On Hiring: Beyond the Interview

There are no books you can read or blog posts you can scan that will guarantee that you make the right hire 100% of the time. From bad chemistry to misunderstandings about role expectations, even the strongest candidate may not work out. Also, despite best efforts, early stage companies or new teams inside scaling business often don’t know what they need until they have someone in a particular role. You might realize “oops, this person is great, but their skills are not what we need!”. It happens at every company. Hiring is HARD.

While you can’t prevent occasional mis-hires, you can try to minimize the possibility by including a project or testing phase in your hiring process. This is the stage beyond the standard interview questions and reference checks that gives you a sense of who this person really is, their skills and how they will approach their role. The goal of these tests is to allow the candidate to demonstrate what they are capable of and what it might be like to work with them once they are on board. These tests are critical and will either help you dodge a mis-hire or give you a higher degree of confidence that this is “the one”. I recommend that these tests are performed when you have 1-2 finalists and just before you are ready to do reference checks and make an offer. This can be an especially helpful step if you are down to two finalists you really like.

With this in mind, below are some tips on how to do these tests. For each of these tests, it’s about how the candidate approaches the test and the problem vs. getting correct answers. Build alignment with your team on what “good looks like” for each test and plan to debrief once the assignment is complete and/or presented. Examples of what good might look like are included below.

The First 90 Days” Test

This is a good general test for any new hire, especially an executive, but also for a people manager or technical leader. Have the candidate explain what their first 90 days on the job will look like. Either leave it wide open or offer a few prompts like “Who will you spend time with?” or “How will you get to know the business?” or “What accomplishments do you hope to make by the end of the first 90-days?”. Avoid being overly prescriptive or leading questions like “Name all the team members you’ll want to get to know” or “Will you spend time with marketing and sales?”. An experienced candidate should have a good sense of how they would spend their first 90 days based on the research they’ve done on your company and insights they’ve gained from interviews with the team.

What good might look like: 

  • Thoughtful about talking with the right stakeholders and when – align with your team on who they’d expect to see on the candidate’s list and when they’d expect to meet with this new hire within the first 90 days
  • Organized and realistic about what can be accomplished in 90 days – align with your team on what you’d expect
  • Asks good questions to get a feel for the assignment – shows they are comfortable with getting clarity on situations (not arrogant)
  • Articulates assumptions made (if any) – often a requirement of leadership roles and demonstrates strong communication skills
  • Cites examples from conversations they’ve had with team members/research they’ve done on the company, market, etc. – demonstrates they listened, interested and have taken the time to understand the opportunity

Engineering and Design Tests

While there are some nifty tools out there that can test coding skills for engineers, I am a strong advocate for testing the human side of these skills. Those who design and/or build your product should be able to demonstrate their work beyond coding or portfolio samples. The best tests here are brief scenarios that demonstrate not just depth of syntax knowledge or design best practices, but also how they will work on a problem with your team. These types of tests can be done as “homework” although it’s nice if it can be done in-person as part of an onsite/video interview. Present a scenario and ask the candidate how they will approach it. You could give them some alone time to think it through and then ask them to talk you (or a domain expert) through it. Ask them to cite how they thought about it and explain the direction they took and why. Prepare to have another approach or idea for the scenario when they walk through their work. This can help gauge how the candidate handles feedback and if they are willing to collaborate on ideas.

Try not to give an assignment that takes more than 1-2 hours to do unless you pay them for the work. I know a company who always pays for the time taken to do the test and if the candidate declines payment, they make a donation to their charity of the candidate’s choice for their time. (So cool!)

What good might look like: 

  • Asks good questions to get a feel for the assignment
  • Articulates assumptions made (if any)
  • Able to explain their work and creative approach; approach aligns with how your team operates and/or offers new ideas that will expand the possibilities for your team/product
  • Comfortable receiving feedback; bonus points if they’re willing to riff on the idea and take it to a better place.

Scenario Tests For Functional Teams (Marketing, Sales, Product, etc.)

Functional leaders are often asked to present a past project they did as a way to demonstrate their work. While this lends insight into the candidate’s past work, I prefer scenario tests. While the former does tell you an experience they had and what worked or not, it will not expose their work on something new. Further, a walkthrough of a former project may not give you insight into what they (vs. other team members) actually did to achieve success. In those cases, I listen for “we did this…” which begs the question “what part of that did YOU do?”. Here are some quick examples of scenario tests for a few functional areas:

Product: Our CTO just came back from a “listening tour” with some of our customers and wants to explore a new set of features to expand our product offerings. These offerings are not on the product roadmap. What steps would you take to understand these new features and how would you approach the prioritization process?

Marketing: We’re about to launch a new product for our customers. It is the first new product we’ve launched in a year. What steps would you take to plan for this product launch and how will you measure its success?

Sales Leader: We are building a product to attract new customers in a new vertical. What information do you need to prepare your team to sell this new product and how will you set sales goals for the team?

You could imagine similar scenarios for finance, customer support or other functional roles. Remember, they still don’t know how your business functions day to day and this isn’t whether they have a perfect plan, but more about how they approach the problem. For functional roles that will require strong communication and presentation skills, have them present their assignments as they would if they were doing it for your team, board or customers, depending on the scenario. For presentations, the ideal flow is interviews, assignment for finalists, and then a presentation to all those who interviewed the candidate. Other key stakeholders could sit in on the presentation, but to mitigate overwhelming the candidate, I suggest only those who interview them do Q&A after the presentation. Q&A should probe what’s being tested (what good looks like) and not to have candidates try to get correct answers.

What good might look like: 

  • Demonstrates research they’ve done to prepare the assignment
    • Including people on your team they may ask to speak with to prepare their preparation
  • Presentation skills – both oral and written. Focus more on content and less on pretty graphics on presentation decks unless that’s an important element of the role
  • Articulates assumptions made (if any).
  • Scenario solution is thoughtful, logical and realistic – align with your team in advance on what this would look like
  • Bonus points if they add insights that the team can learn from (e.g., I once had a VP Marketing candidate tell us what was broken with our SEO and how to improve it as part of his presentation of a hypothetical scenario. It was brilliant!)

With all of the interviews and testing, you still may not get it right every time. Again, hiring is HARD. For some roles, a “try before you buy” is often the best way to go for both the candidate and the company. Not every candidate can opt out of benefits or other things they need from a full time job to do a trial, but if it’s possible or they can do it outside of work, go for it. Pick a project that’s reasonable to do in 30-45 days and agree on what good will look like before they get started. Pay them an hourly rate and set the candidate up for success so they can hit the ground running (e.g., security access to your code repo, slack, etc,) and continue to test the soft skills as they go. if applicable, tell the candidate in advance that if they are hired, equity vesting will start when they started their project vs their actual start date. It’s a nice incentive for them to take the project seriously and know you are invested in their success. 

Finally, if you’re hiring a role for the first time and no one on your team has experience with that role – no one knows what good looks like – ask an advisor, investor or friend with experience to be part of the interview process. They should not only be able to interview the candidate, but also help you formulate the tests!

Do you have other tests or projects you like to use as part of the hiring process? Please share in the comments!

Paving The Way For Less Experienced Hires At Early Startups

Photo Credit From: https://hfaplanning.com/

So many of the early stage companies I work with are struggling to hire talent. Despite the pandemic, they have raised capital and are looking to hire everything from engineering and UX to marketing, sales and support. You’d think with the pandemic there’d be a lot of people looking for work, but in startup land (tech or not), it’s definitely a candidate’s market…unless you are considered too inexperienced for a role. I especially see this for candidates in underrepresented talent groups where there are less opportunities to develop strong networks. Further, less experienced candidates coming from first jobs at a big company where they hoped to gain mentoring and experience before going to a startup can be boxed out before they even get their careers of the ground. These candidates are often viewed as unable to work in a more scrappy, smaller scale organization.

The most common reason for not hiring less experienced talent in a very early stage company (say, less than 20 people) is lack of time to manage and mentor these team members. I get it. If you are a startup leader, you want an A+ team of people who are self-starters and have seen the movie before. While also more expensive, experienced hires should know how things work and in theory should hit the ground running. That said, even experienced hires rarely work effectively and that independently on day one. Further, I don’t know a single startup that has hired an all senior team and never had to let someone go (or they quit) within their first 90 days. This can be because of a mismatch in expectations, lack of alignment or often it’s because the more senior team members had become accustomed to managing more than doing in their prior roles; they were potentially “startup curious” and couldn’t scale down and/or they had lost their player-coach edge.

It is rare that any startup gets their first twenty hires right. Iteration, learning what you need in your team and evolution as your product changes and company grows is a likely cause for lots of refactoring of teams in the first few years. Therefore, hiring a few less experienced folks could net the same result as one senior hire – some will work out, and some will not. Yes, letting someone go or having them quit and starting over is a total time suck, but that’s part of the game and most companies get better and better in finding and keeping great talent over time. From my personal experience working for several startups early on, each of which had insane growth, I found having a mix of seasoned and less experienced team members can be a super power. Less experienced team members were hungry and eager to learn and the senior team members enjoyed mentoring and handing off the more menial tasks so they could focus on meatier and often more strategic work. It was a win-win and many of those junior team members have had incredible careers after we gave them their first shot.

For the Manager

Here are a few things to consider for those anxious about hiring less experienced talent:

  • Pipeline: In this candidates’ market, hiring managers need to treat recruiting like a sales exercise. Fill the funnel! Overly prescriptive job descriptions will limit applicants (especially women) – this includes being too specific about the number of years of experience required which may not translate well for someone who’s been coding since middle school, but has only been in the workforce for 1-2 years. Get the resumes in, then decide how you want to weed out less relevant candidates.
  • Pre-Interview Screening: Don’t judge a resume by it’s timeline! As noted above, many inexperienced candidates – especially engineers – have been doing relevant work well before they went to college or may be understating their contributions in their current roles. They may lack the confidence to promote their work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get the work done. Consider having a screening question about how long the candidate has been doing relevant work that may not appear on their LinkedIn/resume.
  • Interview: Size the questions and/or the coding exercise with the experience. Determine if the candidate can learn quickly, whether they ask good questions and whether they can deliver on time. Early on in their careers, these are the key skills that will assure they will thrive vs. showing you their perfect coding capabilities in an interview or through a take-home exercise.
  • Potential for hire: If all that is keeping you from hiring a less experienced candidate who shows tons of potential is having the time or talent to mentor these candidates, look beyond yourself and your more experienced team. Have advisors who can sign up to serve as mentors for inexperienced folks. This can range from doing code reviews before check-ins to helping an inexperienced salesperson practice their pitch. These mentors do not have to have full context on your business or the details of the work; if they are seasoned, they know what to look for and should be able to offer objective guidance (and you should offer them some equity and have them sign an NDA, obvi!).
  • On the job: Yay! You are ready to hire a less experienced team member. Set the right expectations and scale the work. As with any hire, they won’t be up to speed on day one. Their 30-60-90 day onboarding process may look different than a more senior hire though. Start small and work up to more challenging tasks. As my favorite leadership coach Brené Brown says in her amazing book Dare To Lead “Paint what ‘done’ looks like.” The most common reason for failure between employees and their leaders in any job – regardless of experience – is misalignment about what the endpoint should look like. Always define and communicate measurable, clear, goals.

NOTE: If you will hire for a role within the next six months, but are not actively filling it, and a current candidate shows promise for that future role, hire them! You don’t want to kick yourself in a few months that you didn’t hire that candidate when you had the chance. This of course assumes you have the budget to do so.

For The Less Experienced Candidate

For folks dealing with the catch-22 of needing experience, but not getting job interviews or offers because you lack enough experience, here are some things to consider:

  • Highlight Transferable Skills: Look deeply at your resume and try to tease out skills you have gained in past roles that are applicable to the job you wish to land. Were you a camp counselor while in college? You likely have strong leadership skills, can multitask and work well in teams. Worked as a waitperson in college? You have sales and customer service experience! Were you on the robotics team or helped friends build their first websites in high school? You started building your technical skills earlier than you think! This also works for job shifters – pull out the buzzwords that highlight your transferable skills. Be explicit under each role such as “Product Management Skills:…” or “Sales Skills:…”.
  • Get Help: Find someone in your network to help you further tease out your experience in your resume and help you practice your interviewing skills. Tap into former bosses, advisors and college professors. If they can’t help directly, they may know someone who can! Practice both technical skills and general communication skills. Both are important.
  • Continuous Ed: Continue to develop your skills outside of school or your day job. Take coding classes online (there are tons) or participate in one of a gazillion webinars designed for core skills like sales, growth marketing and design. A silver lining of the pandemic is that there are now so many great online resources! If you complete these courses, list them on your resume; this shows initiative, willingness to learn and the ability to multitask if you did this work outside of your day job or school.
  • Never Assume: Finally, never assume that just because a company doesn’t have a job posting commensurate with your experience that should not apply. This could be a stretch opportunity or the chance to get a warm introduction to the hiring manager for a future opportunity. Taking steps like this is a first sign that you are ambitious and creative and many people will hire talent despite a position lining up perfectly or even being open. As noted for hiring managers above, good people are hard to come by! I have personally hired many talented people without a perfect fit or a role open at the time because someone showed promise or I knew I’d need them within the next six months.

If all else fails…

Still not sure you can bring someone less experienced on board or can’t get a young startup to take a chance on you? Get creative and offer a “try before you buy” option. Even if part time, it can be great for both the company and the candidate to do a small project together – for pay. The manager can get a sense of a candidate’s work and the candidate can get a sense of what it’s like to work at the company. 

Tips on this concept:

  • Agree on a project that is no more than 2-3 weeks worth of work for a junior team member and with a clear deliverable.
  • Use the time working on the project to meet other members of the team. Schedule a quick meet and greet on Zoom or join team meetings to get a deeper sense of the company culture.
  • If the trial goes well and an offer is made, the equity vesting/cliff start date should be from the start date of the trial project. 
  • Be careful about competitive situations. If a current employer has a clause in their employment agreement that says any relevant work done outside of business belongs to them, don’t do a trial role like this for a related business (sounds obvious, but I have seen this happen too many times!).

I am truly hopeful that more young companies will take chances on less experienced hires. This is where magic can happen for all involved and I can’t tell you how amazing it is to see some of my most junior hires “back in the day” now in senior leadership roles or starting companies of their own. Hopefully, they are now paying it forward!

How have you figured out ways to hire less experienced people or find a role as a less experienced hire yourself? Please share in the comments. You can also read more about my thoughts on hiring here.

Balancing The Many Hats Of A Startup CEO

Illustration by Amelia Austin (c)

Startup CEOs wear many hats that they take on and off as company priorities ebb and flow. One moment they are the CFO and raising capital and the next they are the Head of Product and making critical roadmap decisions. As a quarter-end nears, they become heads of Sales and as the company expands (or contracts) they’re running HR. There can be tremendous stress when a CEO tries to wear too many hats at once or struggles to decide which to wear, which to remove, and which to hand off to someone on their team – if such a team exists! The startup CEOs I coach have used following framework I’ve created to help them determine which hats to where when. While this article is largely focused on startup CEOs, framework can also be an effective tool for other organizational leaders.

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The Hats

The most common array of hats that a CEO may wear at any given time fall into the categories below, but no CEO – early stage or not – can split their time and attention so perfectly as the chart denotes.

Before deciding which hats to wear and when, a startup CEO should first identify with what their hats (categories) are in their current role. Using the visual above, here’s how I define these very common categories:

Product (What & When): This is what the company produces. It includes customer discovery, design, building, shipping and support. It also includes prioritization and tradeoff decision making for features, new products and services. Many startup CEOs are product people and this can often be one of the hardest hats to take off completely – if ever. Note that being a product visionary and/or a great coder or designer does not necessarily mean one is a great Product Manager – knowing how to make tradeoffs, analyze customer requirements or develop a product roadmap. Be sure to fully explore this “hat” before deciding it’s one to wear or take off.

Culture & Process (How): I was inspired recently by a coaching client of mine who combined these two into one category. If the culture doesn’t work, then the processes won’t work either. Creating high performing teams goes well beyond what workflows, policies and procedures are in place. It is how the team communicates, operates and evolves as a living organism. Never underestimate the value of focusing on culture with process starting from day one! Some CEOs are natural culture builders and system thinkers, but if this is not a strong suit, it’s definitely a hat that should be worn by an in-house culture expert or by someone with natural team-building/program management skills.

Strategy (Where, Why & When): Determining the company’s True North, setting direction for at least the next 12-18 months and making critical decisions about the company’s mission for things like fundraising, revenue growth and human capital. This is also about defining and communicating why the company is doing what it does which is as important as where it is going. Employees and investors/board members all perform better when there is clarity on why the company is moving in a particular direction. This hat is quite commonly on the CEO’s head forever.

Talent & Development (Who & How): A company will not succeed or grow without hyper focus on the growth of their employees. It is vital to the success and stability of an organization to establish best in class hiring practices and programs as well as to develop each person’s skills as individuals and leaders. As companies grow, CEOs must be thoughtful about where to focus hiring efforts, how to provide incentives to retain top performers and how to grow those with high potential. In addition, as companies grow, there will always be tradeoffs on when to promote from within, when to hire more experienced talent and when it’s time for some team members to move on. CEOs often wear this hat more often than others, but many have COOs or strong HR leaders on their teams who wear this hat permanently.

Back Office (How): A company can have the best product and team in the world and mess things up royally because the back office hat was on the wrong individual’s head. This is mostly finance (accounting, receivables, payroll, etc.) and legal (employee contracts, partnerships, etc.). I’m amazed at how many CEOs wear this hat for too long. It’s ok early stage, but let the professionals do this work once the company hits product market fit and is beginning to operate at scale. Some CEOs are former CFOs who are perfectly capable of leading back office teams, but data shows that CFOs often lack “Outside-in” thinking (a strong mega-trend and customer focus)” and lack the creative and inspirational leadership qualities of a great CEO.

Marketing, Sales & Business Development (What, Why & When): Brand identity, target audiences, community development, filling the pipeline, closing deals and creating strategic partnerships. These tasks often require CEO leadership – especially early stage. Some CEOs are very marketing/sales oriented which can derive huge benefits for the business as long as there are capable leaders on the team wearing other hats. However, many CEOs are not marketers and, like the Back Office hat, should leave that work to the experts.

The Have-to-dos, Want-to-dos & Good-ats

Rather than being stressed out trying to balance all hats at once, it is best to focus on wearing 1-2 hats at a time. These 1-2 hats are those that HAVE to be done. It’s great when these prioritized hats also happen to be hats a leader wants to wear and require skills that they believe they are good at, but that is not always the case – especially for early stage CEOs who often need to do a lot of things that they may be good at, but don’t necessarily want to do. Similarly, there can be things a CEO is good at and wants to do, but the business doesn’t require them to do it. Finally, there are times when something has to be done, the CEO wants to do it, but they lack the skill to do it well (self-professed or not!). Here are a few examples:

  • Finances – CEOs are good at doing the accounting for the business and it has to be done, but usually very willing to give that up as soon as they can hire a head of finance. They don’t want to do it!
  • Product/Technology – No matter how much a founder/CEO wants to design or code – and they may be good at it – there is a point as a company scales that CEOs have to take off this hat. They are no longer “have to-dos” at their level. Note, I have seen a number of CEO-Founders take their CEO hats off to dive back into the product – they not only want to do it, it’s their passion!
  • Hiring – Inexperienced CEOs managing people and leading teams for the first time both have to hire and want to hire, but are often unskilled when it comes to sourcing, interviewing and managing the onboarding experience. This is a skill they are not good at.

If a company is well funded and/or profitable, the CEO can usually move swiftly to swap or delegate hats with the support of their leadership team or investors. They may hire more seasoned leaders or team members and/or offer training for those who need to develop their skills. However, for the fledgling teams who can’t fund these improvements, it is even more important to make hard choices about which hats to wear…even if that means letting some things slide or not executing perfectly. The tradeoffs can be hard, but the focus of this exercise can allow a leader to move quickly from one to the next so things don’t slide for too long. In fact, it is extremely common for CEOs to become so paralyzed about which hats to wear that the performance of the company is suffering more than if they had just picked 1-2 hats to focus on and move forward.

To get started on assessing “have to-dos (HTDs), want to-dos (WTDs) and good-ats (GAs)”, I recommend a two-pronged approach:

  1. Using the categories or hats identified, rate the HTDs, WTDs and GAs today and what the HTDs should be in the future. This exercise requires self reflection and a large dose of humility.
  2. Define what measurable goals must be achieved to remove a particular hat OR issues that need to be resolved to put on a particular hat. Include an action plan (with timeline) that ensures goals can be met. 

Using a framework like the chart below, begin to outline and rate the categories, 1-5. 1=low (this is a hat not being worn, not wanting to do, or something one is not good at ) and 5=high (absolutely something that has to be done, there’s strong passion to do it, self-assesses* that it is a strong skill).

*Self assessed skills are different than how others perceive one’s abilities. If unsure, do a 360-feedback survey with your team or seek outside help!

An optional third step is to color code each row to visually identify hats that are critical to wear (red), not urgent but important (yellow) and the hats that are satisfactory at this time (green).

I’ve created two charts below – before and after – as examples of how a CEO of a post series A startup with modest revenue might perform this exercise:

BEFORE

In the above example, the rows in green show where the CEO is satisfied with their current involvement (“hat wearing”). The rows in yellow are places where they need to adjust their involvement, but not urgent. The two red rows are urgent and where the CEO wants to put their focus. 

  • In the case of Culture & Process, the CEO only rates their hat wearing as a “2” and there are serious issues in the organization to address. The CEO has identified what is going on in the “HTD Achieved/Needed When…” column which requires them to put on the hat and what actions they will take to ensure they are wearing that hat at least at a “4” (HTD Future). 
  • In the second case, the CEO knows the Back Office work is important, but does not want to do back office work, nor do they feel they are good at it. Thus, they are working to remove the Back Office hat and reducing their involvement from a 4 to a 1. In this case, the bullets in the “HTD Achieved/Needed When…” column clarify what will be happening when the CEO has officially taken off that hat, moving it to a “1” (HTD Future).

Identifying what hats need wearing – and how firmly to wear/remove said hats – is step one. Taking actions to add or remove the hat(s) is step two. In the case of ramping up on Culture & Process noted above, the CEO would kick off the action items and set a timeframe of when they would be able to remove that hat. They would then update the chart to be clear what will need to be in place for them to remove/loosen that hat. Similar with Back Office work, once the key actions are achieved, the chart is updated to reflect that the Back Office hat no longer needs wearing. The updated chart may look like this:

AFTER

With the updates above, the CEO has removed their Back Office hat and is firmly wearing the Culture & Process hat. They can now continue to focus on the Culture & Process hat until it can be taken off (“1”). They can also decide which of the two yellow rows – Product and Talent & Development – they want to focus on next while the other areas of the business require less of their attention. 

Most CEOs who follow this process use months or quarters to time-box focused efforts and update the charts, but it all depends on how one works and how fast change is happening inside the organization. Choose what works best for you!

No Recipe Is Perfect

The exercise above is one way of thinking about how to balance many hats a CEO – or any leader of a large team – might wear. There’s no perfect algorithm and while one might aim to only wear a maximum of two hats at a time, there will be times when many hats will have to be worn. I’ve also seen CEOs who find that once they’ve mastered a new skill, the hat they didn’t want to wear is actually one that they enjoyed wearing more than they expected.

There are of course sometimes when CEOs realize that no matter how much training, coaching or mentoring they get, they are not able to wear any of the hats well or they just don’t enjoy wearing them. This is often when the company is achieving a level of scale that requires more experience than the CEO’s own professional experience. Some CEOs recognize this and work with their boards to find a successor, but sometimes this can be a decision taken out of a CEO’s hands when their board/investors decide the business can’t wait for the CEO to grow into the role. I’ve also seen many CEOs who find a great partner (President or COO) to run the business with them and augment some of the skills they have yet to or want to master. This not only keeps the company on the rails, but gives the CEO a role model to learn from along the way.

Conclusion

CEOs should be performing a regular assessment of where their time is focused, identify measurable results when changes are made and what actions to take to get there. Even a simple visual like the Before and After on the balance wheels below can kick start the process. Identifying what the current focus areas are (before) and where should they be (after).

No matter how a leader decides to assess and prioritize their hats, leaning into the balancing process will likely mitigate stress and potential burnout. What processes have you seen that are effective towards balancing hat wearing? Please share in the comments! Meanwhile, if you are thinking about trying this exercise, I have created a google sheet template for anyone to use to start this process. Feel free to save a copy of the template for yourself and dig in!

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NOTE: The balancing hat illustration at the top of this article was created by my daughter, Amelia Austin and is copy-written.

Testing Leadership During Trying Times

The stress created by the global spread of the Coronavirus is an opportune time to take stock of how leaders, well….lead. Now more than ever, employees are looking to their leadership teams for strength, guidance and direction. Some leaders may have already had led their teams through storms — perhaps financial, operational, or otherwise — and are tapping into what they learned prior. However, many are leading through a storm for the first time and are being tested.

In the early days of Akamai circa 1999, ~200 of us were learning how to run what was then called the world wide web and manage a newly public company. Many of us were learning how to lead at scale and at an extreme pace with little-to-no experience. One of our founders was an academic, one a business school student and the other a computer scientist. The C-suite included seasoned leadership from outside the company, but it was the founders who were setting the tone for leadership across the organization — especially the computer scientist (Danny Lewin, RIP) who regularly tapped into his military background as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces. He could be abrasive at times, barking out orders and demanding our attention to mastery, but he was smart as f-ck and his passion for the company was infectious, so we obeyed and tolerated his occasional tirades.

Before 9/11, the company was undergoing tremendous scale challenges while the internet bubble was showing signs of an impending burst. Danny knew we were all feeling the strain and one day decided an inspirational message was in order to rally the troops. The company was distributed across the globe — in the time before Zoom or Hangouts. So, he wrote a long email to the entire company about leadership that today most of us who were leading at that time can summarize in three main points:

To inspire trust: Lead by Example

To build trust among teammates: Suffer Together

To restore trust when it weakens: Hold People Accountable

When September 11, 2001 hit us hard both personally and as a business, most of us had never managed teams through a crisis. So, when the world was in crisis (and we lost Danny on the first plane that hit the towers), the points he made about leadership were absolutely brought to light. We did our best to lead by example, we suffered together and we held ourselves and each other accountable. The trust built among our teams was like no other I had experienced and many of those young leaders — some of my dearest friends — are now master leaders of teams and companies; quite surely in part from what we all experienced together in 2001.

With the world in crisis today, leaders should consider Danny’s advice.

  • Lead by Example: If you tell people to self-isolate and work from home, then you too should work from home. If you are restricting travel for employees, abide by those same restrictions. If team members are clueless about how to work effectively from home, demonstrate how it’s done or appoint experienced employees as mentors to guide the newbs. If you expect people to communicate clearly and often, do the same. During times of confusion and ambiguity, leaders are the guiding light — even if the only thing you can say is “I don’t know”. Being vulnerable and not having all the answers can be as powerful as having a perfect plan. It also allows others to do the same.
  • Suffer Together: Now more than ever is when teams need empathy; that you’re in this together. Employees are not just worried about personal illness; they are worried about their family, trips they have planned in the future, their personal finances and how business will fare during a volatile time. No one will be unscathed from this current crisis. You are all suffering together. Create forums for people to talk with each other, offer support and listen. Even if many people in your organization do not get sick or have ill family members, they are dealing with a crisis that is very real. The news and social media is in their faces and they will not ignore it. Accept this and share your own worries and concerns. Show your vulnerabilities and they will do the same. From my 9/11 experience, I can say that crying with co-workers was one of the most transformational moments in my career. No matter our differences, we had a shared experience that strengthened ties and allowed us to rise to the challenge and succeed.
  • Hold People Accountable: Times of crisis are when leaders show their true colors. Great business leaders during tough times are decisive and put the company, their employees, their customers and investors ahead of themselves. They are not seeking friends or trying to win a popularity contest and may make unfavorable decisions. Decisions like closing the office, cancelling a conference or back-burnering projects to accommodate business disruptions are not consensus building exercises. Decide and move forward. Once those tough calls are made, communicate very clearly who is accountable to execute on next steps. Set clear expectations on how everyone is expected to move forward; including communication protocols (cadence, timing and audience). Employees want leaders who can make calls — especially during tough times — even if they don’t like the decision.

If you are old-hat at dealing with times of crisis, reach out to the less experienced leaders in your network and offer a hand. If you are a first-timer, seek counsel from mentors, coaches and peers. You don’t need to figure this all out on your own. This is not time for heroics. Great leaders get help. We’ll get through this, just like we have in the past, and we’ll be ready for the next one. Be safe, lead…and wash your hands!

Are You Being Strategic About Hiring?

If I had a nickel for every time I get an email or text asking if I know any full stack developers for hire, I could cover the cost of my next trip to SF. I’m also struck by the number of founders who say they’re raising more money simply because they need more engineers to code, yet they do not have a good hiring strategy.

For decades, there have been books and articles about building engineering teams. The infamous book The Mythical Man Month, by Fred Brooks should be on every software engineer and tech startup leader’s reading list (It should also be re-titled either “The Mythical Person Month” OR “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month”…just sayin’). There are also many blog posts explaining why full stack engineers are unicorns. Yet, when I did my latest poll on twitter on top hiring priorities this is the response:

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Sure, it’s fine to look for a generalist [or augmenting your team with an outsourced dev shop] to get basic stuff done, but being more strategic about your hiring process, is what could be the difference between a great product in the market vs. something basic that is slow to ship. Below are some tips on how to be more strategic about hiring:

  • Product prioritization leads to hiring prioritization: If you’re doing proper product prioritization via discovery – talking with customers and understanding what you need to get to product market fit or grow adoption – then these priorities set the hiring agenda. For example, if you’re realizing that your on-boarding process is too complicated, then hiring a User Experience (UX) person may serve you far better than someone who can code a fresh UI. If performance issues are causing churn, then hire a performance engineer; someone who knows how to diagnose and fix performance issues. Just like you are building a product to solve for the job to be done, hire the engineer for the development job to be done. 
  • Understand the roles: Do you understand the difference between a front end developer vs. designer vs. UX expert? (if you don’t, read this) Are you fluent enough in your architecture to know what type of engineer should be building which elements of your product? Many early stage companies are started by engineers who know exactly what they’re doing, but many are biased in the areas of which they are most familiar, even if that is the suboptimal choice for their current products. I’ve seen products built with .NET simply because the seasoned engineer-founder knows that platform best, without considering whether it is the best platform for their product and/or whether they’ll be able to hire engineers who are skilled in .NET (or want to learn it) to build it at scale. I’ve also seen many startups default to the language of choice for the full stack engineer they found to build their first prototype and then let that language dictate future work as their product gets market fit and scales. This rarely works out, unless that first engineer is a ringer, and most of the time the reality of having to refactor your entire codebase or port to a new language hangs over the product team…forever. 
  • Long term need vs. short term fix: Another common mistake is hiring a full time expert in an area that only needs occasional work. E.g., Performance engineering. Certainly, if you’re building a complex, distributed, application that has heavy computation or many API calls, then a performance engineer is a critical full time hire. However, it may behoove you to find a good contract engineer who specializes in performance tuning as needed; at least until you’re operating at scale. Same thing for a designer – unless you’re at scale and adding new features/products at a steady clip, then a contract designer may be prudent while you iterate on your MVP. You may pay a little more per hour for these contractors, but that far outweighs over hiring and paying a full time salary early on. 
  • Time Delay + J-curve: Just because you have cash in hand to hire, doesn’t mean you will find and hire the right people right away AND each time you add a new person to the team, there will likely be a j-curve impact on productivity.
    Screen Shot 2019-06-03 at 1.47.59 PM.png
    Therefore, when you prioritize hiring, factor in how long* some roles will take to fill (e.g., we don’t need a designer for a few months, but it could take three months just to find the right person) and be thoughtful about the cadence of adding new people to any team. Adding a bunch of new engineers at once is not going to accelerate development over night. Each time a new person comes on board, it’s disruptive to team’s flow – and this is not just about training them. It disrupts the whole
    dynamic of the team. If you’re doing a lot of hiring over a discrete period of time, set the right expectations (with yourself, your company and your investors) that a ramp in hiring will likely slow things down until new teams settle into new norms. If the ramp is constant, by the way, your teams will never settle into a groove leading to employee dissatisfaction, high turnover, product delays, etc.

    *This delay should also be considered in the budget exercise for these roles. Don’t front-load salary expenses for open jobs that may take weeks or months to fill. 
  • Humans are not robots: Hiring is hard, and even when you get really good at it, at the end of the day these hires are human beings that have their own unique needs, past-job baggage and career aspirations. Their added productivity, how they diversify and/or add to your culture is only part of the consideration. Having a strategy to prioritize manager, team time and money for their human needs (benefits, HR support, a strong on-boarding experience, ongoing training and mentorship, etc.) is just as important as having a strategy to prioritize these hires! 
  • Apply the 80-20 rule: A great product leader will tell you that if you invest 80% of effort to understand the problem, it should result in 20% effort to build the right solution. The same applies to hiring. If you take 80% of your effort to develop a great hiring strategy and program, it should lead to 20% of the effort to bring great people on board and retain them for the long term. 

There’s a severe opportunity cost that comes with bringing on the wrong people and/or at the wrong time and not having the right people programs in place. Even if you are a tiny early stage company, having to let someone go, or having them quit, and finding a replacement not only stresses out the manager and team, but there is a productivity hit to all while you go through the process. Even though it may feel like you’re moving slowly through the process of building a team, a strategic approach will pay off.

You can read more about my thoughts on hiring for startups here. Please share other ideas on this topic in the comments!

Beyond Their Funds, How Can Your Investors Be Helpful?

An entrepreneur recently said to me “When it gets really hard, I feel like I’m doing it wrong.” She went on to say that sometimes she’s not sure how her investors could be helpful — even if it’s just validating what’s hard vs. advising on how to work through certain challenges. I’ve heard other entrepreneurs say they’d like to get help from their investors but worry that purely by asking for help it will signal a weakness. Conversely, I’ve heard investors say they wish the leaders of their portfolio companies would be more transparent about challenges they are facing and ask for help. As one investor said to me recently, “They already sold me on the business and have our money. It’s now our firm’s job to help them succeed.”

In an informal Twitter poll I recently conducted, 56% of entrepreneurs who responded said their most common ask of their investors is for hiring help. Second to that (31%) are asks for introductions to potential partners or customers and a small percentage (13%) tap their investors for financial management advice.

I also polled my investor friends on what questions they like to get from their portfolio companies. What they shared made it clear to me that they can and want to be helpful well beyond their funds!

“Good entrepreneurs are learning machines so they’re always asking for advice and guidance from multiple sources of expertise, including their investors. In fact, the best founders are outstanding at squeezing every bit of insight, advice and contacts from their network of investors and advisers.“ Jeff Bussgang, Flybridge Capital

Do you know how to get the most from your investors? Below, I have outlined what I consider to be basic asks (table stakes) as well as suggestions for deeper asks.

What To Ask For

Hiring

Table Stakes:

  • Referrals and warm introductions
  • Posting job links on their websites
  • Invitations to recruiting events

Beyond the Basics:

  • Seek examples of job descriptions (JDs) and/or critiques of those you’ve written. Most investors were operators once and have a good sense of how to write a good JD; they may also have a recruiting arm at their firm who can counsel you on specific searches. [See point on compensation in Financials, below]
  • New to hiring? Practice interviewing candidates with investors or their associates before bringing actual candidates in for the real interview.
  • Resume screening can be an easy ask and a quick job for someone who’s seen 100’s if not 1000’s of resumes. Experienced eyes can point out immediate red flags and give you specific areas you may want to probe for a particular candidate.
  • Invite an investor to help diversify an otherwise homogeneous interview team. This can be a game changer for a candidate who may otherwise feel like they are a token hire. Knowing the extended team around the business is diverse, can allay these concerns.
  • Ask your investors to help sell the business to prospective candidates. This can be especially critical if you’re trying to hire a senior team member or a start-up first-timer.

    “This is something we continue to do, even with mid-level hires in mid-stage companies when the founder feels like a highly desirable candidate could use an extra push. It’s not a huge burden on our side, but can have a very strong positive impression on the candidate who probably feels like getting board/investor visibility is a strong positive in their career development. “ Rob Go, NextView Ventures

  • Investors can also be helpful offering insights on how your company is perceived as a workplace from their own perspective or from feedback they’ve garnered in the market. (people talk…)
  • Finally, but very carefully, investors may be able to help you get backdoor references on potential hires. I wrote more about this particular topic here. Backdoor references can be helpful, but only if done right!

Marketing, Sales & Partnerships

Table Stakes:

  • Introductions to potential customers and/or partners
  • Putting your company logo on their website; putting their firm’s logo/board member on your website
  • Invitations to marketing & sales events
  • Tapping their social media presence for sharing news and events

Beyond the Basics:

  • Investors look at markets all day, every day, and have an objective perspective on not just current market forces, but patterns over time and how markets move and customers buy. They may not know your specific market details or the intimate buying patterns of your target customer, but as Bob Mason of Project11 says “We often ask the right questions informed by our opportunity to step out of the day to day urgency of running the business. We have enough knowledge to understand the big market forces, see patterns from other businesses and can help drive an engaged dialogue. For the engineering-centric founders, you can think about this as ‘debugging’ an issue. When coding, you might bang your head for hours trying to find the root cause of a hard bug. But you bring over a colleague and talk through the situation and often a solution will appear. They didn’t tell you the answer, but the process of conversation brought insight to your mind.”
  • Whether you are building an enterprise product and need access to a buyer inside a potential large customer or trying to develop partnerships for your business (B2B or B2C), investors can provide invaluable insights on what drives particular companies, who the “real” decision makers are and how their buy/partnership process works. They can reach out to execs at companies and get an early feel as to how important such a potential deal or relationship could be.
  • Investors are generally good at analyzing marketing or sales funnels. If they are former marketers or sales people, they should be able to help you understand the “magic moment”, points of stickiness, drop off, etc.. They also won’t have the biases you likely bring to the table and can look at the numbers objectively.
  • Investors can be helpful with developing your company and product story as well as speak with folks in the industry to see how the story resonates.
  • Beyond offering advice on digital marketing and leveraging social media, your investors may also be helpful with brand awareness and offer PR opportunities. Perhaps they are sponsoring an event where you or a key member of your team can be a speaker? If one of your investors is a blogger, ask for a mention in their next blog post about a topic you’ve been discussing, or perhaps even a guest blog spot. Be creative about how your investors can help shine a light on your brand, product and team!

Product

Table Stakes:

  • If they can use your product as a firm or as individuals, they better be using it! Whether it’s for testing the MVP or to dogfood the brand, no excuses. There’s nothing more compelling than an investor who offers you a cup of coffee made with one of their portfolio company’s new beans or the investor who has a “powered by” one of their companies on their website. Have you asked your investors to use your product?
  • When asked (or not), investors never lack for advice on how your product can improve. Just remember, you are in it every day, they are not. So, always weigh that advice against what your team is discovering with your customers and progress accordingly.

Beyond the Basics:

  • If your investor is a former operator, especially at an early stage company, odds are they have built/tested many an MVP. Engage them in the MVP discussion. Review product priorities and test plans. Again, their objectivity and experience could give you a fresh perspective. This will also help them understand the tradeoff decisions you are making and can be very informative when it comes to strategic thinking about the company’s product roadmap and long term direction.
  • Speaking of roadmaps, if you’ve got a former head of product or VPE on your investor team, invite them to a planning session. Same reasons as above — fresh perspective and added insight when it comes to bigger picture discussions.
  • Security and compliance is an area often overlooked and where investors can probably draw on their own or other resources to ensure your company doesn’t get tripped up on a sale or regulatory issue because an “I” was not dotted or “T” crossed. They may have access to pen testers or be familiar with compliance requirements for things like PIAHIPPA or SOX through other portfolio companies’ experiences; even if it’s just asking when to worry about it vs. holding off on investing in this work.
  • Also helpful is tapping investors’ technical EiRs and/or network. When I was CTO at DigitalOcean, it was amazing to have someone like Martin Casado at a16z, our lead investor, to bounce ideas off of and even help us with some tricky architecture decisions. Similarly, my friend Jocelyn Goldfein of Zetta Venture Partners said she’s often tapped by her portfolio companies to help with developing data strategies and answer questions about data rights. Know who the experts are in these firms and they’ll probably love the opportunity to get into the details with you since it’s no longer their day job.

People

Table Stakes:

  • If they are involved with financial planning, investors should be helpful with basic headcount and organizational growth plans (what roles to fill, how many and when)
  • Investors are generally not shy about telling you (sometimes unsolicited) if they think a key employee they are interacting with is great, needs coaching or may not be successful in your organization. Just remember, if you have a board, other than the CEO, they don’t make hiring or firing decisions. That’s your job.

Beyond the Basics:

  • Whether they were former operators, or have just seen a large number of companies operate, investors can give helpful insight around people and culture. You can ask how to work through team challenges, enhance your company culture or even how to make remote teams work. If they’re not the experts in these areas, they likely have companies in their portfolios who are doing creative things or who maybe learned from mistakes and are willing to share tips and tricks to avoid pitfalls as you scale.
  • While it may make you feel vulnerable, asking your investors for guidance around your own personal development demonstrates your willingness to grow — especially if you are a first-time CEO, or other member of the C-Suite. I’ve seen investors coach leaders on everything from how to lead their teams and handle challenging employees to how to run a great board meeting. I’ve also seen investors support and sometimes even pay for executive coaches and training programs for high-potential leaders.

    “Drop your shields, if you think asking for advice or help from your investors is showing signs of weakness you have it all wrong. Your investors are by definition already on your side and any problem you are facing or any area of growth where you think they may be able to contribute to or connect you to someone who can be helpful, go for it. I want leaders to ask me ‘what am I doing wrong, where can I level up?’” Reed Sturtevant, The Engine

  • Beyond headcount and budgets, investors with experience leading teams at scale can be very helpful with how to think about organizational design through various stages of growth. Investors can also have a really good sense of leveling across organizations and have seen a lot of creative approaches used across companies.

Financials

Table Stakes:

  • Investment checks
  • Future rounds  —  financing strategy, valuation, etc.

Beyond the Basics:

  • It’s never too soon to get “budget religion”, especially if you have a capital-intensive business where you need to figure out working capital, financing with manufacturing, etc.. Ask for guidance on how best to manage your funds as well as how to track burn and prepare data for future financing to make the diligence process easier for new investors. They may even have models or frameworks other portfolio companies use that you can borrow.
  • Not sure whether your compensation packages are competitive or fair? Or how to think about equity vs. salary splits? Comping your sales team? Your investors have probably seen many different configurations and can help you get creative if you’re trying to land a key hire or to retain and motivate your current team.
  • Other financial areas where investors can be helpful are ways to think about marketing spend as a ratio of investment in engineering or sales/revenue, pricing models and tax considerations.

In all of the above cases, if your investors can’t help you directly, odds are very high that they know someone who can. Good investors won’t expect you, especially if you are a first-time founder, to figure it out all by yourself. For me personally, I always appreciate the humility that comes from anyone who knows what they don’t know and asks for help. It is impossible for anyone to know everything!

How To Ask

There are three ways I think every founder should interact with their investors outside of board meetings (if you have them).

  1. Investor update emails are always a good vehicle for asks. If you’re not sure if anyone on the investment team can be helpful, be specific: “Looking for advice on digital marketing strategies.” or “Would love to talk with someone in your network who can advise my team on HIPPA compliance.”.
  2. Routine 1:1 calls or meetings are a must. This establishes a good touchpoint with investors to establish a rapport and catch up informally instead of waiting for a crisis or issue to arise as a reason for a call. I suggest you always have at least one ask for these meetings and always follow up with a quick email with that ask in writing.
  3. Identify at least one domain area where each investor may serve you best (e.g., I am usually the go-to person for product & engineering or organizational planning for my angel investments and advisees). When the needs arise, set up face-time to dig into that specific topic with that investor.

Remember, your investors are not just here to provide cash. They are invested in you and your company’s success. As Jason Seats of TechStars says, when in doubt, “pretend that they are not an investor and figure out what you’d ask them. If you can’t come up with anything, they may not be a good investor for you.” This can also be a nice hack around targeting the right investors from the start.

Have other examples of ways your investors have been helpful beyond their funds? Please share in the comments.

 

Go Big, Or Go…Startup

big Fish Little Fish

Image source unknown

A common career advice question I get all the time is what the tradeoffs are between going to a startup vs. going to a big company. There are many things to consider and lots of “it depends” when it comes to where you are in your career, where you live etc., but when it comes to the general aspects of a startup vs. mature company, most of the situations don’t vary that much. I’ve done both, several times, so here’s a perspective on the tradeoffs based on my own experiences.

Startup vs. Mature Company

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(c) 2018 Julia B Austin

Putting aside for a moment industry and how you feel about the products the company is building (both of which are very important!), most of the differences between a startup vs. a mature company are pretty obvious. In a mature company, you will likely have more role models to learn from and stronger teams to collaborate with, a clear direction and a mature board. The role you consider may have a narrow scope, but could offer deeper learning and of course great benefits, compensation, etc.. You’ll also get exposure to what good (or bad) looks like at scale and possibly a nice brand for your resume.

Startups can offer a chance to do “all the things” which can be either a blessing or a curse depending on your interests. You may miss out on having peers to collaborate with, have to look outside of your company for mentors and role models or have limited budget to get stuff done, but you may get high value equity in exchange for lower than market-level pay. If you want to dig more into deciding which startup to join, I suggest Jeff Bussgang’s book Entering Startupland which goes deep on the different roles at startups and how to get your foot in the door.

Leadership

One thing often overlooked when considering a new job is the leadership of the company. Serial entrepreneurs will have a very different approach than someone who has limited real-world experience and mature company executive teams can be world class or “legacy” leaders who can’t move with the times. There are many tradeoffs when factoring in leadership into the decision process of startup vs. a mature company.

Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 10.55.10 AM

(c) 2018 Julia B Austin

Startup founded by serial entrepreneurs: This can often be the best case scenario if you want to learn from those who have “seen the movie before”. They likely had no issue raising money and were selective on who their investors were and who sits on their board. They will know how to get the flywheel moving incited by past mistakes OR failures.

“When I started my fifth company I knew exactly how I wanted to build the team. So, on day one I hired a head of recruiting to get things off to a strong start. I also knew market adoption would be critical to fundraising so focused on growth very early on – before we even had a product!” – David Cancel, CEO & Co-Founder Drift

Serial entrepreneurs may also try to overcorrect in areas where they failed the first time, such as over analyzing or delaying decisions, being too conservative on cash flow or focusing too much on scalability too early in the product development process. If you’re interviewing with a serial entrepreneur, it’s always good to ask what lessons they learned in their last startup and how they’re bringing those lessons into their new venture.

“I joined Drift in part because I wanted to learn from the experience of the co-founders. They’ve seen it before so they anticipate issues, they know when (and how) to hire experts to level up the team, and they know what’s “normal” for a hypergrowth company. It’s the best of both worlds: you get the rollercoaster startup experience with some of the more measured leadership and strategic characteristics of a bigger company.” – Maggie Crowley, Product Manager Drift

Industry veterans doing their first startup: Founders coming from mature companies with no startup experience can have big company confidence, be great at hiring and leading teams, but lack scrappiness to get a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) out the door and work towards product market fit.

“At our first startup after a series of roles at large enterprise software companies, we tried to force a big company perspective on how we did employee feedback and reviews. We were too structured with this initially and quickly cut back to a more loose feedback and review process with our team.” Izzy Azeri & Dan Belcher, Co-Founders Mabl

They may also be too used to having teams of people and systems in place to cover the more mundane duties of running a company and don’t want to get their hands dirty. On the flip side, they often know how to implement those processes and know the people to hire to run them so once the flywheel is moving and cash is in-hand, they can get momentum quickly.

“Earlier in my career, I hired a small team within a large corporation that was scrappy and had entrepreneurial mentality. At my startup, I quickly realized the benefit of once having a corporation behind me when things weren’t working out. The impact of a bad decision or process was much greater with no safety net.” – Karen Young, CEO & Founder Oui Shave

Startup with limited leadership experience: Working with a skilled group of founders leading teams for the first time can be tons of fun. If you bring some experience to the table, it can be very gratifying to not only work from the ground up, but also work alongside these founders as they grow. However, it can be frustrating if you find yourself figuring out things on your own because there’s no one in the company to mentor you. These situations can be very rewarding if you’re patient and you can always get outside mentors and advisors if they’re not available at this type of startup.

“When we started, we got a lot of advice like: stay focused, don’t expand too quickly, be careful that experienced hires match your culture.  All good advice, but we discovered there’s no real substitute for learning the hard way. The lesson just doesn’t sink in until you feel the pain of doing it wrong.” Wombi Rose, CEO & Co-Founder LovePop

Mature company with inexperienced leadership: If they made it this far, they are either wicked smart, lucky or both! More likely they also have surrounded themselves with strong, experienced leaders, investors and/or board members. You can learn a lot from joining a company like this, but they are very, very rare! When companies scale too fast, they can also suffer from having people in roles that have outgrown their experience. Read more about the impact of Hypergrowth situations written by my friend at Reboot, Khalid Halim, for First Round.

Mature companies with experienced leadership: These organizations have all the standard things you’d expect. Probably more politics and process than you’d ever find at a startup, but the benefit of exposure to great role models and best practices can be invaluable. Sometimes, these bigger companies can also expose you to the “dark side” of leadership and processes which are also great learnings on what not to do in your next job or company you may start yourself.

Which comes first in your journey?

For those doing early career path planning and knowing they want to do both a startup and a mature company at some point, there’s always the question of which should come first. Hiring managers at early stage companies can get “spooked” when they see someone with too much time (5+ years) at mature companies; questioning whether the candidate will be able to transition to startup life. Not that it’s impossible, but it’s something to consider. For these candidates, I suggest highlighting any scrappy “ground zero” work they may have done at their companies to demonstrate they can handle ambiguity and take risks. I am also a huge (and very biased) fan of people who’ve joined companies early and scaled with them. They have learned a TON from those experiences and can often start scrappy, but know how to operate at scale. Win-win.

Conversely, someone with a lot of startup experience may have a hard time adjusting to mature company. A hiring manager at a mature company may question whether a candidate with only startup experience can handle a slower pace or won’t know how to navigate a complex organizational structure that requires political and communication savvy. You may have to sacrifice title and maybe some salary to get a foot into larger institutions who may view your past role, which may have been very senior at a startup, to being pretty junior if those around you have decades more experience. However, I always find those with startup experience can be invaluable to a team that needs to be shaken up, take more risks or explore new ground. Often, those who sacrifice title and pay when they joined, make it up fast as they move up the chain in a larger organization.

There’s no right or wrong place to start. A lot depends on how you define your skills and how willing and patient you are in either case to adjust. Much can depend on who hires you and their management philosophy. I’ve seen some people bounce between both types of situations over and over, some that just can’t handle startup life, and others who have startups in their DNA and should just stick with that world 🙂

“At a startup, every job matters and you can see almost daily that you are creating something that wasn’t there before. You have the ability to learn quickly and have a fast feedback loop to let you know how you’re doing. It’s very different working at an established company vs a startup, but you can learn a lot at both – you’ll just learn very different things.” – Rebecca Liebman, CEO & Co-Founder LearnLux

Questions To Ask

Regardless of whether you are a seasoned veteran or fresh out of school, as you ponder whether you want to join a startup or a mature company here are some final things to consider:

  • What tools do you want to add to your toolbox? Will the role allow you to hone skills you already have or add new ones?
  • Who do you want to learn from, and how do you want to learn? You can learn from experienced colleagues and mentors, but having bad role models can also teach you a lot about what not to do. Similarly, if you are an experienced hire coming into a company started by inexperienced founders, you may want to learn by mentoring or teaching these young leaders. Taking the skills you’ve developed over your career and applying them to a new situation in itself can be a very enlightening experience.
  • Who do you want to work with? How important is the size and culture of the team you’ll work with? Remember, you’ll probably spend more waking hours of the day with these people than anyone else in your life – regardless of the size and nature of the company you join.
  • What do you value? At the end of the day, love what you do and decide what role will allow you to maintain the integrity of who you are and who you aspire to be!

Do you have other tips on how to decide whether to join a startup vs. a mature company? Please share in the comments!

Mastering The Team Meeting

No matter how much we hate going to meetings, there’s a generally accepted best practice that teams should meet with their manager as a group on a regular cadence. More often than not, I hear leaders and/or their staff dreading their team meeting. Instead of these meetings being the least favorite time suck of the week, wouldn’t it be great if these were the meetings we looked forward to? That we felt it was time well spent with our colleagues and added value to our roles in some meaningful way?

There’s no reason you have to suffer or make your teams suffer through another tortuous hour or more. A while back, I shared protips on Mastering the 1:1. Now, herewith my tips on Mastering the team meeting…

Meeting Purpose: Set a clear purpose for your team meeting. What do you want your team to get out of the time spent together? Do you want them to stay informed about larger topics in the organization? Get to know each other and their respective work better? Whether you are rebooting a long standing meeting or you are a new leader of a team gearing up for your first routine meeting, talk with your team members about what they want out of the session. This time is much more about their needs than yours, so align the purpose with their needs. A fun way to get this dialogue going is to ask each team member to complete this sentence: “My favorite meeting of the week is my manager’s team meeting because……” What would they say?

Agenda: I am a firm believer that if a meeting is important enough to have, it should have a time-boxed agenda and always be followed up with notes and action items (“AIs”). Protips on setting the agenda:

  1. As the team leader, you should solicit 1-2 “hot” topics per meeting from your team. I recommend you do this no more and no less than 48 hours before it is scheduled so ideas are timely and content is fresh. Topics should not be tactical – that’s what stand-ups and 1:1s are for. Instead, focus on strategic discussions and information sharing. On the latter, do not make it a status reporting meeting. Information sharing could be a product demo, or draft of a presentation someone is preparing for a conference or a preview of a big announcement to solicit feedback before it goes out.
  2. Always send the agenda for the meeting 24 hours in advance. This sets expectations and ensures no surprises and attendees are well prepared.
  3. Prepping for the meeting should take less than 15 minutes. Solicit agenda items – prepare agenda – communicate agenda. Long slide decks and spreadsheets created just FOR the meeting is a total waste of time. If those materials already exist and can add value to the discussion, then owners of said content should A) share these materials ahead of the meeting for pre-reading and B) bring said materials with them and be prepared to share them at the meeting.
  4. Lead by example for your team and read all materials sent in advance before the meeting. If you have not read them, no one else will and again, you’re wasting people’s time. If you’re prepared, everyone else will be prepared.
  5. Finally, always carve out 10 minutes at the end of the agenda to take a pulse on your team. My method is “share thumbs at one”. Three, two, one and on one have everyone in the meeting give a thumbs up, down or sideways. I do a quick read of the room and video screens to gauge if we’re trending in a particular direction and, if so, take time to discuss. People feeling really up? Share why! People feeling down? How can we work together to make things better? This simple, transparent, way of sharing how the team is feeling is a great way for you to lead and for them to support each other. I also find doing this at the end vs. the start of a meeting tends to be a better read because no one is bringing the stress from a prior meeting into their pulse check.

Meeting Engagement: No one wants to listen to a monologue at the team meeting and no one wants to be in a meeting with other people who are checked out. Several protips to avoid this:

  1. Ask 1-2 members of your team to take the lead on the hot topics in each meeting. They do not need to be the experts on the topic, just the topic leader. This includes having them facilitate getting pre-reads to team members ahead of the meeting. The more they have ownership in a topic, the more engaged they’ll be.
  2. The team’s leader should not speak more than ⅓ of the time throughout the meeting. Other than updating your team about broad company topics, your job is to facilitate the discussion and LISTEN. If you’re a bad facilitator (not every leader’s strong suit), then appoint or bring someone in to facilitate. I’ve seen everything from EAs and HR leaders to program managers serve as facilitators of meetings – they keep the meeting on topic, on time and pay attention to the room. I don’t recommend one of your team members be the facilitator – they are there as an engaged participant, only.
  3. READ THE ROOM. Are people reading their email, checked out on a remote phone or video line or rolling their eyes at each other (visibly or under the table on their cells via text…)? Pay attention to what’s happening in the meeting and pause if you see this kind of behavior. If you’re losing people, you’re wasting everyone’s time and you’re costing the company money. (do the math, the average team meeting can cost a company thousands of dollars every week!). Tell people to put their phones or laptops away if they are checked out. Ask people called in remotely if they have anything to add to the conversation. Pull them in. If the topic is falling flat, be direct and ask why or solicit suggestions on how to make it more engaging. E.g., budget discussions are rarely engaging so even a simple “bare with me as we get through this” can go a long way.
  4. Have fun! It’s great to start a meeting with a funny anecdote or personal story to wake up the room. Maybe someone on your team has a good customer story or had someone on their team get a “win” worth sharing. Perhaps you have a fun personal story to share that shows your human side. Keep it light where you can, but serious during some of the tougher topics (budget, staffing, etc.). This fortifies the culture of your team both inside and outside of the meeting.

Tactical Stuff: When you meet and who goes to the meeting is just as important as the agenda and the content. Protips:

  1. Timing: Got a distributed team in multiple timezones? Find a time that’s mutually convenient for all team members. Do you find the meetings always run over? Schedule it for an extra 30 minutes and if it ends early, everyone gets time back – you’re a hero. Does the team have family responsibilities in the morning or after work? Don’t schedule the meeting such that it disrupts their lives outside of work (if it can be avoided). I also generally discourage team meetings on Mondays (frequent holidays/long weekends means rescheduling or skipping too often) and Fridays (long weekends and if hard topics, no time to debrief/process offline before the weekend).
  2. Decision making: If a meeting has >8 people attending, it is an “information sharing” meeting. Less than that, and decisions can be made at the meeting. If you have a team greater than 8 people, tee up decision topics for discussion and, unless it’s a layup, take the actual decision off line. Otherwise, there are “too many cooks”.
  3. Assign and rotate a note taker at every meeting. You and/or the facilitator cannot read the room and take notes at the same time. Further, by rotating the role across your team, you foster engagement and get fresh perspectives on the meetings each time. Notes should be distributed no later than 24 hours after the meeting while things are fresh. Always call out AIs with owners and deadlines in the notes.
  4. Guests: An agenda should always build in intros for guests and should be time-boxed for cameos. For example, if the head of HR is a guest at your meeting to talk through the next review cycle with your team, the team should know that person will be there and why. Further, unless there’s scheduling trickiness, have guests come at the start or end of the meeting so as not to disrupt the meeting with people coming and going throughout. My personal preference is guests at the start. Then we get into our regular routine.

Most important, don’t set it and forget it. If you do change things up, be clear on why you’re doing it and give it time to settle. Starting or overhauling your meeting process won’t necessarily show positive results the very next meeting and changing it too often will not only cause unrest with your team, but can create distrust if the rules of engagement keep changing. Have at least 4-6 meetings for a new routine to set in and then evaluate whether the changes are effective and adjust as needed. Solicit feedback from your team regularly too – after all, it’s their meeting!

Do you run a kick ass team meeting? Or, do you have ideas on how to improve the team meetings you attend? Share your protips in the comments!

The War For (Diverse) Teams At Early Stage Companies…and Beyond

Note: Diversity is a term used 30+ times in this piece and refers to all types of diversity, beyond just gender.

In 2004, there was a post-bubble burst resurgence of well funded startups and VMware, like many other companies in the Silicon Valley, was struggling to compete for talent against Google, Yahoo and others in their space. The hot conversation in the weekly e-staff meeting in Palo Alto was about maintaining the bar and hiring the very best talent they could find. This was well before diversity and inclusion was trending as a hiring pain point. There was a war on talent.

To combat this war, the leadership team at VMware got creative. There was an urgency to bring on talent and just competing on compensation and equity wasn’t enough when that talent pool itself was sparse. So, leveraging ties to several of the team members’ east coast roots, they tried an experiment and opened an office in Cambridge, MA.

As the Site Director hired to build out that office at the start of 2005, I was charged with bringing on at least a dozen engineers by the end of the year. I had strict guidance on who to hire first;  the first six hires had to be at least a Staff level engineer, which at that time was like a Principal at most other companies. Even though we were desperate to bring on more talent, the leadership team insisted we still keep the bar high. There were no compromises – hire the best, no matter what.

By the end of 2005, we ended up hiring over 20 seasoned engineers and were well poised to scale that location with more junior talent and expand into other regions across the globe. It was a hard push to win the war, but we won it and many would say that getting scrappy, maintaining the bar and taking risks outside of Palo Alto to hire great talent was one of the key factors that led to VMware becoming the multi-billion dollar success story it is today.

Getting Scrappy And Taking Risks To Create Diverse Teams

Flash forward to 2017, and the talent war is still on, but it’s not just about hiring top talent, it’s about hiring for diversity. There’s plenty of science to prove that diverse teams are what separate average companies from the big success stories. Once there’s diversity in teams, you attract more candidates from underrepresented groups. But there is a catch-22 when companies and teams with no diversity can’t hire candidates from underrepresented groups, in part, because they have no diversity in their current teams!

I was at an event recently where I sat in a breakout session about diversity and inclusion where most of the fifteen or so participants were white, male, CEO-Founders of very early stage companies. These leaders were complaining that despite best efforts, they were not able to find/hire qualified, candidates from underrepresented groups for their open positions. Investors were on their back to meet deadlines and reach revenue goals and the push for building diverse teams was not a high enough priority to push back. They had to hire the best talent they could find, and get coding!

But what if that talent didn’t exist? What if it was 2004 and there were no engineers to hire, never mind engineers from underrepresented groups? How do companies, like VMware did back then, combat this war vs. becoming complacent? What can companies do today to be creative, continue to scale, and develop a diverse team? What if CEOs, their leadership team and their boards held the line on diversity metrics, no matter what?

Starting From The Top

A company that is committed to diversity must demonstrate that commitment from the top, down. CEOs set the tone for the organization’s culture by demonstrating a commitment to diversity and inclusion. They don’t just say they care about the problem and acknowledge the importance of solving it, but they force it to happen. VMware’s founding CEO, Diane Greene, was adamant that we hire only the best talent from day one, and CEOs today need to do the same when it comes to hiring diverse talent.

One of the most compelling reasons for any strong candidate to join a company is knowing there’s diversity at the senior most levels. Having Diane at the helm played a huge role in my decision to join VMware. She was a role model and inspiration to everyone at the company as she balanced the complex demands of scaling our business with her family and other commitments outside of work. We were not only inspired to follow her drive and passion for the business, but the company naturally attracted other strong, candidates because of her leadership.

Whether you are an early stage company, mature business or even just a growing team within a maturing business, committing to diversity at the top is critical. Here are some suggestions on how to do that:

  • The founding team: Diversity does not just have to exist between your co-founding team, it should be among your first hires, your advisors, customers and/or friends of the company. The more diverse the team, the more likely you will be to attract new team members from under represented groups. Introduce prospects to these company “community” members to begin to demonstrate your commitment to this metric at the start. For example, I frequently join interview panels for early stage companies I advise to ensure not just a great hire, but to add diversity to the panel itself.
  • Set and hold the diversity bar for leadership hires: Don’t say “it would be really great to fill the next senior role with a diverse candidate”, rather make it mandatory to create a diverse organization. “We will not hire another manager, director, VP, etc. unless they bring diversity into our team.” Get scrappy and go hard to build these teams (see below). Stop looking for just culture fit and homogenous pattern matching and seek those different than you – they are sure to be additive to your organization beyond just their skills and experiences. Yes, it may take longer to find that person, but hold out for it – it’s worth it!

Note to VCs & Board Members

It is great to see so many VCs and board members stepping up to foster diversity in their portfolios. They are committing to invest in more women founded companies, hosting “diversity events”, making the Decency Pledge and some are creating special funds for diverse entrepreneurs. I believe many VCs are sincerely interested in this effort and not just creating PR tactics to position firms to appear supportive. While those efforts are important to further the cause (don’t stop doing them!), I challenge them to set the bar higher; implementing hard accountability metrics for diversity in their firms and in their portfolio companies. To not be complacent in the reality that it’s “hard to find qualified  candidates from underrepresented groups”, but rather force change to happen. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Mandate that your partnership be a diverse team. Studies continue to come out on how diversity in investment teams have stronger exit outcomes. Get scrappy and find ways to build diverse teams for your firms. The more diverse your team, the more likely your firm, will attract a more diverse group of entrepreneurs into your deal flow. And don’t stop at one – keep forging ahead and strive for a more balanced group of partners; a token diversity hire isn’t enough. Also, each partner from an underrepresented group on your team allows for more diversity on your portfolio companies’ boards. While there’s great debate on whether there’s a direct correlation with diversity on boards and company performance, it is a sure thing that diverse boards add new perspective and new ideas to help the organization succeed.
  • Refuse to fund a non-diverse team (!). Yes, you may have to get your LPs to sign off on this, but many LPs are now pressuring the funds they’re in to push harder on the diversity front. So, take the lead, be proactive and tell them you’re holding the bar. Even if it means an initial slow down on deal flow and longer lead times to exit. The data proves that those investments are far likely to pay off in a bigger way than the non-diverse team investments you’re making today.
  • Set your portfolio teams up for success and help find candidates from underrepresented groups for your investments. Extend runway with a bridge loan or other means until the company has had at least six months to try to shore up their team. Make this a priority of your firm. This too is likely to improve deal flow if you offer this type of support to entrepreneurs as many entrepreneurs are not even coming to you because they don’t have the requisite co-founder, never mind a co-founder/founding team that is diverse.
  • Cover the cost to augment teams during the recruiting process. Not only encourage your portfolio companies to bring in consultants/contractors from underrepresented groups as part of their core team until they demonstrate diversity in their teams, but pay for it! Invest in your teams beyond the equity round.
  • Note to Founders: Depending on urgency to raise capital, you might consider refusing to take money from funds that don’t walk the talk – will your board be diverse? Would non-diverse investment group allow you to fill their board seat with an alternate who brings diversity into the board? The more senior candidates you are courting to join your company will examine board composition carefully – especially if your investors play an active role in the day-to-day of your company (It happens more than we think!). How hard are you willing to work to get a diverse board? Also consider creating a seat for an independent board member from day one to be used if needed to round out your team.

Beyond The Leadership Team And Investors

How are you set up to source for and hire diverse teams? Are you looking in all the right places? In 2015, I wrote a whole primer on hiring for startups (much of which is also applicable for later stage companies), but here are some specific tips on getting creative on hiring for diverse teams:

  • Diversity in your interview panel: Most hiring managers these days know it’s ideal to have a diverse interview panel to help sell a candidate on the role and company, but if your team lacks diversity, consider augmenting the interview team with diverse “community” members – either from other teams in your company or by inviting board members, advisors, friends of the company, etc. to participate. More good info on the hiring process for diversity here.
  • Join, sponsor or network with diversity orgs: There are countless non-profit organizations that cater to diversity hiring causes. For example, joining the National Center for Women in Technology’s Entrepreneurial Alliance which is designed for both startups and incubators/accelerators, provides access to job forums, invitations to their events and connections with over 600 other membership companies. Blackengineer.com has a jobs board, as does lgbtconnect.com. There are loooong lists of other organizations you can tap into to support diversity hiring efforts here, here and here.
  • Bring on Diverse Contractors: To me this is a win-win. You can start getting some work done and having diversity in the office can allay concerns when members of underrepresented groups come in to interview. I’ve heard countless stories of a candidate going for an interview and saying “the whole office was dudes or all white” …you get the visual. I’ve also heard many stories of contractors who fall in love with the company they’re working with (and vice versa) and join full time! (and as noted above, maybe you can get your investors to pay for it!).
  • Never miss the opportunity of a passive candidate: So many companies fail to build diverse teams because they wait for applicants vs. seeking out great people. Troll LinkedIn, go to meetups related to your company’s area, hire sourcers to look for great candidates who may not even know they might want a change until they get a call from your company! Don’t wait for these candidates to come to you.

The First Diverse Hire

Once you reach success and start to hire diverse team members, remember, for many of them, they may be the first one – whether it’s at your company as a whole or perhaps just in one team. There can be an ominous feeling when one thinks they’ve been courted or hired as the token diverse candidate/employee. What will you do to ensure that they are set up for success?

  • Acknowledge the problem from the start. The first time you diversify your team, especially for a small company, the individual will know they are bringing diversity to the table. Speaking from experience, it’s fine to call it out, as long as it’s clear that this is not THE reason they are in consideration. Needing a strong technical leader, or someone who has specific domain expertise is the priority, diversity is simply a value add to the team/company…but don’t dwell on it.
  • Consider how you operate today and whether there are any conscious or unconscious biases towards the current homogeneity of your company/team. Are there activities that happen at work or after hours such as fantasy leagues, spa trips or perhaps even non-family friendly activities that keep the first diverse hire from feeling comfortable or the outlier? Does your office decor offend or intimidate? Carefully examine how your company culture, rituals and environment is setup to be as friendly as possible.
  • You’re not done – the first hire that creates diversity in your team should not check a box and then you move on. Keep at it and for God’s sake please do not make that hire the ambassador for all future diversity activities! It is still the hiring manager/leadership team’s responsibility to keep the momentum.
  • Finally, focus on retaining those great hires.

Make diversity a priority. Hold yourself, your team, your investors and your board accountable. Set standards, get scrappy and change things for the better.

This is a war on for diverse teams. Treat it that way.

Reply in the comments if you have other creative suggestions on how to win the war on creating diverse teams.

So You Want to Be A Product Manager

Because I teach a course on Product Management at Harvard Business School, I am routinely asked “what is the role of a Product Manager?”. The role of a Product Manager (PM) is often referred to as the “CEO of the Product”. I disagree because, as Martin Eriksson points out, “Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful – from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support”. PMs are not the CEO of product and their roles vary widely depending on a number of factors. So what should you consider if you’re thinking of pursuing a PM role?

As an aspiring PM, there are three primary considerations when evaluating the role: Core Competencies, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Company Fit. The best PMs I have worked with have mastered the core competencies, have a high EQ and work for the right company for them. Beyond shipping new features on a regular cadence and keeping the peace between engineering and the des

ign team, the best PMs create products with strong user adoption that have exponential revenue growth and perhaps even disrupt an industry.

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Do you have what it takes to be the best PM?

Core Competencies
There are core competencies that every PM must have – many of which can start in the classroom – but most are developed with experience and good role models/mentoring. Some examples of these competencies include:

  • Conducting customer interviews and user testing
  • Running design sprints
  • Feature prioritization and roadmap planning
  • The art of resource allocation (it is not a science!)
  • Performing market assessments
  • Translating business-to-technical requirements, and vice versa
  • Pricing and revenue modeling
  • Defining and tracking success metrics

These core competencies are the baseline for any PM and the best PMs hone these skills over years of defining, shipping and iterating on products. These PMs excel at reflecting on where each of these competencies contributed to the success or failure of their products and continuously adjust their approach based on customer feedback.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
A good PM may know the Do’s and Don’ts of a customer interview, but the best PM has the ability to empathize with customers in that interview, are tuned into their body language and emotions and can astutely suss out the true pain-points that their product/feature will address. A PM with a high EQ has strong relationships within their organization and they have a keen sense of how to navigate both internal and external hurdles to ship a great product. Here’s a deeper look at how the four EQ key traits, as defined by Daniel Goleman, relate to the PM role:

  • Relationship Management: Probably one of the most important characteristics of a great PM is their relationship management skills. By forming authentic and trustworthy connections with both internal and external stakeholders, the best PMs inspire people and help them reach their full potential. Relationship management is also vital in successful negotiation, resolving conflicts and working with others toward a shared goal which is especially challenging when a PM is tasked with balancing the needs of customers, resource constrained engineering teams and the company’s revenue goals.

    Authentic and trusting relationships within an organization can lead to more support if additional funding is needed for a product or to sway an engineer to include a quick bug fix in the next sprint. Outside an organization, these skills could encourage existing customers to beta test a new feature for early feedback or convince a target customer to try the MVP of a product still in stealth mode. These relationship skills can also be what makes the difference between having irate customers because of a bug introduced into the product and those who say “no worries, we know you’ll fix this!”. 
  • Self-awareness: PMs must be self-aware to remain objective and avoid projecting their own preferences onto users of their products. If a PM is in love with a feature because it addresses their own pain points (PMs are often super users of the products for which they are responsible), they may cause a user to say they love it too just to please the PM (“False positive feature validation”). If not self aware, a PM may push to prioritize a feature they conceived even when all the customer interviews and evidence is stacked against it. This lack of self awareness could derail more important priorities and/or damage the PM’s relationship with engineers who may lose confidence in their PM when the feature isn’t readily adopted by users. 
  • Self-management: Being a PM can be incredibly stressful! The CEO wants one thing, the engineering team another, and customers have their own opinions about feature priorities. Managing tight deadlines, revenue targets, market demands, prioritization conflicts and resource constraints all at once is not for the faint of heart. If a PM cannot maintain their emotions and keep it cool under pressure, they can quickly lose the confidence of all their constituents. The best PMs know how to push hard on the right priorities, with urgency, but without conveying a sense of panic or stress. These PMs also know when to take a breath and step away if needed, regroup, and go back into the game to get sh*t done (GSD). 
  • Social Awareness: According to Goleman, the competencies associated with being socially aware are Empathy, Organizational Awareness, and Service. PMs must understand customers emotions and concerns about their product as much as they understand the concerns of the sales team on how to sell that product (or support team to support it, or engineering to build it). PMs have to have a deep understanding of how the organization operates and build social capital to influence the success of their product – from obtaining budget and staffing to securing a top engineer to work on their product. Finally, social awareness ensures the best PMs service their customers with a product that addresses their jobs to be done which is ultimately what drives product market fit.

Read more about what Paul Jackson has to say about EQ and PMs here – including a sub-link of an interview with Sam Lessin, former VP of Product Management at Facebook, who says he has ‘never successfully trained empathy.’ (or as Lady Gaga would say “you were born this way”…or not!)

Company Fit
So if the best PMs have well developed core competencies and a high EQ, does that mean that they are then destined for success no matter where they work? Going deeper, it is taking these skills and personality traits and applying them to the right company – amid a broad array of opportunities – that will ultimately guarantee success.

I have yet to see a standard job description for a Product Manager because each role is ultimately defined by the size, type of product, stage, industry and even culture of the company. Assuming the core competencies and high EQ as the minimum requirements, the next step is to unpack who’s hiring and what they are truly looking for:

  • Technical Skill – The type of product, who uses it and/or the type of company (e.g. Google who requires PMs pass a technical skills test regardless of what product they’ll work on) will determine how technical a PM needs to be. If the company is building a SaaS CRM, there may be more requirements for experience with go-to-market and customer lifecycles than how the product itself is built. If it’s a data science product with machine learning algorithms and APIs, the role may require a lot more technical depth to not only understand how to build the product but also how to talk, credibly, with the customers who will use it. That said, having a basic technical understanding of what is “under the hood” and mastery of the tools that PMs use is definitely important for the role, anywhere. Colin Lernell has more to say about these necessary skills here.

    If you are an aspiring PM concerned you lack the basic tech skills for the role, you might consider taking online courses such as the renowned Introduction to Computer Science (CS50) course offered by Harvard University or one of the many intro and advanced technology courses offered by The Flatiron School. 
  • Company philosophy about PM – Every company has a different philosophy about the product development process and where PMs fit into that process. Below are the three most common types with pros and cons:

    • PM Drives Engineering: A “throw it over the wall” approach where PMs gather requirements, write the quintessential PRD (Product Requirements Document) and hand it off to Engineering to spec out the technical requirements. Contemporary organizations may do this process in a more agile and collaborative way, but the expectation is that PMs know best about what customers need and engineering is there to serve.
      • Pro: Engineering can focus on coding without a lot of distraction; tends to work well for Waterfall development shops with long lifecycles.
      • Con: Engineers lose sight of the big picture and do not develop empathy for customers which can lead to a poor user experience; often there are unhealthy tensions when tech-debt and “plumbing” work needs to be prioritized against customer requirements. 
    • Engineering Drives Product: More technically oriented product companies (e.g., cloud, big data, networking…) tend to be engineering driven where engineers are advancing the science in their domain and PMs validate solutions or create front end access points (UIs, APIs) to tap into this new technology. There can be a collaborative relationship and feedback loop between customers, PM and engineering, but typically, PMs are serving engineering in these companies.
      • Pro: Breakthrough technology can offer customers things they didn’t even know they needed (VMotion at VMware was a great example of this. An engineer thought it would be cool to do, a PM figured out how to monetize it and it became THE billion dollar game changer for the company).
      • Cons: Engineers chase the shiny new thing, over-architect the solution or iterate forever (seeking perfection) before getting customer feedback; PM input on priorities are ignored, which is sometimes the most basic needs of customers to encourage adoption and increase stickiness of the product.

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    • The PM<>Engineering Partnership: There is a strong yin-yang between PM and Engineering where there is joint discovery, decision-making and shared accountability. Engineers join PMs in customer interviews and PMs are insprint meetings to help unblock tasks or bring clarity to  requirements, but the two roles respect the line where one starts and the other stops. PMs understand what’s being coded, but don’t tell engineers how to code and engineers have empathy for customers’ needs, but leave the prioritization to the PMs.
      • Pros: Streamlined prioritization process that values tech-debt/plumbing projects; better design processes leading to a more positive user experience; higher performing teams with improved product velocity, quality and typically, happier customers.
      • Con: Breakthrough innovation may not get light/investment; time-to-market may seem to lag (but I’d argue what’s released is far better aligned with customer needs with a far more scalable product).

I’m clearly biased (as is Fred Wilson) on the third type of philosophy about PM as I’ve experienced all three and found the yin-yang to be most effective, but it’s not to say the others are notably bad and, again, it really depends on what type of product, stage, etc,. Regardless, when considering a PM role, the philosophy of PM at the company could be the deciding factor on fit for the role.

  • Stage of company – The role of the PM at a startup is far likely to be responsible for “all the things” vs. a mature company where their role will be more distinctly defined. Eriksson, Banfield and Walkingshaw’s book Product Leadership has a section that has a lot more detail on this topic).

    • Startup: Beyond discovery, definition and shipping, they may also be responsible for pricing, marketing, support and potentially even sales of the product. These PMs thrive in a scrappy environment and are comfortable with ambiguity and frequent changes to direction as the company works towards product market fit and learns to operate at scale.
      • Pros: Likely to be more involved with company strategy, exposure to senior leadership/board, able to take more risks/make a bigger impact; more influence/authority over company resources.
      • Cons: Little-to-no mentorship or role models or best practice within the company (may have to seek externally); may not have requisite experience for some of the “things” (comfortable winging it); tight budgets. 
    • Mature Company: The PM may have a more narrow scope (deep vs. broad), have co-workers who handle pricing, go to market strategies, etc.. and likely part of a larger team of Product Managers.
      • Pros: More likely to have mentoring/role models and development standards/best practice; close association with an engineering team can develop strong relationships over time (great for long term impact/career growth); if product has market fit, there is an established customer base and performance baseline to work from vs. guessing until you get it right.
      • Cons: Less exposure to company strategy; just one of many voices of the customer; can get “lost” in the system; more politics; tight budgets. 
  • Founder/CTO/CEO relationship with PM – Especially in earlier stage companies, it’s important to know how involved the Founder/CEO/CTO is in the product process. If they are deeply involved, the PM role may play more of a support role to flesh out their ideas or validate concepts with customers vs. conceiving and driving ideas of their own. This can be great fun for some PMs who enjoy partnering with founders/c-levels and collaborate on the product evolution, but for some PMs it can be very frustrating if they prefer to take more ownership of product direction. It can also be challenging if the more technical founders/c-levels prefer working directly with engineers. This can leave PMs out of the loop or undermined (even if unintentional) causing not just personal frustrations but delays if they have to play catch up and/or continuously recalibrate. When considering a PM role that may work closely with the founding leadership team, be sure to find out their expectations of the PM function and decide whether this is the right fit with your interests.

There are of course many other factors to consider for any role such as the type of product you are building (B2B, B2C, industry, etc.), the humans with whom you’ll work and the overall company culture (diverse, inclusive, flexible work hours, remote culture, etc.), and of course compensation and benefits. There are also a million articles on hiring product managers to get perspective on what the hiring managers are looking for – I especially recommend my friend Ken Norton’s piece How to Hire a Product Manager. However, if you are striving to be the best Product Manager, consider all of the above before signing on to your next gig. Developing core competencies will be an ongoing activity throughout your career and leveraging a high EQ will ensure a more positive experience, but where you work, how they work and who you work with/for will ultimately determine your long term success.

Have additional pointers on succeeding in the PM role? Please share in the comments!