Growing your team: Management and leadership tips for your first hires

Looking to scale your startup? This first in a series about 'Growing your team' will dive into some tips for Leadership in the early days.

Growing your team: Management and leadership tips for your first hires

First up, congratulations! Your company is doing well and now you need more hands on deck. Maybe you've hired someone full time or maybe you have a smaller team of freelancers / contractors who work on a more as needed basis. Whatever the situation, you're suddenly thrown into the position of 'Manager'.

This new series on Growing Your Team will help you build a useful toolkit - this first instalment will focus on tips and potential pitfalls for first time managers.

You might have some management experience from a previous role, or you might have gone straight into startup life and have very little. Regardless, I'm sure you'll have a lot of ideas about what you DON'T want to be like as a manager. We've all seen The Office, right?

My first 'management' role was in a very small team. I wasn't given the official title of Manager but was made responsible for a team of 6 others, some full and some part time. It was, to all intents and purposes, a trial by fire. I had no support from above, and I had no idea how to motivate other people, how to manage and delegate my own time and tasks, or how to recognise and reward where it was deserved. It wasn't until a new Director arrived and told me to get my butt into a better company that I realised maybe this wasn't what management was supposed to be like.

I was incredibly lucky that when I was officially given a management position in another company, my new boss was an AMAZING leader. She taught me an awful lot about the kind of boss I wanted to be, and eventually about the kind of company culture I wanted to build. And this was when it hit me.

So few of us get the experience of great leadership, because hardly anyone actually takes the time to learn it as its own skillset.

If you take nothing else from this post, please know that Management and Leadership are skills in their own right. They need to be learned, just like Development, Customer Service, Production, Design or Sales. And most people get promoted into a position where they are responsible for others without ever having learned them.

So, let's get into my top tips for your first-time management:

  • Know your culture
  • Hire experts first
  • Back off, and don't expect people to work like you do
  • Be transparent, but don't overshare
  • Leading through fear is crappy
  • Flat hierarchy is a myth
  • Respect is not the same as friendship

Three faces in a circle with speech bubbles, arrows and a trophy, symbolising company culture

Know your culture

Company "culture" is an annoying buzzword that often gets misinterpreted as pool tables, annual bonuses and a coffee machine. Having been in companies that had these in spades and seen others who take it to a whole other level (seriously, how anyone gets any work done in Facebook's offices is beyond me), I can tell you that culture has absolutely nothing to do with perks.

Have a good think about how you'd want someone to describe working for you. Not what they do, but how it feels to be a part of your team, why they come to work, what they get out of it, other than a paycheck. That is your culture. Make sure you have a solid handle on this, because it's really easy to see it slip away as more people join a team. There will be a whole other post on defining and setting culture, but start there.

A face staring at a jigsaw with three pieces missing. Three faces are filling the gaps.

Hire experts first

Small companies need staff with experience and the ability to be autonomous, especially at the beginning. Make sure you understand what your gaps are -  likely there will be some aspects of your business that aren't your strongest point. Hire for these first, and hire people who will bring a lot of knowledge to the table. That way you are setting yourself up for the most well rounded team and a scaleable business.

Write accurate and detailed job descriptions. I cannot stress this enough. It is deeply unfair to hire anyone without getting their explicit consent for the responsibilities they are undertaking. I have been in this position a number of times and in every case, the lack of a clear job description led to some of the worst job satisfaction I've ever had. Don't fall into the trap of wanting to make it sound sexy. This is only one part of why someone might want to work for you, and the right person will be out there, so focus on being truthful and detailed. After all, if you end up with someone who misinterpreted what they'll be doing, you've done both of yourselves a disservice and wasted a lot of time and money.

It's ok to expect people to wear multiple hats (especially in a small team) but be clear about what that means from day one. Don't just say "we want people who are willing to muck in". Otherwise you're asking for trouble down the road.

Three faces with an arrow pointing to a simple box. The first arrow is straight, the second is wiggly and the third a zigzag.

Back off, and don't expect people to work like you do

This sounds really obvious but you'd be surprised how often someone's work is rejected for no other reason than their manager's ego. Remember that delegating is about giving clear direction on the outcome required. How a person gets there is really up to them so long as they're doing it within the parameters of the project. Now that you are a team and not an individual, you're going to need to readjust what 'acceptable' looks like. That's not to say the standard of work should drop (hopefully just the opposite) but you'll find that if there is enough flex for individuals to put a bit of themselves into their work, you'll go much further than if you try and get them to write, code, present or negotiate exactly as you would.

Take the time to get to know how your team like to work, and keep that in mind when setting their responsibilities. Ideally, you don't want to be in a position where you're delegating tasks to someone else on a daily basis. That is a waste of everyone's time, especially if you're a team of less than 10. That being said, some people need more explicit guidance up front or the ability to check in and answer questions, while others want to go away and work in isolation and come back with a 'Ta Da, finished!'. These are both absolutely fine provided you know that's what they require to do their best work.

Enable the team to make their own decisions. Try and get as far away from 'approvals' as possible if you can, especially with small things. If you hire experts, your most important role will be to ensure they're happy and fulfilled, not spellchecking their presentation decks.

This video on the importance of autonomy is really old now but I still love it and it stuck with me ever since I first watched it back in 2013. Empowering your team to function however is best for them will ensure they are fulfilled and they'll ultimately do better work.

Two faces looking in shock as a pile of company worries is tipped on their heads by a hand in the sky.

Be transparent, but learn where to share

People appreciate honesty. But they also don't need to know everything involved with running a business in order to do their jobs and be great at them. Small teams can run into the trap of sharing every bump in the rollercoaster that is a business, and this can actually place a lot of stress onto the team. Everyone should be invested in where the company is going and doing their best to get it there, but they each have their own responsibilities, so make sure that information is being shared appropriately.

On the other side of that coin, that doesn't mean don't share with anyone. You need support too. Find someone you can offload to, like an accountability partner, business coach, or a therapist depending on your requirements. Make sure you're investing in yourself so you can be the best leader possible.

A cycle showing someone yelling and pointing, shaming someone else, which leads to resentment

Leading through fear is crappy

We've all had one. That boss, or teacher, or coach who was just a bit of a bully. And while they may have got short term results, we also remember the spike in heart rate and general nausea that goes with being shouted at or humiliated in front of our peers. Studies show that being in that constant state of stress has some seriously negative long-term affects on us. Don't be that person. It is literally never required to shame someone into action.

Uncomfortable conversations ARE a key part of being in Leadership. But they don't have to come with shame. In fact I personally think this is the 'magic' talent of great managers, and what separates ok ones from amazing ones. If you're able to have difficult conversations from a place of genuine care, you will go very very far.

Kim Scott's book Radical Candor is a great starter here, and she's also done a few great talks on the subject like this one. But I remember the first time this happened to me.

My CEO at the time was dyslexic and absolutely slammed. I'd been at the company for about a month, and she'd asked me to prepare an internal presentation on a new process for goal setting. The only slot to catch up was 15 minutes over lunch, and we sat down in the meeting room. As I opened my laptop and she unwrapped her sandwich, she took one look at the first slide and said "Meri, I'm not reading that, I have 15 minutes, I'm dyslexic and there must be a thousand fucking words on the first slide. You've clearly done the work, so bring it back to me when you can tell me the idea in three sentences."

From that moment on, I have always focused my work approach around who will be receiving it. It was a hard lesson but she wasn't mad. She delivered it in a way that let me know she could tell I'd worked hard and I wanted to impress her, but I'd got so wrapped up in my own ego I hadn't considered how time poor she was, or how she best absorbed information.

Faces showing a company org chart, but with additional arrows showing communication flowing at all levels.

Flat hierarchy is a myth

I've heard too many startup founders say the reason they got into business for themselves is because they don't want a boss. The truth is, no one resents leadership when it's good. There just isn't enough good around.

Small teams often shy away from hierarchy, and I can fully understand why. But, if you can cultivate a space of radical candor, where everyone is open to receiving and giving compassionate and constructive feedback (notice which one went first there) at ANY level, there's no reason to avoid it. Hierarchy isn't about anyone being more important, but it also allows everyone to function at the right level for where they are right now, with the appropriate support and responsibility. You want people to function in a coaching or mentorship capacity rather than being more 'senior' than one another.

Just as no one wants a boss who says "my team" but then points the finger when something goes wrong, it's also just as ineffective to hire someone relatively inexperienced and expect them to function in the same way as someone with a decade of experience in that particular type of role. Everyone should know who they are accountable to and if you're a business owner, eventually the responsibility is yours.

Two characters high-fiving with a dartboard above their head and a dart sticking out of the bullseye

Respect is not the same as friendship

Every work relationship breakdown I've seen has been simply due to a lack of professional respect. From one or both directions. People can make friends at work sure, but in order to work with others you don't need to be their friend, you need mutual respect. The more you can foster that, the better your team will be as it grows. I've now witnessed two separate companies go through rapid growth and their culture dissolved as soon as they got too big for everyone to be 'friends' with each other.

The single worst thing a new manager ever said to me was "We're like a family, we shout and scream when things are stressful and then we hug and make up and it's all fine." This was a huge red flag and I discovered very quickly just how accurate it was. The problem was that it was never fine. There was so much resentment in the team because there weren't any consequences for being disrespectful, that it basically became a drama centred around those who shouted loudest.

Be clear with your team about what respect means. If you want to hire inclusively and diversely (and if you're in tech, you should) then ensure you have perspectives outside your own to help form this meaning. Document what happens when someone breaks that, and make sure you follow through.

If you're planning to grow your team but aren't sure how to set your business up in the best way possible to ensure fulfilled staff, a load off your plate, and effective growth, let's chat!

Wondering what any of this has to do with branding and marketing? Look out for my next post on Culture.