How To Hire And Lead Today At A Rapid-Growth Startup
Matt Lewis is the COO of HOVER, the spatial data company helping people improve their homes with the world’s best 3D property data.
Joining a high-growth startup is not for the faint of heart. There’s a reason why the long hours and uncertainty usually come with equity to offset the risk, and many people choose the comfort found in a more established company. But for the builders and thrill-seekers, a nascent company provides a form of self-expression, a creative outlet and a canvas to do their life’s work — and regardless of the financial outcome, a path to accelerated learning and experiences.
While growing quickly can be good for business, it comes with a set of challenges. Growth often means outstripping the number of people able to service or support the business. Simply said, there may not be enough people to do the work. Human systems can be inherently messy, and constant change at a high-growth company can magnify even the smallest flaws; it’s challenging to create structure when the ground is constantly moving beneath you. Not to mention an extra layer of complexity: people, including you, are sometimes better suited for different stages of the business.
With these unique challenges in mind, here are some fundamentals I’ve learned to effectively lead in a rapid-growth startup environment.
Own hiring the best.
From my experience as a U.S. Navy SEAL, I learned that talent is the biggest lever you have on small teams. When small teams are chasing big missions, you need what’s called “force multipliers,” which refers to dynamic people who are able to wear many hats. Some of this is achieved through training, but much is from attracting raw talent. Search for team members who have the pursuit of greatness burning inside.
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As a leader of a startup, build a team of people who are highly motivated. To do this, really own finding and recruiting these self-driven people. Think through your hiring process end to end, and leave no stone unturned. Consider your employer brand, your pitch, your hiring loop, your candidate experience and how you’ll work with your recruiting team. Don’t leave it to chance or wait for the right people to come to you — go find them.
Look for the right attributes in people.
Over the course of my career, I’ve interviewed thousands of people. When interviewing applicants in the startup world, it’s important to make decisions based on more than skill sets. Personal attributes are equally, if not more, important. For me, the most important ones are dynamic critical thinking and leadership potential.
When interviewing candidates to identify these attributes, I have two simple recommendations.
First, find a way to put the candidates in hypothetical scenarios to see how they solve problems. My favorite interview question is, “Should GE bring an everlasting lightbulb to market?” Not many people know about the lightbulb industry, so it gets candidates out of their comfort zone and tests their ability to think through something new. There’s of course no right answer, but there’s a right way of approaching the problem in my opinion.
And second, look for cultural signals about their leadership qualities in how they answer questions, or as I call them, “the signals between their answers.” Don’t ask direct questions, like whether they’re humble or empathetic. Instead, look for the little things in how they answer questions and how they present themselves.
Commit to diversity, equity and inclusion.
In my experience, the best teams embrace new ideas and distinct viewpoints brought from people’s different backgrounds. Finding “force multipliers” is one thing, but finding people who bring diversity to the equation can generate the best results. Seek out people with different experiences from the beginning so that team evolution multiplies and reinforces equitable and inclusive ideas.
Some people think that sharing values and the mental model of the business can be challenging with different backgrounds. I don’t think that’s true in the least. In fact, in my experience, debating over differing opinions typically leads to even better ideas.
Create a collective consciousness to decentralize decisions.
In small groups, avoid always relying on one person. Encourage people to operate independently and make decisions in a decentralized way; this requires strong communication and collective consciousness. When this is achieved, the entire team can be empowered by understanding the mission, how to achieve the mission, the role they play and the risks involved.
Establish a culture of feedback and optimism.
I’ve found that cutthroat cultures often perpetuate a system where no one wants to give honest feedback in fear of dire consequences. A feedback culture thrives when the leadership team has faith in their people and accepts that people learn from their mistakes. With this optimistic view of employees as human-first individuals, feedback can be provided in a safe and productive space to allow people to grow.
To establish an optimistic culture, create a clear definition of success and a support system to help members achieve it. With an established mission and purpose, work to convey the impact that ties back to the common understanding of what success looks like. In essence, this means sharing the mission to identify things that matter, giving an overview of what the team needs to do, and letting the team work independently.
Nurture and develop growing talent.
Startups provide a unique opportunity for ambitious individuals to accelerate their careers by performing and growing with the business. As a leader, recognize and support your employees’ growth and development plans. And with role transitions, coach employees based on their individual and changing needs.
Leading at a high-growth startup has its fair share of challenges, but to see your company flourish and take an active role in that can be both humbling and gratifying. It all starts with finding the right people, then fostering company values as a collective to promote unity and growth. From there, you can pivot and adjust as needed based on the needs of your business and employees.