By Ashwini Asokan
In the startup deadline world, to think consistently about the nuances of a growing and hardworking team can be challenging. We don't think about the everyday aspects of working as a team — after all, seeing beyond the individual, the skill set, the deadline, to thinking about the whole, the invisible qualities that make relationships work, daily work — can be extremely difficult.
As we’ve grown from seed to series A and beyond, I’ve learned that managing and growing the right team is job No. 1 as you scale. Keeping teams motivated, engaged and inspired through the different stages of growth must be done in a conscious, focused manner.
Help each employee grow with the company.
As we grew from a team of six to 18, to 30, to 52 over the past three years, I saw a pattern in the people who stayed, who grew and who left. Those who understood the value of their work to the business, or the ones who understood the values of the company (and were happy to help grow with it at different stages) and those who loved their work and the company’s vision, remained with us and stayed motivated.
Be on alert for bad managing styles.
It is extremely important to guide and mentor managers in a way that reflects your company’s business and cultural values. While encouraging regular meetings within groups, mentoring to build tight skill sets — especially those that help cross-disciplinary teams thrive — look out for managers running cliques of their own with agendas that don’t line up with the larger organizational goals. Also be on alert for tyrant managers who micromanage or stifle creativity, as the environment this fosters can crush the spirit of an employee even before they’re given a chance to explore.
For companies to grow and scale up, you need to nurture, mentor, grow and scale the capabilities and mindset of the teams that make magic happen.
Break down invisible hierarchies.
Startups are synonymous with multi-tasking, distributed decision making, versatile systems and taking on multiple roles. But it’s natural to think about hierarchy in the traditional, corporate sense of the word. Even where a traditional hierarchy isn't very present, there are invisible hierarchies that can become team and motivation killers:
The skill set hierarchy:
As a product founder myself, I’ve worked hard to bring in people with humanities, design and product-centric skill sets and strengths. To learn about the disparity in perceived self-worth on the team, despite that, was eye-opening to me.
Disciplines, backgrounds, degrees and school names all come with power hierarchies, said and unsaid. But integrating every team member into the core business, training them to understand their work in the context of the whole and motivating them to add value to different types of work can help break some of these preconceived notions about who is superior and who isn’t.
The demographic hierarchy:
Age and gender can be deeply dividing in a startup. It’s a lot easier to have a gender-balanced team when it is done from day one.
Having a team acknowledge culture, hiring rules, unconscious and conscious biases early enough in the life of a startup can prevent problems that arise from demography-based discrimination and hierarchies as the company grows.
Relentlessly hold onto ground rules of zero tolerance towards sexism, caste or religious bias, both conscious and unconscious, and have conversations on these topics regularly with different groups to make an honest attempt at creating a safe and comfortable space for everyone on the team.
The social hierarchy:
A team typically comprises a variety of personalities. Be inclusive of people who don’t always want to participate in a particular profile of activity. Maybe it’s not just a LAN party, maybe it’s also watching a movie together as a group.
Create quiet and safe spaces for those not confident or comfortable speaking in larger groups. Pair them in smaller working groups and mentor those voices into finding their own strength in your organization. Most end up finding their voices one way or another if they realize you care, as a company, about them and their work.
Communicate, and over communicate.
I always ask my team to err on the side of over-communication. In a 50-person startup like ours, lines blur between various sectors. This means that people work across that spectrum of activities and often with different teams. I tell the team to speak in simple terms, in ways that everyone can understand — no jargon and no discipline/skill set snobbery of any kind.
Communicate and offer to help; the cycle always goes around. You’ll find more people helping you learn faster when they see you lend a helping hand out often in other places.
Speak up if there’s something to be told, asked or challenged. Prevent catastrophic failures by bringing the team along for the ride and being aware of the risk involved. Graceful failures allow for quick, rapid progress since everyone is aware, along for the ride, invested and trusting of each other.
At the end of the day, a healthy team, motivated and invested in both the vision as well as the journey, will take you places. Identifying and removing spaces, people and causes of a toxic environment -- as soon as you can -- helps you grow the team in a positive way and keep them motivated to handle the startup life. And more importantly, as the company scales, much of the success of the system can depend on the discipline, attrition and presence of a stable core group for the long haul and how well it scales at each stage.
A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.com here.
Ashwini Asokan is the CEO & co-founder of Mad Street Den, an AI and computer vision startup focusing on retail.