Estimates suggest that up to 23% of startups and scaleups fail as they don’t have the right team, including a lack of experienced leadership.
Founders often don’t have the time to scale the capabilities of their broader leadership teams, and in fast-growth tech scaleups the capabilities of these teams needs to grow often in just a few months: for example, event platform firm Hopin grew from six employees to 660 in just over a year.
Leaders from C-Suite and department head roles on our Advance leadership courses came to us with some challenges in common which are critical – but difficult – to tackle as their business grows.
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable
First and foremost, if you are asking an awkward question for the right reason, then it is never the wrong question. That said, these conversations are often stifled by leaders not knowing how to approach them – whether that’s to your fellow leaders in the business or those that you’re managing. Start awkward questions by explaining why you are about to ask them: reframing how something is asked dramatically changes how it is received and how comfortable you feel asking it.
When you want to challenge people, remember that it’s important that nobody feels on any level that they cannot challenge or be challenged – but this can always be carried out in an non-adversarial way. Most importantly, have conversations with individuals to understand their mindset, and be prepared to listen and learn things that you were not expecting.
Hiring well – at speed
A rapidly growing business will usually encounter the problem of how to hire strong talent, fast. This comes down to making sure your hiring strategy is at the heart of your business.
For a business that’s lesser known, you might find you need to be imaginative about where you look for talent – empower managers and employees to go out and talk about the business and build diversity from the start by looking for talent in more diverse places.
A good external recruiter can be a valuable partner too, and once they understand the type of candidate you hire, they can suggest candidates they find elsewhere for roles that may not even yet exist.
Once you’ve selected suitable candidates, you must be very clear on what you’re offering them. A scaleup can compete against bigger companies by offering flexibility, variety, more autonomy, a wider role, the chance to build and develop a new team, initiative, region or audience group. These are all thrilling prospects to many talented people, so don’t be afraid to compete.
Setting the right team culture
Team culture is about more than your approach to office/remote working and the team socials you organise. Although these things are certainly important, great company cultures are rooted in the team’s approach to collaboration, diversity and decision-making. To set the right team culture, you need to build consensus at every step of the journey and socialise decision-making. Work collaboratively, and demand brilliance of yourself and your team.
Try to respect differences – encourage people to view somebody doing something differently as you would to watch and learn, and remember that there is no one way to do something. If people are truly working towards listening to everyone, conflict is short lived and positive and is then channelled into action. Deep debate is great, but move on afterwards: debate, make a decision, move on. Then measure the results of that decision, do more of what is going right, and work together to fix what isn’t working – but with no blame. Apply lessons and move on.
Last but not least, always have a go: if it goes wrong, it goes wrong. The only way to grow at pace is to try.
Great culture drives great performance. Team success, positivity and celebrating your wins is a fantastic motivator for people, and a culture of safe learning enables them to remain curious and always growing.
People don’t wake up and choose to do a bad job – they are most likely in the wrong role, so make the call early and move them somewhere better. You’ve got to find their superpower. Ask your people what their dream job after this one might be, so you can understand their motivation and can find a suitable role for them in your organisation – motivating them more and adding even more value to your company.
When measuring performance, clearly define what high performance looks like in your team. There are numerous different ways to measure and incentivise improved performance, which will depend on your people and team culture. And most critically, you must be prepared to invest time and money in onboarding/training your people.
Designing a successful – and diverse – team
Step one when designing a successful team is to remember the importance of diversity. Diverse teams bring a variety of perspectives, different views and experiences. This all drives innovation, which can only be good for products and services, and means you’re better able to talk to all your customers and produce a service that caters to everyone.
To design a truly diverse team, we at Tech Nation recommend using a range of processes to help widen the range of people who work with you. For example, create a flexible working culture, advertise on a wider range of job boards (not just tech), and consider advertising on ‘women in tech’ boards and LinkedIn. Invest in training hiring managers in EDI, and learn how to identify and combat unconscious biases; ensuring you don’t solely hire people who have a similar background or look like you.
When understanding what the common challenges are in whatever stage of growth you’re at, you’ll find that there are plenty of other leaders that have experience, and overcome, the same hurdles. So the biggest takeaway for leaders of scaling business is to stay close to the networks around you and tap into the tools and insights that are available to help you grow.