When a start-up grows at scale, your leadership strategy will need to grow with it. At MeisterLabs, when we could no longer fit around the same meeting room table, we knew it was time to take stock.
Over the past few years, our company has grown from a small start-up to a team of 35. Throughout this process, growing sustainably, rather than rapidly, has been paramount. We’ve needed a leadership strategy that not only hires top talent but provides our team with the onboarding processes and feedback they need to thrive.
To receive a helping hand in this, we rolled up our sleeves and signed up for an external leadership workshop. The training was challenging, but enlightening, and identified a few key areas for improvement, along with strategies on how to get there.
These approaches will no doubt apply to other growing tech teams too. In this article, we’ll share the key lessons, in the hope that you’ll be well placed to weather your growth, too:
Dealing with Growing Pains
As tech companies scale at pace, there’s a risk that teams will begin to lose direction. Without structure, it’s difficult to continue working together in a strategic way, as bigger picture aims get lost among individual tasks. Without clear team leads, questions over who should onboard new staff members and provide regular feedback can also arise.
As a result, in fall 2017, we decided to create a formal company structure. Until this point, MeisterLabs had been almost entirely non-hierarchical. This worked great for fast-paced working and collaboration. However, as we hired lots of new team members over a short period, it became problematic.
As new hires joined the team, they would often have no clear line manager. This meant no specific person to onboard them, no one to showcase their work to, and no one to provide regular feedback. To address this, we began by developing a clear company structure, providing each employee with a clear understanding of who they can look to for support and feedback.
Next, we needed to ensure that our new leadership team had the skills and confidence to manage their teams. To this end, we reached out to 5P Consulting and brought our team leads and founders together for a 3-day leadership workshop in Vienna.
Within the training, we established our own strengths and weaknesses as a leadership team. Then, we looked at how we could improve, particularly in the areas of delegation and providing feedback.
Here’s what we covered and the questions we asked ourselves, in order to make that progress:
4 Essential Questions For Leaders:
1. What drives you as a leader?
To know how to improve as a leader, you first need to establish what you could be doing better.
To do this, try asking yourself:
- How would your team describe you as a leader?
- How does this vary from how you would like to be described?
- Which leadership situations do you feel you’re really good at?
- Where would you still like to improve?
It might have been a while since you thought about the broader impression of your leadership style. However, aligning where you’re at currently with where you’d like to be is a great first step in identifying how to improve.
An element of this is understanding our personal drivers as leaders. These can often be deduced from how we would like to be seen. However, undertaking a questionnaire on our leadership drivers, we found that many of us have drivers that we’re not yet aware of.
For example, a number of our leaders found a conclusive drive to please others. Although this can be essential for a happy team, it’s important to remember that you can’t please everyone, all of the time. As long as decisions are made for the greater sake of the team, in line with company strategy, not pleasing everyone is okay.
Another we found was the need to be perfect, which was holding some leaders back from delegating. We’ll come back to this, but in order to move forward, it’s important to first identify these leadership shortcomings.
2. What drives you as a company?
Next, focus some thought on drivers within the company as a whole.
During our training, we shared on a flipchart what we most appreciate about working at MeisterLabs, as well as where the pain points lie. We asked ourselves:
- What are the top three things that make us successful right now?
- What are the top three things that hold us back and if done better, could make us more successful?
It became obvious that for many of us, we enjoy elements such as:
- working with people with a similar mindset
- an open-door policy for asking for help
- the active involvement of our knowledgeable founders
- and the encouragement of team input within our company strategies.
All of these factors enable us to trust one another and work well together.
However, we established areas for improvement too. As a leadership team, we all agreed that we could be doing a better job of delegating tasks and providing regular, constructive feedback. Both are essential for growing teams, so I’ll share the strategies we’ve put in place to address them.
3. Where could you delegate better?
As leaders, many of us have been there: You’re facing a never-ending to-do list, but feel hesitant to ask your team members to take on a task.
Even as a company working on our own task management solution – MeisterTask – we’ve faced this problem too.
So why is it that we so often face this conundrum?
It might be that we feel we could do the task better ourselves. That we think it would require too much time to train a report to do it instead. That it could put too much pressure on a colleague. Or perhaps that we’re simply scared of losing control, in case we become redundant by handing over our work.
All of these concerns are valid in their own right. However, companies hire specialist staff for a reason. As long as you feel confident in your team members, we should never feel afraid to entrust them with important tasks.
For some of us, resistance to delegation can link back to our inner drivers. For example, if one of your drivers is to complete tasks quickly, this might make you resistant to training a team member to do it. If your driver is to please others, you might be concerned by the pressure you’d be putting on them by delegating. Reflecting on the drivers established in step one will help you in deconstructing any personal resistance to delegating.
Once you’re feeling more comfortable to delegate, the key steps we covered in our guide to effective delegation are as follows:
- Explain why you’re delegating
- Provide the right instructions
- Provide the necessary resources and training
- Delegate responsibility and authority, too
- Say thank you!
Learning to delegate effectively will develop you as a leader and can help motivate your team too. After all, it’s your responsibility to focus on their professional development and this includes challenging them, providing opportunities to grow.
As mentioned, at MeisterLabs, we use our own task management tool, MeisterTask, to help delegate. With transparent project boards, we can create and assign tasks to our team, then track these to completion. If team members have any questions, they can voice them simply via the comment section. However, an in-person conversation between the team member and team lead can never go amiss either!
4. Are you providing enough feedback?
To help your team members develop further, it’s crucial you provide regular, constructive feedback. This shouldn’t be an annual affair, where all tasks completed over the past year are presented all at once. Instead, you should normalize immediate feedback and create a constant dialogue flow, including praise and points for improvement.
The mindset of the leader will play a significant role here. In her book, Radical Candor, leadership expert Kim Scott shared that ideally, every team leader will care personally for their team member. In parallel, they should develop a relationship in which they’re able to challenge each other directly, without resulting in any upset.
Many articles have been written about how to give feedback in the best possible way. Some claim that criticism should always be sandwiched in praise. However, as we’ve shared previously in our best ways to offer effective feedback, this is just undercover bashing and often ineffective.
Instead, the most effective way to offer feedback on topics surrounding criticism, recognition and expectations is via the following steps:
- First, provide a description of the situation
- Second, provide an objective description of the behavior
- Next, provide an objective description of the consequences
- Then, provide a subjective assessment of the situation, outcomes and onward actions
- Finally, provide a description of future expectations.
In order to communicate your feedback in a considered, thoughtful way, it’s important to first structure your thoughts. Below is an example of how you can prepare for feedback sessions with the help of a mind map. In our case, we used MindMeister.
MeisterTip: To use the template feedback mind map, simply sign into MindMeister (or sign up free) and maximize the map via the map actions icon. Once maximized, click again on the map actions icon and choose to clone the map. From there, edit or embellish the topics to make the map suitable for your personal feedback session.
Of course, if your feedback is critical, you might need to escalate this to further levels. The first couple of stages will involve explaining, convincing, requesting changes and then holding follow-ups to monitor those changes. However, persistent issues should be dealt with by alerting the employee to the consequences, before, eventually, putting those consequences into practice.
Ultimately, your feedback should be a continuum from friendly chat, to direct conversation, to tangible consequences. Ideally, with a focus on regular feedback, you can avoid the latter escalations altogether.
Once you’ve been through these processes as a leader, the next step is to disseminate this knowledge internally.
By demonstrating the value of the new management processes to your team, you can get them on board with the changes. This way, they’ll be ready and eager for the 1:1 feedback sessions and to receive some new, challenging tasks.
In our case, our Tech Lead for MindMeister, Laura Bârlădeanu, led an internal workshop, leading to positive feedback on the new processes so far. After all, feedback is a two-way street, and we, as leaders, must be open to receiving it too 😉
If you like the sound of how we do things at MeisterLabs, there’s still space in our bustling offices in Vienna and Seattle! Head to our jobs page to check out the positions we’re hiring for.
Plus, if you don’t see an opening that fits, get in touch via [email protected] to let us know where you see yourself on our team!