How to Manage a Startup Team

Who should take over the management of a startup team? How do you communicate with the team in a way that actually makes people listen? Why is it impossible to be a perfect manager? Today we discuss various concerns related to startup management.

Every startup founder is responsible for continuous monitoring of key points that may be crucial for the company’s success. The team itself may become a key point at some stage of business growth. Despite what Paul Graham says about management being “a problem that you only have in a startup if you are sufficiently successful,” some HR consultants recommend building your management processes from the very start. But how do you approach this skillfully and delicately in a company where everyone is equal?

Make sure the team members are like-minded

Business mentor Prof. Dr. Vincenzo Pallotta claims, “All team members should have a strong sense of belonging and never feel as ‘just employees’. I know that it’s difficult, but once you realize that someone does not have this level of commitment, it is better to separate as early as possible. Don’t be afraid to remain alone. If this happens, this just means that your teammates were not right for you.” A group of four to five people sharing the same task and the same goal always gives 100% to the work. Insufficient funds, a lack of workplace, or even failure won’t stop these people from pursuing the goal without supervision.

Postpone the introduction of a strict hierarchy

Startup management is a bit like a computer game. Sometimes, proceeding to the next level requires that you complete the previous location, but some team members usually have to split and “play” on several levels simultaneously. You will agree that it’s better to focus on marketing and investments than to waste effort chasing promotion at the initial stages of startup development. After all, many of you are here not for titles but for something completely different.

Dr. Pallotta shares that opinion. “In a startup I don’t advise to have a rigid structure and rigid roles. Team members should be able to easily be reassigned to different roles when necessary. I also believe that leadership should emerge and be spontaneously recognized by the team members. Sometimes, one could be a good leader for a given task and bad leader for another one. In general, there should be a natural sense of who is in charge without having to decide that beforehand. For instance, if a certain problem has to be solved, the team will immediately recognize who could take the lead.”

And if several team members show leadership skills, you can use them on the scale-up phase. One employee can take over the sales department, and the other will assume the management of all external communications.

Plan tasks and workload together with your team

Every business has a couple of roles that are essential for the company to function:

  • sales and marketing;
  • development and testing;
  • user and peer support;
  • strategic management;
  • financial management;
  • human resources (HR).

A functional startup must have all these roles covered, one way or another. Without a plan for filling them, founders put growth or even survival of the entire business at risk.

At first, many roles may be encompassed by a single person or shared between several team members. This is exactly the flexibility that separates working in a startup from having an office job. It allows to reduce the burden on every team member while revealing their skills that may be potentially useful.

It becomes clear who’s willing to take certain jobs already at the stage of task discussion. In a proper startup team, there’s generally no need to force or motivate people to take action. You can host a meeting during which the team will be able to casually approach the main business processes and set precise timelines or interaction areas. This way you can kill two birds with one stone by establishing the psychologically comfortable atmosphere of certainty while emphasizing the importance of the opinions of all team members.

By the way, planning timelines and workload for every team member for the long run is an extremely convenient thing. It helps you prevent various problems that involve employees working overtime or tasks building up. Planning makes it obvious whether there are enough resources to solve a particular problem or whether you should assign the task to someone else, reconsider the schedule, or redirect other resources.

Divide and delegate

Gathering people for a startup team is only half a business. The other half in terms of internal management is figuring out where boundaries for your own and your team members’ responsibilities lie. When overenthusiastic staff members attempt to do something in an area they are not proficient in, problems arise. Then comes the moment of redistributing duties.

That doesn’t mean managers should address all issues only by themselves. Delegating is essential, but you should always have a suitable candidate. Otherwise, you have to give up some of your time, money, or reputation.

Why delegating is vital: there are CEOs who have not the slightest doubt that they know their product better than everyone else. But a growing company sets new objectives. If an executive continues to single-handedly run the business, the startup may eventually end up with a bad CEO who is also a mediocre manager. And that results in considerable expenses for every company, according to Geoff Smart and Randy Street, authors of the staff management book “Who: The A Method for Hiring”.

A checklist: understanding you have problems with delegating

  • You only vaguely know what your team member is meant to do.
  • You doubt your ability to choose a reliable assistant.
  • You lose people you would like to employ.

What you need to do to delegate successfully

  • Have a good understanding in the area you want to delegate — there’s no way you can teach another person a thing you don’t know yourself.
  • Help an employee through the entire process of solving a problem while explaining the details and asking questions about the most confusing or difficult parts.
  • Let another person repeat the process without pointing at mistakes but with careful control.

Forget about micromanagement

Running a startup is exhausting enough, so why waste even more energy on trying to control every little thing? For example, IT workers admit nothing is more tiring than their manager being constantly present. Reminders of existing tasks and the never-ending queue of new ones are more distracting and irritating than social media or a talkative colleague.

Monitor progress but interfere only when things really go wrong. This way your team members will know you trust them. Indeed, you should strive to earn their respect instead of simply being a formal leader. And for that, you must believe they can work without your permanent supervision, too.

Record agreements, formalize processes

Someday your startup will grow to the point where verbal instructions become insufficient. Even if it only has ten people, some of them may decide to ignore unwritten rules.

When the number of employees increases, clearly define and record who is in charge of which tasks, what KPIs key members of the team have, and how they should cooperate. This helps alleviate the workload of top managers while simplifying some business processes.

You may also write detailed job descriptions for certain positions. These should include: 

  • skills needed from the worker,
  • rights and responsibilities,
  • additional duties,
  • communication rules for remote jobs (for example, how quickly they are expected to reply and which channel must be used to discuss work).

Set the rhythm for team communication

Many workers are negative towards micromanagement, so use any feedback method as a management tool. Such methods allow you to find out whether your instructions get understood correctly, if there is any conflict within the team, and what stage a particular process is on.

Choose a system for work-related conversations that meets your special requirements and suits the specific tasks. Here is an example of how such a system of daily and weekly meetings for debriefing and feedback could look:

  • daily — a remote 15-minute conversation (via Skype or Zoom) where participators share their news, problems, or key indicators;
  • weekly – a meeting (up to 1 hour) including company news (up to 5 minutes), indicators and figures (5 to 10 minutes), a discussion on one priority issue (up to 30 minutes), client feedback and problems (up to 10 minutes), and a 5-minute conclusion (a phrase from every member of the team);
  • personal meetings with direct subordinates;
  • monthly and quarterly meetings.

This approach seems to feature way too many conversations. But the team quickly gets used to the rhythm, and it saves plenty of time for everything else.

While reflecting, don’t forget to look back. It’s important to draw lessons from the past that will be used by the team and help it work more effectively on the next stage.

Feel free to motivate the employees

Motivation is not just about praising or rewarding. The overall emotional background of the company can be improved as follows:

  • Organize recreation zones or assign desks to employees according to their preferences.
  • Show dedication to the corporate philosophy and goals: do not show weakness in any situation, actively participate in the company events.
  • Encourage personal growth inside the startup: conduct master classes and workshops, invest in additional education for motivated specialists.
  • Develop a system of material and non-material bonuses and some way to implement it, be it in the form of money, praise, and so on.

Learn to work with negative aspects

No real company can avoid problems, conflicts, and fuckups. Every team is a knot of controversies and problems. And when it comes to overcoming those negative things, you should start with yourself. When a manager reacts too emotionally and aggressively, the team will soon stop taking them seriously since there’s no sensitivity to that stimulus anymore.

At the same time, healthy criticism should be allowed in every startup. Your employees will perceive it objectively if you remember to:

  • talk about a particular problem, not the worker’s personality;
  • criticize people privately to avoid spreading rumors.

There are no universal weapons for fighting rumors. The situation tends to become especially tense when things are not that great for the company. An experienced executive deliberately focuses team members on the most critical assignments or uses any motivational tools that can deflect attention from the overall negativity (5-minute speeches, motivational letters, and so on).

Do not ignore the situation or respond to the slightest criticism in a passive-aggressive way.

Remember that every difficult situation is a lesson for the entire team. It would be more rational to stop criticizing at some point and look at the experience your company may draw from its mistakes: rethink your instructions, methods of planning or the ways tasks get formulated and monitored.

In conclusion

Finding a team for your startup is difficult enough, and managing it to reach the initial goals without losing all of your employees is even harder. But we have a motivational bonus for you: according to the Ichak Adizes’ methodology, perfect managers simply do not exist!

Different people plan, organize, and control processes differently. An ideal executive must combine all four management functions:

  • P — Producing results;
  • A — Administering;
  • Е — Entrepreneuring — serves to manage changes;
  • I — Integration — ensures the sustainability of a company by integrating its elements.

The perfect (and the least resilient) model implies that a person must have all of these functions at once. But having only one or two letters is normal for a manager. On the contrary, it would be unnatural to expect an executive to play four different roles simultaneously. Imperfect workers often complement each other and establish a solid team exactly because of their differences.

Incubator director of the Admitad Projects startup studio