How to build a winning startup team
Rapidly growing from one or two founders to a team of five, ten or 20 people can be pretty overwhelming. All of a sudden, you’ve got the skills, experience and knowledge your business has been crying out for, but while you might have a fantastic group of high performers, you don’t yet have a high performing team.
As any football fan will know, just sticking a group of very talented individuals on the pitch does not automatically mean you have a league or cup winning side. Just look at poor Jose Mourinho’s current Manchester United squad, which is suffering its worst start to the season for 26 years, despite spending more on players than the majority of its rivals.
Just like the best football managers, your new job leading a startup team is to ensure you have the right players working together in harmony, and that you’re maximising the strengths of each person to focus on and achieve a common goal. As an entrepreneur who’s probably been working either solo or in a small team of two or three for a number of months or years, that is likely to bring you into uncharted territory.
Here, we speak to Anouk Agussol, Founder and CEO of start-up people and culture consultancy, Unleashed, about the secrets to creating a winning startup team – taking some lessons from the sporting world:
Know your team
Creating a winning team requires an intimate understanding of every individual’s strengths and weaknesses. If you’ve done your recruitment properly, you should have a good idea of where each team member excels, or where their development needs are. It’s now time to put those insights to good use in how you structure and manage your team, playing to each person’s abilities as much as possible.
“When thinking about strengths and weaknesses, consider that there is a flip side to every coin,” counsels Anouk.
“For example, too much loyalty can cause people to be blind and miss things. If they’re too patient, they might become indecisive. If they’re decisive on the other hand they might become hasty and lack consideration. Understanding those nuances helps you to coach that person effectively and spot any potential issues before they become more serious.”
Another aspect of knowing your team is understanding how each person likes to work. For example, when are they most productive? What do they need from you in order to do their best work? Where do they like to work? How do they like to be contacted? Does wearing headphones mean they are focussing and shouldn’t be disturbed, or are they happy to be?
If you’re not sure, just ask. Your team will appreciate your consideration, and It will help you avoid any misunderstandings and lost productivity down the line.
And finally, getting to know your team at a personal level will go a long way to keeping them onside when the going gets tough.
“When you become a manager, it’s not about your performance anymore, it’s about the performance of your team,” says Anouk.
“If you make time for your team, they’ll be happier and more engaged. Spend time asking them about themselves, how their family is, what they did at the weekend. It will build trust, loyalty and provide valuable insights into what really motivates each person. But don’t be inauthentic - actually give a damn.”
Where are the goalposts?
Clarity about roles and responsibilities is key, so that everybody knows what’s expected and to ensure that everybody is working in the best way to achieve the business objectives.
“There is a lot of change in start-ups, which can be unsettling. Our brains are wired to have a need for a certain level of certainty” comments Anouk.
“In this kind of environment, people will perform better if they understand what success looks like. That starts with the job spec, through interviews, into on-boarding and should continue as the person becomes more established in the business.
"Ensure they understand why they’re there (the purpose of their role) and what impact you want them to have. That way you can do away with detailed, boring and mundane job descriptions that are likely to change in about five minutes time!”
As discussed in our previous blog - seeing fast ROI from new people - rather than telling people ‘how’ to do things, it’s much more important to focus on the ‘why?’ and what the desired outcomes are.
Autonomy is a vital factor in motivation, so let every employee decide how they go about reaching their objectives.
Micromanagement is never a good strategy, plus it drags you away from your own responsibilities, while increasing your stress levels at the same time.
Will it make the boat go faster?
Once you’ve set roles and responsibilities, keep checking in to ensure these remain relevant and to ensure nobody gets distracted from the overall goal.
Anouk advises taking inspiration from the famous rower, Ben Hunt Davis, who took Great Britain’s men’s rowing team to victory at the 2000 Olympics.
The team credited their success to constantly asking “Will it make the boat go faster?” about every activity and decision along their journey.
Asking this question of yourself and your team regularly will ensure you stay focused only on those tasks that will make a real difference to the business success. The ability to have razor sharp focus and the ability to execute (just get it done) is super critical to the success of startups.
There’s no ‘I’ in team
Getting all your moving parts moving in the same direction is a great start. But how do you get them to work together and really collaborate?
There are a number of aspects to this, but first and foremost, it comes down to uniting everybody behind a shared vision, effectively communicating the ‘why’ behind what you’re doing. And it’s not enough to communicate this just once; you need to keep repeating it, during the recruitment process, onboarding, and then once you have an established team. You’d be amazed by how long messages can take to sink in and how easily they’ll be forgotten, without regular reinforcement.
Achieving a collaborative culture also starts in the hiring process, by bringing together the right mix of skills and personalities and acting quickly if you know somebody isn’t right.
“I’ve seen too many businesses hire on experience alone (particularly in the early days) and ending up regretting their decision. They forget about ‘fit’. Someone’s drive, ability to learn, humility, action-orientation, energy, are all critical”, advises Anouk.
“And if you do realise somebody isn’t the right fit, act quickly before the situation becomes toxic. Be respectful and don’t be an arsehole, but you have to have the courage to have the conversation as soon as possible.
"In any case, if you feel it isn’t right, you can bet your last dollar (or pound) they they feel the same.”
You can also encourage team spirit by always celebrating team successes over individual ones. For example, if a salesperson has made a great sale, don’t just focus on that, but on all the work that went into making that happen, including the build of the product by the tech team, and all the marketing that’s helped get the leads through the door.
Looking back at the rowing analogy, you can have 8 individually amazing and great rowers in a boat. But on the day, “their individual power matters far less than the ability of the coach to make sure that they coordinate their delivery - that they are working together in unison”, adds Anouk.
“No matter how strong they are, if they can’t work as a team, the boat will sink.”
Trust and psychological safety
Google has done a huge amount of research on teams, and they found the most important factor in successful teams is “psychological safety”.
Anouk explains this as “allowing, enabling, and in fact encouraging everybody to take risks and try new things, without worrying about the repercussions; making sure that everyone is able to put their hands up to input and share their thoughts is critical.”
Experimentation and risk taking are critical for innovation, but they also mean accepting the chance of failure. Start-up teams need to be okay with that and leaders need to ensure nobody is ever blamed for things that don’t go as planned or hoped.
“Rather than saying, ‘You fucked up’, take the positives from every situation, looking at what went well and what lessons you can take from an experience to then do better next time,” explains Anouk. “Do that retrospective exercise as a team!”
So how do you do that in practice?
The key is to create trust between you and your team, and that comes from consistent communication, investing in building relationships and ultimately “walking the talk.”
“Be cognizant that everybody is in the team for a reason,” says Anouk.
“Ask for their opinions and ideas, and then let them run with it - assuming of course it is working to the right goal. Everybody should have a say and feel listened to. If you feel an idea is a bad one, make sure to explain ‘why’ - this will help people learn so that they won’t be afraid to put forward another idea next time.”
Feedback and praise regularly
Trust people to get on with it, but also know to redirect and give feedback. “People aren’t necessarily going to stay on track to hit a target, if you don’t give them coaching and feedback along the way,” says Anouk.
Make sure you put one-to-ones in the diary and stick to them. They’re your chance to review with every team member how they’re progressing against their objectives, to overcome any blockers and find out how you can better support them.
But alongside these, feedback should be given more frequently too, as part and parcel of your everyday work.
“Don’t sit on it,” advises Anouk
“There is no point waiting three or six months, or especially a year to do it. The whole team has to adapt as conditions change on an ongoing basis. It has to be continuous. If it is negative feedback, give it within 24 hours of an issue coming to light. For the positive stuff, get in there immediately. If the word feedback causes you to shudder and sweat, call it advice and guidance. Doesn’t matter, but as Kim Scott (author of radical candour) states 'we have a moral obligation' to provide feedback in order to develop the people who dedicate the biggest part of their waking day to us.”
On the flipside, don’t hesitate to recognise and praise hard work, while also remaining aware of the team effort behind the big wins.
To quote another sporting great, Sir Alex Ferguson: “There is no room for criticism on the training field. For a player – and for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘well done’. Those are the two best words ever invented in sports. You don’t need to use superlatives.”
Take money off the table
Contrary to popular belief, most people aren’t entirely motivated by money! Of course, you need to make sure that money isn’t an issue, by paying the market rate, but beyond that people are intrinsically motivated by less material things. Which is a relief when you’re a cash strapped start-up!
In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink sets out three factors, which will increase performance and satisfaction amongst employees:
Autonomy: The desire to be self-directed. If you’re giving people control of the ‘how’ then you can give this one a big tick.
Mastery: The urge to get better skills. This should come from working on tricky start-up challenges and being given stretching targets.
Purpose: The desire to do something that has meaning and is important. This all comes back to that all-important ‘why’.
Plus, there are also loads of other ways to reward your staff that don’t need to cost the earth.
Anouk suggests making rewards and gifts as personal as possible, for example a vegan cookbook for your vegan staff member, or tickets to see an artist they love.
And if you need more ideas, have a read of our blog on how to make your staff feel loved on a budget.
The most important thing however, when it comes to recognition, is for an authentic thank you and highlighting the impact of the great work that has been done. Make sure that you recognise exceptional performance though - not average - otherwise it comes across as trite.
“When you become a manager, it’s no longer about you,” Anouk states.
“It is about your team and their success - and only that.”
Building a winning team won’t happen overnight. It takes patience, hard work and resilience in the face of the numerous setbacks you are guaranteed to face along the way. However, if you keep plugging away, it will be one of the most rewarding things you ever do – both for yourself and for your business.
And because we can’t resist a great quote, here’s another one to leave you inspired…
“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” Michael Jordan
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