their growth, but be honest that if the company is scaling faster than they are, they may need to help hire the person who will help with the next phase.
Reid Hoffman talks about these ideas in his book The Alliance. I think Netflix has done well being explicit around the Tour of Duty in their culture. I do think Netflix is a bit too employer-focused in its attitude towards these ideas. This approach works for them because they favor hiring experienced developers and do not invest much in training their employees relative to other companies. That is another definitive decision of their culture.
I advocate for a more balanced and sustainable approach for companies, one that encourages employee development and business realities. Startups that are willing to hire at all levels of experience and support employee growth can hire and retain better. Even those companies face challenges at their scaling inflection points when company leadership changes by the new business reality’s necessities.
Suppose your company builds the concept of succession for scale into its culture. In that case, hiring your successor should be expressed as an opportunity for further mentorship and growth and not as a demotion or failure. Celebrate it as a rite of passage. Challenge the leaders in your team (and give them the tools) to recognize when this time has come, and praise their self-awareness.
Build succession for scale into your compensation structure and leadership career pathing. Ensure that the newly hired leaders train the people they have replaced to assume the role once again. If the position opens up in the future, the person may now have the skills to step back into it.
Many companies are interested in experimenting with self-selection as a way of organizing their teams. I see questions about the process often in online forums. While there are some excellent books and blog posts on the topic, I thought that I would share a self-selection exercise that we did at my last company, Avvo. It worked reasonably well and with relatively little drama. If you are considering a similar exercise, you might consider this approach.
I joined Avvo as its’ CTO in the summer of 2016. At the beginning of 2017, we moved to a new team structure. The basis of the new team structure was the customer journeys through our product. The new teams were naturally called “Journey Teams.” I describe Journey Teams briefly in my talk Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement in Your Company.
Traditionally at Avvo, the development teams had been organized in a top-down manner. I had heard from the individual developers some frustration at how they were placed into teams and moved without consultation. I decided that this re-organization was an excellent way to demonstrate the more inclusive and autonomous culture that I was building. Allowing people to self-select their new team seemed like an excellent way to break from the past and set expectations for the future.
We decided on six Journey Teams. Four were product-focused supporting customer journeys. The other two were internally focused. One Journey Team supported our developers with tooling to help them manage their services. The other internal journey team focused on supplying business analytics to the marketing, finance and sales teams.
If someone is going to choose a team, they need to understand what the team is and why they would want to join it. The Chief Product Officer and I, with our direct reports, set the number and charters of the Journey Teams.
Once we set the number and missions of the Journey Teams, we picked an initial leadership group for each team. That leadership group consisted of one senior member of each functional specialty that would be part of the team. The product teams each had a Product Manager, a Development Lead, a Test Lead, a UX Lead, a Data Engineering Lead, and a Data Analytics Lead.
The new Journey Team leadership groups were each responsible for setting up the initial scaffolding of each of their teams. The scaffolding included: fleshing out their missions, establishing their spheres of responsibilities, putting together some initial strategies they would use, and choosing their core metrics. As they made progress on these, they would review with each other and with the senior product and technology leadership. We needed to make sure that every part of the product and platform had an owner and that the plans and metrics made sense.
As the Journey Team leadership groups made progress building their plans, they were asked to put together staffing estimates on what they would need to execute their strategies. The staffing estimates were valuable as it helped me decide on what staffing I would need in the next years budget. The budget process was happening in parallel with this effort.
As we moved into December of 2016, the leadership of each of the Journey Teams had made enough progress that I felt comfortable setting the self-section exercise to happen right after the New Years break in January. At this point, the board had approved the budget. The CPO and I could figure out what staffing we would allocate to each team based on their mission and their strategy. Each Journey Team then needed to think about how they would structure their efforts based on their allocated staffing.
The self-selection exercise structure was a job fair with a festive atmosphere. The entire product, design, development, test, data engineering, and data analytics teams assembled. We had cupcakes and drinks. One by one, each Journey Team leadership group came up to pitch their team to the rest of the organization. They described their mission, their goals, their initial plans, and the planned size of the team. Some had already designed logos and had slogans. Each team was selling their mission to their peers. Some teams put a lot of effort and salesmanship into their pitches. Other teams had a difficult time articulating why people should join them.
After the last Journey Team had presented, every person in the room got a card. The card contained a space for their name and a list of the Journey Teams with spaces to put their order of preference. We asked everyone to fully rank their preferences just in case that would be needed.
When all the cards were filled out and collected, the meeting adjourned.
Finalizing the selection
After the self-selection meeting, the people managers from the organization met. The responses from the each of the cards were now in a spreadsheet showing each person’s preferences, the number of people currently assigned to each Journey Team and the number of people that were budgeted to be on the team.
The people managers were part of the process because they knew each of their reports interests, challenges, growth plans, and interpersonal issues. They were there to advocate for their reports wishes. They were also there to understand the process. With an understanding of the process, they could explain to someone why they didn’t get their first choice. The people managers were also there to make sure that each team had the best diversity of skills, backgrounds, and experience so that they would have the highest chance of succeeding.
The matching people and teams process was iterative. As the teams started to fill in, we had to go back and re-adjust a few times. The whole process of matching people and teams only took about 90 minutes for a 120 person organization. It went relatively quickly. Along the way, we chose to shift one headcount between teams to accommodate a developer’s professional development interests.
We were able to match 99% of the people to their first or second choice of Journey Team. In the case where someone got their third choice, we had a good explanation for them about the decision.
Once the initial rosters for each Journey Team were set, they had a chance to review and give feedback. For the cases where people didn’t get their first choice, their manager was able to discuss with them in their 1:1s.
While we were open to further iteration to accommodate any concerns that came up, it turned out that it wasn’t necessary. The Journey Teams and individuals were all content with the matching.
A week after the self-selection exercise we sent out the official announcement of the new team rosters. The teams started meeting to flesh out the initial plans and individuals moved to sit with their new teammates. We did make it clear to every person that if they were unhappy with their decision that we would help them switch.
A Retrospective on the exercise a few weeks later found very high satisfaction from the organization on the process and on the teams that it produced.
The exercise itself was a success. It had tremendous engagement from the organization. People felt empowered in the exercise and committed to their new team because it was their choice. Only one person switched teams in the three months after the exercise and only a handful in the rest of the year.
What I would do differently Next Time
The process of preparing for the exercise from each of the Journey Teams created some tension in the organization. The Journey Team leadership groups spent much time meeting together in the weeks before the exercise. The teams weren’t transparent enough about what they were doing. We as leaders hadn’t set reasonable expectations about communication. We did start to encourage them to send out updates to the organization on their progress, but it came later than it should have. Next time, I would give more guidance to the leadership teams about how they could go about their initial organizing. I would put a tighter time expectation on them, and I would make sure that they were transparent to the rest of the organization.
The presentations themselves were a bit of a challenge for some teams. We did encourage teams to make their presentations fun and to sell their missions. We didn’t help the teams with their presentations though, and we didn’t do a run through with them. The disparity in presentations did mean that some teams attracted an inordinate amount of interest. Next time, I would have a run through where each team could see each other’s presentations, and we could give some advice to help make their presentations better.
Regular Self-Selection Exercises
There were some in the organization who were so happy with the self-selection exercise that they suggested we repeat it every year. I know that there are organizations who do this. From my experience, I can see it working within a small company where most everyone already has a good connection with each other. In a small organization, it would take much less time to go through the forming, storming and norming phases. In a larger organization, regular re-organization would mean a lot of wasted time trying to get teams going.
For Avvo, the self-selection made sense at a juncture where we were doing a complete organizational restructuring. The old teams were utterly gone. It took a while for the new teams to get going, but once they established themselves, they worked well, and it made little sense to change them again. Individuals always had the option to move between teams if they felt like they were ready for new challenges. The organization was growing, and so the teams were always hiring. If we had been in a more constrained environment, we would still have done our best to facilitate smooth movement within the organization.
The core thing with an exercise like self-selecting teams or any other exercise is to be deliberate in your intent. Why are you doing the exercise? What benefits do you expect? What are the downsides? If it is successful, what will you do next? If it is unsuccessful, how will you roll it back or what will you do instead?
Letting the people in your organization self-select into teams can be an active driver of engagement and autonomy. The exercise we did at Avvo was successful for us and is worth looking at as inspiration for your process. If you are considering self-selection, be deliberate about what your goals are, what aspects of self-selection help you achieve them and what you might do if the goals are not met.
A culture of continuous improvement is a culture where you are always open to improving how you build and deliver. You don’t accept the status quo; you choose how to work and feel empowered to change it if it no longer makes sense. It is a people-first culture.
Having had the benefit of a culture like this at the last place I worked, when I started at my current company, I wanted to see if I could create a continuous improvement culture there, too. It took some effort, and we learned some painful lessons along the way, but we did make significant improvements to how our teams operated and how the engineering organization functioned.
As a result of these changes, our teams are able to execute at a much higher level, and the morale of the organization improved significantly. In short, we get a lot more stuff done, and we are happier doing it.
To get there, we had to change some of our frameworks, structures, and processes, or adopt new ones.
Here are some of the frameworks we created that could be helpful for any company:
WIGs and sWIGs: A way to align the company around a common mid-term strategy and shorter-term tactical deliveries in a way that preserves team autonomy and agile delivery. WIG stands for â€œwildly important goal,â€ and sWIG means â€œsub-wildly important goal.â€ Our WIGs clarify the midterm strategy for the company, and the sWIGs clarify the shorter-term tactics we are using to achieve that strategy
DUHBs: A data-driven decision-making framework that allows individuals in the company to craft a clear, data-based argument for a making a change. DUHB stands for data, understanding, hypotheses, and bets, which describes the linear process of solving a problem
Journey teams: An autonomous team model that gives teams more direct control over how they work, aligned with customer journeys
RFCs: A mechanism that allows anyone in the organization to drive large-scale change inclusively. It is a document and a process that uses the â€œrequest for commentâ€ structure from standards groups as a basis
Retrospectives everywhere: A cultural shift in how we think about examining our organizational strengths and weaknesses when it comes to executing projects
Each framework builds upon the others. By making the priorities and goals of the company clear, people have the context to make good decisions. With a common data-driven process for vetting ideas, people have a good, structured way to propose changes. With autonomous teams, we can test new ideas locally and let the best practices emerge organically. With an inclusive mechanism for proposing larger-scale changes, the organization can participate in the process instead of having it pushed down from leadership. Finally, with a practice of retrospectives at all levels, the organization can learn from successes and mistakes made in any of the other components.
These frameworks created an environment that was not only adaptable and nimble, but also one where the members of the organization were empowered to make changes and were given tools to make advocating for change easier.
If there are more companies with continuous improvement cultures, it means a healthier and happier industry for all of us.
Compare the Market was nice enough to invite me to speak at their tech managers’ off-site about distributed teams. This talk reflects my own experience leading distributed teams.
I was presenting to them over video. Their meeting included people in two different offices and also folks dialing in from home. Ironically, in the middle of my talk, I got disconnected from the video conference. Because I was sharing my slides full-screen and had my speaker notes on my second monitor, I didn’t notice. So I spoke to myself for about 15 minutes before I realized what happened and dialed back into the meeting. It was a bit mortifying, but the folks in the UK were extremely nice about it. I can’t think of a better example though of the challenges around working with teams who have to communicate over electronic means constantly, so it was a good illustration of the issues I raised. 🙂