Year of the Plane Part 4: Building a successful team

Ben Hutt, CEO of digital recruitment marketplace Talent Party, explains how he handled the task of integrating new people into his international team.

Since January we’ve added some key people to our team, fleshing out key areas of the business on which we are dependent to scale effectively.

As someone who has built teams before, I knew this would bring three challenges:

  1. Tension and conflict as a result of adding senior people and formalising responsibilities across the management team;

  2. Transition risk and delay caused by delegation of authority and activity from managers;

  3. Communication struggles from trying to ensure people are all working towards the same goal, essential to maintaining and increasing productivity (and harmony).

By managing my team through this transition, I would like to share some thoughts and insights on how to successfully navigate this process.

Throw defined roles out the window

I believe that people should only have one role, and it should be delivering in an area where they are naturally strong. When we grew our team, we added people who were highly skilled to take over functions from others who’ve had multiple roles (e.g. new CMO took responsibilities from the CEO).

Fabulous to be able to do this, but in a startup that is growing rapidly there is enormous pressure to deliver all the time, and there has been tension caused by the resulting lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities. I faced a choice as to how to manage this. The corporate approach would have been to define everything rigidly upfront, then watch people shrink into their boxes.

>See also: Making employees ‘thoughtful practitioners’

The way I decided to do it was to let these super smart, highly motivated people feel their way through the process. We defined some high level objectives and roles, but let the details surface over a three month period. Clearly there was tension and conflict, but this was extremely productive (for the most part) and I watched the teams themselves grow as they got new ingredients, better (clearer) recipes and focus.

Delegate and transition with care and attention

Delegation is always a challenge. Handing over tasks and responsibilities to new people is not easy. It takes time to get people up to speed, and you are tempted to think it would be quicker to do something yourself. When hiring and onboarding people, it’s important to be really clear what exactly the scope of their responsibilities will be. It sets expectations for both of you, and allows a decent timetable for handover to be set. You face a choice between handing over the easy (often operational) stuff first, or last. I’ve tried both and my view is that you should start with the important stuff, but allow longer to do it. Then you can taper in gradually the operational stuff. Avoid at all costs having a new employee focus their time on urgent stuff, even if important. Firefighting can be debilitating to enthusiasm and productivity. Better to get someone started on the key aspects of their role that interest them and are more important over time, and drip in the bonfires over their first few months when they’ve found their way around. When you have smart people who are highly motivated, you’re much better coaching them to capable than telling them how to do everything (or doing for them)!

Establish basic communication protocols

Communication within any business is challenging. In ours we have several layers of complexity: staff across multiple locations and time zones, international businesses at different stages of the lifecycle and a high degree of technical complexity. As a result, we didn’t have a clear communication protocol so people across the business often had very different views of what was important and what was happening. As the CEO, I recognised the issue and made efforts to resolve it by communicating frequently and deeply with the management team (individually mostly) and travelling often to the other locations. I knew that without structure and participation from everyone, this would not be sufficient to maintain a high degree of engagement over time, and with this being the critical success factor for any business, this has become a key focus for me.

>Related: How business and education can work together to unlock potential

While we’ve made a great deal of progress in integrating new hires and becoming a highly cohesive unit, we have further to go. The key thing I will remember throughout this journey is that above all, you need trust your team because it gives you the foundation to work constructively together and challenge each other through conflict. With commitment you can work together meaningfully to achieve great outcomes, but without accountability for the results we are trying to achieve, it’s not possible to live up to your potential.

Further reading: CEOs who have fallen out with shareholders

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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