8 Team Building Lessons

There may not be a one-size-fits-all playbook to help startups build productive teams. And there’s no one way to transition from being a founding employee in a bootstrap venture to a departmental manager in an early-stage company.

But as someone who has gone from working deep in the weeds and doing whatever was needed to managing HG Data’s Client Success team, I’ve seen just how tough it is to keep things running while you build out the people around you. I’ve also seen how critical it is that you do this right, learn to be a good manager and create strong teams.

While my earliest hires might not give me a “Manager of the Year” mug, I’ve learned a few things along the way. Yes, we all have to learn the hard lessons, but perhaps by sharing my experience, I can help ease your progress.

1) Learn to Manage

While that’s basic, there’s no easy path to management. Schools can teach you the theory but not the reality.  Over the past 6 years, I have seen HG Data grow from 8 employees to 80 people today who are giving us the breadth and depth to define our future.  With that growth I have had to rethink my role in the company:

  • Know yourself—Ask yourself – do you really want to manage people? For me, the answer is a clear yes and I realize that the process will continue to evolve for me over time. Others will discover they don’t want to manage and would prefer to be valued contributors.  If you realize your desired path does not involve managing others don’t be afraid to express that feeling.
  • Leverage other companies—As your company grows you will run into new staffing challenges and scaling concerns.  You are not special in this.  Instead of beating yourself up, look at similar departments at customers’ companies or companies that you want to emulate.  Chances are you will get ahead a lot faster talking with other managers than trying to do it all on your own.
  • Try online resources—I find Lighthouse to be a good tool and blog for one-on-one planning.

Here’s a sobering statistic: A recent Gallup study shows that about half of employees quit to get away from a manager…not a company.

2) Transition From Star Contributor to Star Leader

Making the transition is a big challenge for new managers. With so many things on your plate and so many things you’re used to doing, how do you carve out time to hire people and train them?

Our CFO Nick Cronin helped me put this in perspective: I may be working 60 hours a week now, but by making hiring and managing people a priority I can turn my 60 hours into 150 hours—expanding what my department can do while freeing myself up to focus on top priorities:

  • Give up the things you know the best—While this sounds counterintuitive, it’s easier to hand off something you know than say, “Here’s a new task we’ve never done before. Figure it out.”
  • Reap the benefits—It might take someone new an hour to do what you can do in 5 minutes. They may need training and have to interrupt you. But they’ll learn and get faster, and suddenly they’ll start giving you that time back. They may even make improvements given their unique perspective.

Extending your skills adds value to the whole organization. You’ll grow from the “do, do, do” person into the “facilitate, train and grow” person.

3) Make Employees Experts in Your Company

We have built HG Data around people at all levels of experience. From experienced hires who’ve mastered the functional aspects of their job to those fresh out of school looking to start their career.

Regardless of professional experience, your job is to make them comfortable in your world:

  • Help people understand you—Share knowledge about your company, your culture and how you work.
  • Set aside time—Hold weekly meetings and/or phone calls for your own people and anyone who can benefit from your company insight.  Create an environment that encourages new employees to ask questions and learn what makes your company unique.
  • Document everything—In formalizing your onboarding and training, your company is learning to manage talented people and simplify the process of sharing your company culture and business operations.

4) Learn to Hire and Fire

Hiring is hard. Most of us probably don’t hire more than a couple people per year which means it probably is not a skill we have mastered.  Looking back at my first few job postings they left a lot to the imagination: “I need somebody to pick up the pre-sale process somehow, but I don’t really know what that means. I’m looking for a dynamic person and whatever other fun buzzwords I can toss in here.” Sound good?  Great, let’s start interviewing:

  • Stop putting it off—Get that job posting live even if you don’t have every bullet figured out.  You will know if it is working when the resumes start coming in and you do your first few phone interviews.  Find a skill or need missing?  Go back and update the posting.
  • Hire talented people—My best hires haven’t checked off all of the requirements on the job posting.  Rather they have been smart and dynamic people that I couldn’t pass up having join our team.  As cliche as it sounds, ‘Getting the right people on the bus and finding the right seat for them later’ is an important part of building an organization.
  • Prep your interview team—While you may have a clear idea of what you are looking for, your fellow employees likely don’t.  Arm them with what they need – resume, cover letter, key areas to focus on.  Left to their own devices they may have a great interview about the time they hiked the Appalachian Trail but have nothing to relate back to the abilities of the candidate.

Hiring is hard but firing is harder because it’s someone’s life. But when an employee needs to leave, getting it done is better for both sides:

  • Challenge people to consider their performance—Most people know when they’re not contributing or they’re not a good fit, especially when you conduct performance reviews.
  • Square peg, round hole—There are many reasons for firing. Sometimes the culture isn’t a good match. Other times a critical skill doesn’t develop or you find you need different skills than when you posted the job.  Perfection is not possible as the hiring manager and you are going to make mistakes.
  • Act fast—A bad situation can foment discontentment and resentment in the team. Remove the problem, and everyone can move forward, including the fired employee who can find a better fit and a greater chance for success and happiness.

Hiring and firing have a big impact on people’s lives and careers; it’s also expensive. The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that replacing a salaried employee can cost the business anywhere from six to nine months of salary.

5) Understand People’s Career Goals

The world has changed; most people do not remain at the same company for their entire career. They move on, change direction, go back to school or travel. The more I understand what drives them, the more I can help and the better I can envision the growth of the individual, my department and the company as it evolves and grows:

  • It starts with hiring—Understand what they want to achieve.  Do they have skills they want to learn in the next year?  5 years?  Career advancement aspirations such as management?  Ask yourself if you have a position that will help them achieve these goals.  If you don’t, they will seek them from another opportunity before long.
  • It continues with weekly conversations—1-on-1 talks enable me to help employees achieve their goals while we avoid surprises. Regular discussions about what’s in a person’s heart (as opposed to what’s on his or her plate) can diffuse the bombshell departure that comes out of the blue. You can create a soft transition; you might even have a better chance of keeping a good employee if you know what they’re thinking.
  • It’s a two-way conversation—Ask the tough questions: Am I supporting you? Am I doing a good job as your manager? You may not always want to hear the answers, but it’s how you grow and improve.

6) Learn from (Don’t Punish) Mistakes

When things go wrong—and they will—you may get frustrated. But that’s when you have to ask, “Am I mad at the person or the process?” It comes down to this:

Stop and reflect—When we can take a bad situation and understand what happened, we make positive gains. Yelling just destroys trust and respect.

  • Help people take responsibility—Employees who realize they can make a mistake and own up to it without unreasonable consequences are encouraged to operate in an environment that invites experimentation and even risk taking.

I’m reminded of a quote from IBM’s Thomas J. Watson: “Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?”

7) Focus on Process

Process is the engine of a company’s growth and maturity. Getting there means leaving our bootstrap ways behind and converting manual, seat-of-the-pants efforts into accepted processes that everyone understands and follows:

  • Reduce the chances for error— Many problems are process problems, not people problems…just waiting for a solution. Processes ingrained reduce the chances for error.
  • Encourage contribution—New, better ideas can come from anywhere. To get a better idea, don’t punish mistakes along the way as people try to find those better ideas.
  • Keep innovating—As organizations grow, new processes are required. What worked six years ago won’t work in the next six — it may not even work in the next year.

8) Trust Your Team

Learning to trust your team brings me full circle. Just as you’ve been used to building things and getting them done without a lot of interaction, your people want the same.

  • Other people want ownership—They want to contribute and be seen as valuable players.
  • Find confidence in your team—You don’t have to be an impediment to employees’ aspirations if you build a good team and have processes in place. Their teamwork is its own reward.
  • Share priorities—We set our priorities as a team.  This allows for shared and clear ownership. Everyone knows what to do, and we can accomplish more as a company.

Making the transition from “I’ve got to make this work” to “if I let someone do this, I can focus on something else” is tough. But it’s necessary in order to be the best manager possible and create the strong teams that your organization needs.