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Managing Inside Growing Companies
I know it’s been a while since I’ve shared something new. Apologies for the silence. I’ve been a little busy getting our Club for the Glue People off the ground as well as a few other projects. That said, one of my goals this quarter is to get back to writing and sharing and to do it more consistently. Feel free to hold me accountable to that :)
Working with folks in our Glue People circles has reminded me of a bunch of themes that managers inside of growing companies regularly grapple with, so I wanted to pass on a few thoughts I’ve shared with them.
One of the hardest things about being a manager inside a growing company is that you both have to manage your own emotional rollercoaster and you are ALSO responsible for helping your team manage theirs. Said more bluntly, you have to keep your shit together while handling everyone else’s meltdowns.
The one constant in startups (of any shape and size) is change. If we’re being honest, the only thing we can guarantee is that everything will change. It’s super important to acknowledge, and give yourself grace on, the fact that being a manager inside that environment — trying to create stability, surety, etc., for your team — is really hard. In addition to sharing tools like the Legos article and introducing people to the monsters they have to make friends with, there are two things I wish I could tell every manager inside a growing company:
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1) Your job is not to have all the answers.
One of the most intimidating things about being a manager in an environment that is constantly changing is the feeling that you are supposed to know what you are doing. When people ask you questions, you feel like you are supposed to have an answer. This is particularly true for new managers.
One of the most important things you can do is harness (and practice) the power of saying, “I don’t know.” The greatest leaders in the world are the ones who are able to be honest, to share when they aren’t sure, and still use those moments to deepen people’s trust in them.
Part of being able to do that is realizing that your job is not to have all the answers, it is to facilitate the process of figuring things out. Your job is to acknowledge when there is uncertainty and help find a path through. Your job is to use the superpowers of your team to FIND the answers. Leaders who believe they are the only ones who can find the answer or have the right answer will be limited by their own minds, their own strengths/weaknesses, etc. Those leaders lose out on the power of a team — the power of the possibility that other people might be able to show you the way or find an important piece of the puzzle.
You don’t need to stop by saying, “I don’t know.” You can follow it up with “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together” or “I don’t know, but here are a few things I do know” or “I don’t know. What do you think?”
Anyway, the main point here is to realize that leading a team doesn’t mean you are supposed to know what you are doing or to always be sure. Leading a team means bringing people together to find the right path forward.
2) It is ok to be clear and (relatively) unapologetic about the things you can’t control. Focus on the things you can.
I have found it extremely important in these roles to be VERY clear and (relatively) unapologetic about the things you can’t control — with yourself, but also with your team. “I cannot control that” is a sentence that can help keep you sane.
There are a LOT of things you can’t control.
You cannot control the chaos or the rate of change.
You cannot control the fact that people’s jobs are growing and changing all the time.
You cannot control if the business will be successful.
You cannot control if someone’s growth can keep up with the company's growth.
Some people won’t make it, and that’s ok.
Let go of the idea that you’re supposed to be able to solve all the problems. You are not.
It is also super SUPER important to never promise things you can’t control. Like promotions. Or titles. Or never hiring above people. You don’t know what 6 months from now will look like, let alone 2 years. You CAN say things like “I can’t promise you’ll be CMO here but together, you and I can ensure you get the experience and exposure that will let you be CMO in your next gig...”
You can actually turn this whole thing on its head. The things you can’t control can actually be expectations you have of people on your team. For example:
“Sink or swim” can be an expectation.
You can expect people to own their own growth (your job is to help, not to do it for them)
One of the important things here is being clear about those expectations and communicating them when you hire.
Don’t promise a structured, thoughtful onboarding; ask for an example of a time when they’ve been thrown into the deep end of the pool and had to teach themselves how to swim.
Don’t promise clarity, ask how they handle ambiguity.
If you sell the reality and are direct about the things you can and cannot control, then you are more likely to hire someone who is set up to succeed. These expectations also make it easier to know when it’s time to part ways with someone.
It also really helps to figure out what you CAN control and focus on that.
The most important example, in my opinion, is the fact that you can control helping people grow and learn in ways that are important to them. The biggest gifts you can give anyone (who is performing well) inside a start-up are self-discovery and stretch opportunities. Even if they get layered, switch roles, whatever, you can help them have the opportunity to learn, to know more about what they love doing and what they are great at, and to do more of the things at the intersection. Even inside companies that are literally failing, a great manager can find learning and growth for people.
The best managers in the world are partners that help you figure out where you want to go next, whether it’s inside your company or outside. Growing companies are a gold mine to help people learn about themselves and get incredible experience.
Ensuring that people on your team are set up to grow and learn is something you can control.
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