Reflecting on my time leading teams and products at high-growth tech companies, there are a handful of less obvious truths about managing teams and products that I’ve found to be consistent. While there’s nuance in each of these depending on the specific circumstances, these 7 areas to have been mostly true across companies and teams. If you are a product or engineering leader who is building a team and product, hopefully some of these will help you along your journey.
- Hire for will over skill. The success of a company is 100% reliant on the people within it, no matter how great the idea or market conditions are. You need people who are excited about the company’s mission and have the right attitude to work through challenges. Skills matter, but attitude and mindset will have a surprisingly large impact on results, especially in the early days. It’s better to leave a role unfilled vs. fill it with a skilled, but toxic person who brings down the team, has difficultly working with others or doesn’t have the level of ownership you need. Training less experienced people with a go-getter attitude can yield some amazing results and helps build people up along the way.
- Empower your team to own solutions. As a subject matter expert or highly experience leader, the temptation will be to identify solutions and have your team carry out execution. However, in order for people to feel invested and committed to their work, they need to own the definition of it. This requires setting a bold strategy, aligning on goals/focus areas and then giving the team the freedom to own solutions. Once work is underway, you want to frequently show folks how their work contributes to the bigger picture and distribute praise whenever possible. One of the biggest jobs as a leader is to empower and inspire your team members to do their best work and find fulfillment in their jobs. High-performing teams also create a high-trust environment with open communication that allows people to express their ideas and give input directly to leadership.
- You need subject matter experts. While good product and technical people will learn about their customers through research, data, and prototypes, having a subject matter expert for your given vertical is a huge shortcut. Folks who already know the problem space and have seen what works or not in a given industry or product area give you a huge jumpstart toward product-market fit and making the right prioritization decisions. Most founders have deep industry knowledge, but beyond the initial team, that knowledge won’t scale to every decision being made. Making some hires based on knowledge and direct experience in your given problem space is key, especially in early product roles.
- Nail it before you scale it. When cash is available, the temptation is to hire or spend to solve every problem. While hiring or spending may be the solution for some problems, if you don’t have the fundamentals of your strategy dialed in, adding more people or dollars to the equation will likely make your problems worse opposed to better. As a company, you must understand the atomic-level unit economics to acquire and retain customers, how to effectively deliver on the value proposition of your product, and have a well defined approach to stay on the same page. Ideally, you want to create a repeatable approach and process for the key aspects of the business with the least amount of investment possible before scaling it with more people or money. Investors also will want to see this, especially in today’s fundraising climate.
- Build with the right technical foundation. Many of your earliest technology stack choices will stick around for much longer than you might think. It is a costly decision to assume you can just easily migrate away from something later. Once you are past the idea validation phase, (which is the one place I think no-code/low-code solutions can be helpful), ensuring that you make time-tested, well-known and scalable choices early on is important. The more boring, the better. In the early days, the pressure will be high to deliver an MVP or V1 of the product, but if you are planning for any type of success, I would avoid lot of the “all in one” solutions or trendy new frameworks for your core product. There’s a real chance they won’t scale or be supported as your needs change and as you add more developers to the product. As a technical leader, it’s important to understand the broad technology landscape and the trade-offs of platform decisions. While it’s not smart to build for massive scale in the early days, it is important to have a high-level plan of how to get there as you grow and not make technology or UX choices that paint you into a corner.
- Alignment among the leadership team is key. A leadership team that is misaligned or unclear on the strategy to achieve the mission will have ripple effects throughout the entire company. The leadership team needs to have a consistent way they describe the vision and mission of the company and agree on the strategy to achieve it. Standard practices around shared goals, quarterly planning and written narratives are very valuable when done right. Once created, the strategy must be communicated over and over from the leadership team wherever possible. Strategies will change over time, but is is important leadership teams stays in sync and has a consistent message to the teams about direction and focus. Without it, wasted time, frustrated employees and lackluster results will follow.
- Establish process early. Once a product development team grows beyond a single core team, having an established process for how work gets prioritized and executed is key. Connecting the dots between the vision, the strategy, the company goals and work being done saves a lot of wasted time getting people on the same page and setting expectations. Teams need a clear understanding of what the bigger picture is, how the company is measuring success and how the work they are doing contributes to it. Having a defined process for discovery, an easily understood roadmap that is shared with stakeholders, regular product demos, and regular reviews of priorities with key leaders are foundational to establish. Within the front line development teams, establishing a basic intake, prioritization and release cadence is key to keep teams running smoothly. It is important to ensure people know what expectations are and what they are being held accountable to at any given time.
When these areas aren’t embraced, I’ve found issues will eventually arise. Based on the pace of growth of the company, this can be detrimental. If you’re lucky to be a at fast growing company, it can be hard to slow down enough to be sure you’re paying close attention to some of these areas, but if long term success is your goal, hopefully these lessons will help you build on a solid foundation.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to drop any comments or questions below.