Founder/CEO: Knowing what you don’t know

Recently I have seen several occasions when the Founder/CEO thought they knew more than they did and could not see the cliff that was quickly approaching them. The bigger challenge was that someone was trying to help them see what was coming, but the Founder/CEO wasn’t listening. As a result,  a small issue that could be addressed now becomes a much larger effort to correct.  Whether it is re-writing code, shifting resources from one product to another or re-organizing an entire functional group, the effort to fix it can easily be 10X what it would have been to get it right in the first place.

Company Fix trajectory lines

The reality is that most Founder/CEO’s haven’t done this before, and quite often neither has anyone else on the team. But there are people who have the relevant experience. Although it may not be exactly the same experience needed for this new opportunity, it certainly rhymes with the past.  The risk is that they have ‘big company’ experience and don’t know how to be scrappy and lean to selectively pick what is really needed for a fast growing startup. But these days there are many people who have big company pasts and enough startup experience to strike the right balance.

So, how can a Founder/CEO anticipate the challenges ahead and plan appropriately when talking to experienced talent?

  1. Be open minded – you’ll be surprise how much you don’t know

There is nothing wrong with a confident CEO, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to folks with years of experience.  In almost every conversation you should be able to find at least one insightful nugget that will enhance the lens through which you view the world.

  1. Find a specific problem to solve

Being open minded might be a start, but really it all gets down to brass tacks.  Instead talking to experienced talent in the hypothetical try picking a real problem that you currently have (or anticipate) which is in the wheelhouse of your expert.  Working through a real-life issue can surface many benefits:  better understanding of the problem, possible solutions, and how the person would work in the organization.

  1. Don’t expect experts to be totally startup savvy

It takes about 6 months for someone who has been working at a large company to shake all the big company habits that are better left behind at a startup. This doesn’t mean that they won’t fit in or add tremendous value, it just means that they need to get used to their new environment and figure out how to find the best of both worlds.  Focus on the value they can provide to accelerate the company and ensure they don’t put their foot on the organizational brakes by accident.

There are many people out there with a tremendous amount of experience that can be purposefully leveraged at a startup, but knowing how to leverage that experience requires some thoughtful effort.  As a Founder/CEO your job is to find the best way to solve your problems in new ways leveraging the talent and organization you have AND want to build. Make sure you take the time to figure out how to assemble the right amount of talent and experience for the company you are building.

Startup Challenges – Deep Experiential Training

It took me a while to write this post because I wanted to cram so many thoughts and ideas into it and could not find a good framework for it all to make sense. Finally I settled on two organizing thoughts:

  • What kinds of skills and experience should you want to get at a company?
  • How should you develop these skills?

These two questions are related to my recent posts about startup challenges.  At a large company these two questions are much easier to answer since they tend to have somewhat-defined career paths. But if you are just starting your career and joining a startup there is no handbook that you get when you start out with a track for you to follow. The following is intended for people who have a goal to reach a high-level role in their career, whether it is a VP or CXO role, or for someone who strives to achieve a high level of responsibility and manage large teams.

What kinds of skills and experience should you want to get at a company?

As I look back on my career, I think about the various sets of skills I developed and I have bundled them into three groups:

1. What’s Important Skills

This is basically a re-adaptation of the ‘What Counts Factors’ framework I learned at Procter & Gamble.  It was basically a set of 7 or 8 skills that all employees are looked upon to demonstrate and perform at a continually improving level throughout their career.  As you can see these are fundamental abilities that can be applied to just about any role and is not functional specific:

  • Leadership
  • Problem Solving
  • Creativity
  • Team Work
  • Communication
  • Priority Setting
  • Initiative
  • (Technical Skills)

Many large companies have centers of excellence with specific training courses and leaders to help you continually improve on each of these skills.

 

 2. Functional Skills

This refers to developing a deep, core set of technical skills required to be successful in a role. If you are a computer programmer or a marketer, there is a huge breadth and depth of knowledge and experience required to master a particular function.  When you meet someone who has mastered a function, you know it right away by their ability to go into depth about just about any topic related to that function.  Not only does becoming a functional expert include understanding the foundational and traditional attributes of a function, but it also includes being familiar with the latest methods and innovative tools that are currently being adopted and have become new standards.  Example in marketing would be social media and online marketing tools. In computer programming it would be open source toolkits and mobile app development. Becoming a functional expert is critical to achieving a high level with a large amount responsibility within an organization.

Similar to going to school, many large organizations have various training opportunities to develop a breadth of knowledge and experience in a function.

3.       Performance Management & Career Development

Having solid performance management experience means both receiving great feedback from your manager and includes having your work evaluated against a tangible process and framework.  On top of being on the receiving end of this process, you should also be given an opportunity to manage others and giving performance-related feedback relatively early in your career.  While having direct reports is more ideal sooner than later, managing the performance of others does not necessarily mean having people reporting up to you, it could also include cross-functional teammates with whom you are their ‘customer’.

Learning how to develop your own performance and skill and then developing a career plan help with self-awareness and career satisfaction.  Helping others improve their results and manager their career path are critical skills to have as both a leader and a manager. This also includes discussion about future roles and levels of responsibility employees are seeking and other developmental opportunities needed to achieve both company and individual success. It is amazing how few organizations have processes and training on such a foundational set of skills.

 

How should you develop these skills?

The challenge in going to work at a startup early in your career is that there is a very good probability that you will not get good exposure to the three groups of skills and experiences above.  The focus and first priority for a startup is not to develop great talent, it is to grow and scale the company.  Now this doesn’t mean employees aren’t important nor that you can’t grow and develop within a startup, I am just saying that creating these training and development programs is usually not a priority early on in a young company’s life. If you are a computer programmer and never learned some best practices in coding it is very likely you are creating engineering debt for your organization that will need to be addressed at a later date. Learning the proper way to be a functional expert early in your career will be catalyst to your success.

So here are some thoughts on how to acquire these critical skills and experiences early in your startup career.

1.       Find great managers and mentors to work with

It doesn’t matter what size organization you work for, if you have a great manager who has deep knowledge and expertise you will learn a lot and improve your own skills. The key is to find several such leaders within the same organization that you can learn from.  No single manager will have demonstrate all the attributes you will want to acquire, so you need to plan on finding other sources to help supplement both within your current role and as you plan your next career move.

 

2.       Read a lot… learn your discipline

Don’t just learn how to do your job. Depending on your educational background you may or may not have had formal, academic training in your area of work. If you haven’t it is becoming of you to find the top books, articles, online tools and thought leaders in your field to learn the breadth and depth of your function.

 

3.       Take on different roles  

If you work in online marketing don’t just do a role which is about data analytics, also take on roles related to uncovering customer insights by talking to customers, or working on new distribution channels.  These days I see many young people who have become experts in a single aspect of their function but have tremendous difficulty extending themselves to other areas within their function. This myopic skill set really limits their career potential and their role flexibility.

If you are in Brand Management at a large CPG companies, the experience is a bit of an apprenticeship. Over the course of 3-5 years an employee in brand management will typically work on several brands in different categories with different managers, functional experts and outside agencies.  For example some brands are more advertising focused versus trade/retailer focused vs. R&D focused. This upward spiral of roles exposes brand managers to a variety of experiences to round them out as they develop into a true brand manager.

Not all startups give you the opportunity to change roles after a period of one to two years based on organizational size and needs. You might be the only person who knows how to do your job and the company may not want to move you. These are important factors to consider when working at a startup and whether or not the company is a good fit for your career.

This posting was based on my experience working with many startup employees who have not demonstrated the same level of well-rounded skill sets as others who started their careers working for larger companies.  I am not saying that you cannot develop these skills working at a startup, however, the effort (and sometimes luck) required to gain those talents and be successful using them is non-trivial and requires a thoughtful career path strategy.

Getting the right people in the right seats on the bus

One of the biggest challenges in an early stage startup is to have enough talent on the team to do all the tasks required to get stuff done right.  If you only have a handful of people in your company (i.e. four or less) it is almost impossible to have all the skills needed to deliver a new offering, especially if it is some type of consumer application like ours.  So how do you find all the people to do all the work that is needed?

For many years now I have talked to people I work with about people I would label ‘Swiss Army Knives’ and others who I would call functional experts.  Swiss Army Knives are basically like the metaphor suggests, they are talented individuals who can perform multiple types of tasks well enough to accomplish the required objectives. This does not mean that they are experts in any specific functional area, but in a startup environment they are able to figure out what is needed and to make it happen. Almost always Swiss Army Knives are choosing this breadth vs. depth capabilities. My experience is that they are very smart and flexible individuals and if they chose to go deep in any specific functional area (and usually they have at least one or two in which they have gone deep) they would be world class in that area.  I started my career at Procter & Gamble and they really encourage attracting and developing Swiss Army Knives, and a lot has to do with their philosophy of promotion from within, general management skills and an upward spiral career path.  Which basically means that at P&G high performing employees are encouraged to take multiple cross-functional roles during their career as they move up the ladder. Being able to perform well in multiple functions and appreciate different functional roles is a critical leadership and career skill.

A few additional thoughts on Swiss Army Knives, while I don’t have statistical data on this I have found that only a small percentage of people fit this categorization, even in great organizations. What’s even more interesting is that I have found that SAKs tend to find each other and hang out together. I really don’t know why, but it just seems that they tend to have similar values, experiences and outlooks. Also, not being a SAK is not a bad thing either, having deep functional expertise is necessary in almost every company especially when combined with the depth of experience that the SAK will almost never have.

So how does this relate back to driving a successful startup?  Well, if you are small and can only have a few folks working full time in your company I would suggest having as many of your early employees being Swiss Army Knives as possible. By having as many people on your team who are able to get things done (in a ‘good enough fashion) within your team means that you do not have to tap outsiders (contractors, consultants, agencies etc.) to help you get them done.  Kind of obvious, but it all start with who do you have riding on your startup bus.

My partner John is a Swiss Army Knife. Not only can he tackle just about every technical aspect of our product (such as architecture, web service integration, functional coding, presentation layer functionality, HTML/CSS, dB management, operations etc.) he also has a unique appreciation of consumers and marketing from his past experiences. Thus when we discuss new features or user feedback we can immediately have a great, productive discussion about what to build and translate the conversation into new requirements.

However as you grow your startup you can’t do everything yourself and you can’t hire full-time people for every role that need to be done. There are lots of ways to address this issue via contractors, interns, consultants etc.  What we have found to work pretty well for us is using oDesk (www.odesk.com).  We use oDesk for both product development and marketing-related experts. oDesk is a great resource if you use it properly but it is certainly not a silver bullet. In fact, our experience is that unless you put a very big effort upfront into hiring and managing the functional experts you find you will be very disappointed in the results. Leading a team on oDesk takes as much effort if not more effort to coordinate (to account for time zone, language and not being in the same room).  In fact until we developed the right process and tools for the team, it was hard for some oDesk people to succeed was a challenge for them. But as we have found if you get your ducks in a row and find the one or two key people that ‘get it’ and can ‘do it’ the bang that you get for your buck compared to hiring locally really pays off.

To-date, getting the right people in the right seats on the bus has been a long, iterative challenge with our efforts finally paying off. We are happy where we are today, but of course it is a never-ending battle as we try to grow and keep up with all the new changes to our product and small company.

Good luck to you on getting the right people on the right seats on the bus – and may as many of them be Swiss Army Knives as possible.