People strategies in fast-growth startups: creating sustainable growth foundations

 

Digivizer team in retrospective, planning and goal settingWhen companies are in fast- growth stage, it is not unusual to have new people, reporting to new people, who report to new people, working with new technology, serving new customers. The growth inevitably leads to a ‘cascade of newness’. Despite your smaller size, you need to be super- disciplined at ensuring that in your haste to build and resource up as fast-growth demands, that you do not make hasty or incorrect hiring decisions. Nor can you afford circumnavigation around deep onboarding and knowledge-transfer programs designed to ensure new people understand the culture, their role, and performance expectations and measures.

Equally in fast-growth you need to resist the urge to prescribe and over- engineer on process. The key to growth is getting really smart people in, making sure they know where the company is heading, and then enabling and encouraging them to forge the path within a “one team, one dream” business focus, yet at the same time be encouraged to take individual responsibility for making smart decisions, and delivering measurable success.

Building foundations

Foundation elements in getting this right start with the talent and skills of those you employ. Alongside these sit attitude – does this person share your values, will they be a good collaborator, and aptitude – are they the right ‘fit’ for your fast-growth environment. You then want to ensure everyone aligns around customer success first. If you focus with clarity on the customer’s success (and what you do to enable it), it is the best way of ensuring your own business and everyone’s personal success.

How do you hire to ensure you have the right people?

For Digivizer, hiring starts with the mandate: look for smart, talented people, who get things done, are infinite learners and are not an arsehole. Our values crafted by our employees themselves are not negotiable, focusing on “one team, one dream”, truth and transparency, responsibility, courage and growth.

Getting our foundations right is one I think Digivizer on the whole has done well. We ensure everyone is clear about our vision, our objectives, our values, our success measures and our recruitment and care of people. We then continually check on progress with everyone. Nothing beats survey data around employee engagement, performance, and satisfaction to ensure we get this part of our business right and the best it can be. Our leadership mantra is simple – grow people and you grow business. Spending time understanding and providing challenges for people, is the surest way to deliver growth.

Despite knowing the importance of getting our people culture right, we have recently experienced growth pains we needed to address. As such, I wanted to share our painfully learned and reinforced lessons to help others going through similar growth periods:

  1. Some people won’t grow with you. They liked it small, they liked it when they were more important and integral. As you grow you need people who can grow ahead of you and those who see the need to continuously grow and learn. People either grow with you through multiple levels and evolutions, or they can’t (or won’t). You need to quickly identify and deal with those who can’t grow or cope with fast change,. They will be happier elsewhere, and so will your team who want to stay focused on the growth challenge.
  2. Employees who come from larger corporates or consultancies, where process and bureaucracy are well-established, can be uncomfortable and unhappy in a fast-growth company. Whilst some say they want the start-up/growth experience, you need to find a way to identify people who have the capacity and the willingness to switch from big corporate steady-state mode, to hectic ground-moving growth mode. Whilst you need principles to guide decisions, it is far more important to hire and encourage people’s comfort in fast-moving environments, where they thrive on continuous change, risk and complex challenges. You want people who want to choose the scary upside-down roller-coaster over the safe merry-go-round. You can’t ever afford for anyone try or desire to make things slower or easier. If you see that is the motivator, you need to address it immediately.
  3. Excuse-making and sub-cultures are like cancer – you need to address it with radical candour and if not completely and quickly realigned, cut it out of your organisation immediately.  Coach those who are willing but never allow those who think there is an option to resist change, or to not take on responsibility for culture, values, performance and outcomes. It is never OK to have an alternative view counter to your company vision. Explain the surgery to the rest of the team once you have acted, to remove any concerns of those who are doing the right thing. It is important that people are encouraged and feel protective of their environment, and see that they are responsible for the changes they want to see, and feel empowered, energised and secure about doing the right thing.
  4. Don’t ever lower the bar on hiring. And the more critical the role, the more important it is to have multiple interviews, and multiple interviewers. Whilst you need to move quickly, you need to get your recruitment right as the opportunity cost on getting this wrong (distraction and what is not delivered from someone who is holding the seat of someone who could be great for you). For hires that you are unsure of, or for teams with a structure in flux, turn these roles into timed contracts which allows you to more easily change and shape your organisation. If for whatever reason someone is not right, deal with this immediately. You can’t afford to allow those who don’t represent your values to erode the teamwork and team values already built.
  5. Ensure the values are real every day – your team must know what they are, you must talk to them, share them, live them, relate decisions to them and ensure they are present in all you say, do and communicate. You can never over communicate the values and drivers for the business.
  6. Make sure your leaders know how to practise radical candour and can do performance management discussions. It is critical that everyone in the organisation has regular discussions around:
  • Here is what you are doing really well – provide specific examples and what behaviours you observed that lead to great outcomes
  • Here is what you really need to be focusing more time on. You need to be really clear about what is expected, how this helps, and how they will know if they are successfully performing. Ensure you commit to a follow-up time to address it
  • Here is something that will be a potential issue and hinder your performance if you don’t address it immediately. Be 100% clear if someone needs to take some immediate action to ensure that their success or ability to stay in their role is not at risk
  • What can we do to help ensure your success (and then help them)!

What does a successful people culture in early-growth companies look like?

It is important to understand that start-up/fast-growth cultures are not for everyone.

Smart people who have traded in roles at larger companies are replacing having lots of other people, processes, systems, money and prestige/leverage that they may no longer have in start-up/fast-growth stage companies. This can cause tension between those used to working at organisations with deep pockets and plentiful resources, and those who understand the tight cash that most start-ups operate within which requires smarter thinking or happiness to do without. I have seen some of the best and creative ideas flourish when being developed within budget and time constraints.

It’s important to keep aspiring to build, change, and improve a people-culture as you grow, and ensure everyone plays their part in its nurture. The most valuable people are those who are happy to work to objectives, no matter how difficult they are, and are happy to be measured by key results, clearly identified, and answer whether they are on track or not. Assume everyone is there to do the right thing, and then build off that base-assumption to improve the results.

Always focus on results, not effort. It’s important to have a results-driven culture rather than one that rewards effort. It should never be around the number of hours someone works, or how much time goes into a project. Either you achieved what you set out to do or you are not doing the job needed. If the latter is the result, conduct constructive retrospectives to identify what needs to be done differently.

A great growth culture has your team happy to be challenged, to continuously learn, test and apply. To change tacts when things don’t go to plan. They are happy to ask whether there’s a better way – and most-important of all, to take responsibility for making that happen.

They are highly adaptable, can roll up their sleeves, take responsibility for delivery and understand all kinds of challenges and options for a company at any of its stages.

They also enjoy the feeling of success that comes with delivering on the objectives for the customer, and in celebrating the milestone achievements along the way,

As a leader in fast-growth, what you do and say impacts culture. Everything must be your own team and your customers success front and center. It will keep your culture grounded in high performance, high enjoyment, high care, and trust in the high rewards that will come.

What are your experiences and tips for managing people culture and performance in fast-growth?

This article is also published on LinkedIn.