Numerous promising start-ups fail in the first 20 months, after the initial financing & infusion of capital. As they attempt to scale their business, people management is one of the main places this begins to unfold.
A common and worrisome pattern that emerges as start-ups begin to grow, goes something like this. Your business is doing well. Your revenue is on the upward climb as well. Your long-term visions are transforming into real-life outcomes. This necessitates new vacancies, that need to be filled, urgently and rapidly. And your first (and presumably best) option, is to fill these positions, by promoting employees from within your organization. Employees who started out young, with limited experience, now find themselves stepping into shoes of a far larger size. The atmosphere is crackling with potential, as you support and encourage teams to step into leadership positions. It’s an environment charged with quick thinking wit, and bold actions, to meet your company’s fast-paced growth.
Soon, in this whirlwind of expansion, cracks begin to appear. Teams are expected to develop leadership skills at breakneck speed, seemingly almost overnight. And you, as the CEO, are lacking in time and mind space to pre-empt the challenges, that come with such unrealistic expectations.
Today’s article hopes to help you hurdle over some of the challenges that occur, when middle management transitions into senior leadership positions.
Growth that happens at the pace of an eye-blink, seldom pans out as envisioned. Important timelines get missed, and a vortex of pressure begins to build. Time is what the new team head requests. And so, you decide to give it another month, only to realize there seems to be a gross expectation mismatch. You begin to question your decision-making capabilities. And more importantly, their abilities. Did you act in haste? Is this person/team, the right fit for this role? Do I need to replace them, and hire someone else? What do I now do with this person, who is already promoted? The list goes on, as the building challenges begin to hijack other important projects, that require the company’s focus and attention. What follows is ebbing team confidence, inter-departmental blame games, and consumer complaints, all testing the company culture in real-time. And these are just some of the many changes that reverses the status quo, and replaces the optimism this person, and the team felt, only a couple of months ago. You ask yourself, did a growth opportunity just turn into a chaotic whirlpool of blame and doubt?
Yes. Maybe, it did. After all, the teams and you are left feeling confused, disillusioned and aggressive. But here’s the thing – it’s never too late. It really is never too late. You began a business knowing all too well, it may not always be a bed of roses. You knew this, and honestly, it is what excites you. You may not recall that feeling today, but it’s important to remember how far you’ve come together, and deep down, you believe this team is worth holding onto.
With that in mind, let’s move onto understanding how best, can you and your team re-frame the status quo. How can you help them (and yourself!) befriend the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable? Your super-driven team needs you - now, more than ever before.
Here are three places you can begin.
1. Set expectations authentically and clearly:
Individuals promoted to senior management roles need to understand, that the very skills that got them the promotion, are going to be of little use going ahead. To excel in their new role, they need new and different skills - Identify a few of these skills together. Sit down and make a plan with teams/ individual on their up-skilling timeline. Set your expectations with specificity. The key here is ‘specificity’ - the level of specificity is directly proportionate to the quantum of leap. From their vantage point, they can’t know what they don't know; invest in their growth. Invest in them, in a planned and organized fashion; not as an ad hoc requirement you suggest, when things begin to go south. It could be courses, or mentors, or coaches and advisors. When you invest time and resources into their learning, the process itself will state clearly and honestly what the expectations are; that growth hereon is learning-focused.
Identifying sources of intellectual and emotional support, and following through in a committed fashion is a common-sensical step most start-ups underestimate; thus failing even before they started.
2. Find the sweet spot between the two extremes of micro-management and complete autonomy:
Enough and more has been written on the detrimental effects of micromanagement - here’s a useful link here for those who need a quick reference to its catastrophic effects - https://tracktime24.com/Blog/the-negative-effects-of-micromanagement
Let’s move on to the other extremity - Complete autonomy. This extremity is an inefficient choice, especially if made on the premise that this frees up your time as the CEO, and you can divert focus to ‘other far more important tasks and projects’. This is the #1 fallacy that you want to be wary of. Too much autonomy too soon, is just plain overwhelming for any person. In fact, you probably will end up spending more time fire-fighting all that goes unchecked for too long . What you want to do instead, is plan your schedule (or an appointed mentor’s schedule) a little more cleverly, to accommodate opportunities for support and reflection to the newly promoted individual. Establish a timeline by which you factor in some additional time that can be offered if needed, and prioritise it into your calendar. Promotions (of mid management to senior management, at the risk of sounding a bit corporate-ish) need more of your time initially, than less. And think of this as an investment, that’ll give you returns in the longer run. Autonomy needs to be phased out, to make it less overwhelming. This prevents burning bridges on several fronts - Mentee self-esteem, your relationships, company goals etc. Your intuition and sensitivity will play a huge role here. No employee likes to feel they are being watched over, every minute of the day. And at the same time, no employee likes to feel paralyzing incompetency, when things aren’t turning out the expected way.
Define clearly what you would like to know when. A clear sign that indicates that the process is working, is when the information loop is consistently being bridged by the individual you have promoted. Precise and consistent feedback from them to you, is a clear indicator, that trust has been established, and efficiencies are being built into the systems and process.
3. Double-dose on emotional regulations and intelligence:
When you as a CEO prioritize emotional intelligence, it directly creates spaces of pause in chaotic environments. It allows you and your team, to detach from disserving narratives, so that you’ll are able to widen the lens and assess information objectively, especially when the pace of incoming information is fast and dynamic. Emotional intelligence facilitates self-leadership, and self-leadership is what is going to play an important role as your company scales. An emotionally intelligent leader is almost always collaborative, curious, and forgiving; and this is what’s going to shape sustainable growth for your start-up.
"The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It's not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but...they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions." This quote is by noted psychologist Daniel Goldman, who coined the tern Emotional Intelligence in 1990.
Knowledge and expertise here-on will be powerful, when based on a solid foundation of emotional intelligence.
So to summarize. Set expectations clearly and authentically. Let them know they are being valued, on how fast they can learn and apply this knowledge intelligently and sensitively across their teams.
Co create a plan that spells out ‘The What’ that has to be learned, especially when the person you’ve promoted, has little or no experience in the new role they’re stepping into. Be prepared to invest time and money into ‘The how’ and re-emphasize your expectations through tangible action points. And lastly, value emotional regulation and intelligence and its importance to any process, hereon. You’ll grow 10x faster when your teams are able to lead themselves first, as you’ll move towards solving the big challenges boldly and unabashedly.