Let’s build the future that we want to live in.
How to Find & Retain People Who Can Scale Your Startup Through Hyper-Growth
In my last post, I discussed a framework for deciding to develop talent from within (“Build”) or hire ready-to-go talent from outside (“Buy”) as your company scales.
This decision really comes down to prioritizing culture vs. output. For most startups, if you can manage to get the output you need, you should bias towards the Build strategy as often as possible. People and culture are the only long-term competitive advantage of every organization.
And when you’re redesigning the Everyday Economy, it’s especially important to Build instead of Buy early on. To reach your massive vision, you need the right people to help you navigate initial twists and turns and the right supporting infrastructure to help them navigate through your company’s hyper-growth later on.
So if you want Build talent at your startup, here’s how to do it.
Finding Talent Who Can Scale Quickly
Through my experience scaling with Blue Apron (both for myself and for people on my team), I’ve found certain attributes to be key indicators for a great Build employee. This type of person can successfully scale into “stretch role” (and do it again and again) under tremendous time and output pressure in a hyper-growth environment.
This is what Build talent has in common:
Demonstrated ability to learn quickly and master something that she’s never done before.
Does this person show the conviction and track record that anything new can be learned (it’s just a matter of effort and focus)?
Intellectual Horsepower and Curiosity
Intellectual horsepower and curiosity are slightly different — the former is one’s raw capacity, and the latter is one’s motivation to acquire new knowledge. She actually doesn’t need to be the smartest person in the room, but she does need to have the baseline intellect to absorb new concepts quickly. The arguably more important thing is intellectual curiosity. This person never stops learning — and figures out a way to self-teach because she’s curious.
Scaling with a company through hyper-growth is hard work — you feel like a rubber band that’s constantly getting stretched, and you’re about to break any minute. It’s hard for someone to last in that environment without a strong drive to fuel the extra work she needs to put in every day. Having the drive to learn and succeed also means this person will proactively identify opportunities and take initiatives, preparing herself for the next challenge.
Ideally, this drive will come from a shared passion around your long-term mission and impact — business models, target markets, etc. can all change at the drop of a hat through hyper-growth. Which leads me to my next point …
Since things change all the time at early-stage startups, great Build employees have a “roll with the punches” attitude and the ability to adjust quickly. This becomes especially important when you put this person in a “stretch role” situation (implicitly or explicitly). You most likely haven’t figured everything out related to the scope, reporting structure, and path forward, but the best employees will find a way to push through until it’s clearer.
Scaling with the company quickly could mean fast-tracking professionally — taking on Director- or VP-level responsibility that would take others many more years in more junior roles. With title and scope comes responsibilities, and you want to make sure this person has the professional maturity to be a positive force and a role model for both her team and the rest of the organization.
In many cases, scaling someone means putting this person in a people manager position and/or increased scope that requires more cross-functional collaborations. To be effective at both, this person needs to have the emotional intelligence to empathize, to be self- and surrounding-aware, and to communicate and motivate people of all stripes.
Setting Your Talent up for Success
The work doesn’t stop at getting the right people through the door. Leaving them to “sink or swim” is the best way for top talent to underachieve their potentials (and thus your company’s potential). Whether you are the founder/CEO, a department VP, or a manager of a five-person team, the following should be equally applicable to maximizing your people’s (and your) success.
Set clear milestones and deliver consistent feedback.
This is good hygiene for any people manager, but it’s especially important if you have someone who’s newly stepped into a role with a larger scope and unfamiliar domains.
Even with a growth mindset, she cannot continue to grow and develop without feedback to help identify blind spots and developmental areas.
And even with a strong drive to succeed, she won’t know where to apply her energy without clear milestones that serve as guideposts along the way.
The latter seems obvious, but not defining “what success looks like” is a common pitfall for early-stage startups that rush to create a new role (or department/function/level) to fill a near-term gap without careful considerations.
Identify strengths and weaknesses to build a team around her.
If your employee is scaling into a team/department leader, feedback is also crucial to helping her grow her team. You two should collaborate closely to develop a talent strategy to supplement her skillset, experience, or bandwidth gaps so that her team as a whole can deliver what the organization needs. This person should have the self-awareness and maturity to rise above ego and insecurity, but she still needs her manager’s guidance to truly address her blind spots.
Help her build an external network of peers/advisors.
Despite the unique nature of every company, many companies encounter similar challenges (and derive similar learnings) that are either mapped to functional areas or company stages. Even if you’re the most capable “seen-it-all” leader in your domain, if someone under you is tasked to scale up quickly, she will likely benefit from connecting with peers facing similar issues or slightly more senior leaders who’ve faced the problem before.
Some things can only be learned through personal experience — but many mistakes can be avoided by spending 30 minutes with a peer or advisor. It’s your job as a manager to help them find the right people to connect with.
(Hint: Your investors can be really helpful here. We almost always have someone within the portfolio who would be glad to chat with them.)
Getting the right people and infrastructure in place isn’t easy — the earlier you have them in place, the better shape you’ll be in for achieving your big, lofty vision.