Previously on Scaling Start-Ups,
Me: Hearing the story of Eve, which management role does your current VP of Sales hold?
Founder: MG 2, and within the next 3 months, the role will most likely become MG 3 as we are growing quickly! 😱
Me: At the time when they were hired, what were their responsibilities and their capabilities to perform in that role?
Founder: I believe the role was MG1, and they were a very good MG1! 🥺
Me: I agree. So, based on the business growth and needs, what are you going to do about it?
Avoidance is easy, transparency is hard.
Many founders are grateful and loyal to employees who have been with them during those tough, early times. They did an amazing job of helping to get the business up and running. Or, they took a huge risk to join an unproven business. It seems only natural they are given the responsibilities to manage a team and a big job title (e.g. VP or CxO or Head of) as a reward for their hard work, loyalty and trustworthiness.
As the business scales, and if the job title is inflated, the scope of accountabilities for each role often catches up with the employee’s job title. The employee starts to struggle to keep up with the demands of a role that has evolved with the business. The role has now outgrown your employee.
When this happens, far too often it is the case, founders avoid having a crucial conversation with the employee.
Own it and do the right thing. Talk!
Repay your employee’s hard work, loyalty and trust by being truthful with them.
I remember a conversation with a CTO of a hyper-growth start-up. We were talking about challenges in the team and looking at the long-term strategy. I asked, “What is the biggest thing that keeps you awake at night?” They said,
“I have kept up with the growth of the business and grown into the CTO role. I intend to continue to grow with the role and demand of the business. We are growing exponentially. My greatest fear is no one will let me know when the CTO role outgrows my ability to scale into the role. I don’t mind stepping down and learning from someone more experienced than me. But I can’t do that if no one tells me.”
As the founder, it is your responsibility to grow the business and your people to achieve the business goals. If your managers are not scaling with the business; take ownership and talk to them.
Get on the same page and give them a chance to step up
Most of the time your employees will know when they are struggling. What people fear is judgement of their performance and they imagine a worst-case scenario - being asked to leave a business that they love. Sit down and have a conversation to get on the same page. Listen, understand, be empathetic and invite them to solve the challenge together.
From the conversations (yes, plural!), both of you should be clear on:
Expectations to succeed in the role
Plans to get on track
Sometimes, all your employee needs is a recalibration of expectations and the support to step up. As their manager, it is your job to provide that and give them a chance.
Discuss options if it doesn’t work out
Don’t wait to discuss potential outcomes if they are not successful. Involve your employees right at the beginning and discuss what could happen next if they are not able to step up. #nosurprises!
The mistake I see founders and managers make over and over again (with the best intention!) is avoiding a conversation about the worst-case scenario in order to spare someone’s feelings. A lack of clarity leads to fear - our brain engages in fight-or-flight mode which impairs our ability to be our best selves. Having some form of clarity surrounding potential outcomes gives us a sense of control over our actions and plans.
Usually, we avoid discussing worst-case scenarios to spare people's feelings.
We are, in actuality, just sparing our own feelings and
disempowering them by not letting them be a part of the solution.
What we might assume is a terrible outcome for others, might not be for them. So, put it on the table and talk! Never make assumptions.
Option 1: ⬆️ Layer above them
This creates the opportunity for your employees to learn and be mentored by someone who is experienced. The new person will also take on the next level of responsibilities that your employee is not able to step into now, giving them the space to grow their capabilities and set them up to take on a larger role in the future.
Here’s a catch. If you have already inflated your titles, it is hard to create new layers and if you do, you are only creating further inflation. Especially if the title you have given away is a VP or C-level title when you are at 50 employees.
Option 2: 🔁 Replace them
If the scope of the role has transformed (e.g. VP of 50 people to VP of 500 people) or is transforming very quickly, there will be a significant impact on the experience of the people they manage and the business results if the person in the role is not able to deliver. In this case, you need someone with the relevant experience immediately - which means the employee in the role will need to be replaced.
When an HR folk like myself make such a statement, it usually freaks people out!😱 I am not talking about firing someone.
Remember, it is not an in-or-out scenario. If this employee has always been a great performer and their role outgrew them, there are still many opportunities in a scaling start-up in which they could thrive. For example, if they were the VP of Engineering: