There is a critical shift for every team when they transition from functioning like a family to operating like an organization.
The turning point is a make it or break it for startups; Either you scale the mountain, or you crumble trying.
Nick Narodny recently experienced this undercurrent at his company Grovo where he grew the five-year-old startup’s engineering team from eight to 30 individuals in 2015.
“It took my entire life force,” he explained.
“It was one of the hardest and most terrifying things that I’ve ever had to do.”
Despite the idea of nearly quadrupling your team feeling incredibly daunting, the eight engineers bound together to help the company make the necessary strides to achieve its goal.
Twelve months later, Nick joins us to share how he grew the team, on-boarded new members while consciously recognizing current ones, and developed an inspiring culture that’s relentlessly focused on growth.
Among the chief accomplishments that Nick is most proud of is the original eight team members, five that have been with Grovo since its founding days, who helped him navigate the massive growth.
“It would have been impossible to do this without their help along the way,” he explained.
The most important habit you can practice during times of change is over communication.
Grovo’s senior leadership team made growth a priority during their annual planning so the engineering team could hit the ground running in 2015.
Hiring in itself is immensely challenging; Especially since Grovo seeks individuals with a unique combination of traits like discipline and playfulness. Helping your team members numb the growing pains is critical to keeping them happy and productive.
When experiencing stressful, fast-paced times, it’s common to find yourself laser-focused on the new. However, similar to when parents welcome their second child, you can’t forget about the individuals who have been with you since the beginning.
Nick cites Facebook’s former Manger of Culture and current COO of Quip Molly Graham’s advice by explaining that the transition for current team members feels like “giving away your legos.” You can read her piece in First Round Review here.
“It’s difficult when you have a team that works that hard and tightly together,” Nick said.
“You have someone who did everything and now they’re only focusing on one thing.”
“It takes time and massaging to break free from the feeling that you aren’t doing a good enough job and that’s why you aren’t being asked to do it anymore.”
“The scale is different,” he asserted. You can’t have five team members working on the same projects forever. Think of it as a football team having five team members on the field, instead of 11. You need an offensive line to guard the quarterback so he can throw to a receiver. Specialization becomes increasingly critical as you grow.
As the team leader, you need to be adamant about explaining the shift, validating team members, and helping them navigate their new roles.
Despite your best efforts, the transition is both emotionally and physically challenging. This is natural and you can use the roadblocks as an important opportunity to remind individuals that delegating tasks will enable them to make an even larger impact in the organization.
Be prepared to help them avoid ‘Hero Mode:’ The desire to tell others how to do the work he or she was previously responsible for.
Particularly for team members who have held multiple roles, it’s difficult not to feel defensive when things are achieved in a new way, or perhaps not executed at all.
Nick’s experienced these growing pains 10 times, to which he says the process feels less dramatic as you mature.
“You get better at it,” he explained.
“It’s one of my primary lessons of business maturity. The people who are the best at that are generally the best managers and teammates.”
One of the biggest shifts of working with a larger, more specialized group is the need to be highly vocal about your team and overall company objectives. A clear view of your goals lays the foundation to help you navigate new challenges, foster healthy debate and provide straight forward feedback to your team.
“Until you manage a large team you don’t recognize how valuable healthy debate is,” Nick affirmed.
At Grovo they live by the mantra: “Strong beliefs loosely held.”
“Everyone needs to be willing to bring up any idea they are passionate about to the entire team, or their team, be totally wrong, and then give it up.”
“All of that comes from goals and alignment.”
As you scale, each new product feature and update requires a democratized environment where feedback is a welcomed, non-judgemental, part of the process.
The best way to give direct, candid feedback? “Tailor it,” Nick says.
Don’t make feedback personal. Ever.
The key to giving feedback is knowing when and where it should be imparted.
According to Nick, “it’s a gut thing that you develop over time.”
For many of us, it often feels like giving feedback is worse than receiving it. Nick’s implemented a simple hack to help his team members, specifically managers, train the muscle.
When interviewing a prospective hire who isn’t going to make it through the funnel, Nick requires managers to give him or her feedback on why they aren’t fit for the position during the interview.
“It’s really valuable feedback for them, and it’s really hard to do because you just met the person.”
“It’s testing ground for developing your chops to give direct, face-to-face feedback.”
Your role as a founder or senior leader is constantly reinvented as the company evolves. There is a turning point when you become a manager of the managers and your job is to help them grow.
“You never stop learning that,” Nick explained. “Every person is different.”
“As markets and operational pieces evolve so does management.”
The most effective way to elevate your managers performance is to provide them with the “context and guardrails to make decisions on their own.”
This “empowers them to create better individual contributors.”
In The Forest – Grovo’s data, design, product, and engineering division – the managers reside on the top level of the team matrix.
As Nick explains it, there are managers across the top and groups who operate under them.
The matrix is best visualized as columns and rows. The columns are the teams, for example, your front end developers, that are led by an individual manager.
The rows are the individual team members (each person belongs to a specific domain) who work together in a Grove.
At Grovo, working groups that focus on a single company objective are called Groves.
Each individual in a Grove reports to a different team and manager. This streamlines operational efficiency by providing teams all of the knowledge they need to execute quickly.
For example, if you have a design question, rather than waiting for a response from a separate team, you can ask the member of your Grove who focuses on design.
The framework enables you to promote autonomy in three ways.
First, because each Grove is equipped with all of the information it needs to execute, team members can make fast, on the ground decisions.
Next, each team is empowered to choose the objective they want to push forward. As they hit their milestones, the autonomy makes it simple to choose what to do next.
Lastly, The Forest has established a core time block where all team members must be in the office. Aside from those hours, individuals can choose when and where they want to work.
Additionally, every three months team members are given an option to change their Grove. According to Nick, only one person has changed thus far.
Each of these structures and processes has enabled Grovo to successfully navigate last year’s massive growth.
However, perhaps more telling of the company’s evolution, are the traditions they’ve established to cement and celebrate their identity through the transition.
Nine months ago at a company offsite Nick’s team held a competition to name their department.
Among names like Gods of Thunder, The Forest won as a result of everyone needing the data, design, product, and engineering teams to survive. Since the official naming ceremony related traditions have ensued.
Every new team member is welcomed with the wave (It’s like the traditional wave, but is intended to represent trees moving in the wind). He or she is then given a Smokey the Bear sticker when they deploy their first line of code.
Once on the team, above and beyond performance is rewarded with hatchet stickers. Smokey the Bear bobbleheads are given as medals for winning Grovo hackathons.
Despite sounding silly, these traditions are the glue that keep teams united as they navigate the emotional rollercoaster of scaling a hyper-growth startup.
To ensure that all team members, particularly individuals who are new to the company, are ingrained into the culture, Grovo CEO Jeff Fernandez leads a “Kitchen Sink” meeting every Monday to review the team’s objectives, announce new hires, address company values, as well as review Grovo’s Standard of Performance.
Jeff also facilitates an open forum called Legends and Traditions where anyone in the company can ask him to explain the background and meaning of an inside joke or cultural nuance. This is the critical component to cultivating a culture that is palpable for every team member, whether they be an intern, designer, or engineer.
As Grovo embarks on their next chapter, the senior leadership team’s chief goal is to continue to establish trust as the company’s foundational value.
“The ability to experiment with new projects comes when you have trust in all levels of the team,” Nick said.
“You have to have trust for failure to be accepted.”
“Trust promotes that everyone is here to do their best for the company, not in it for themselves.”
To follow along with Grovo’s journey and learn more about how they’re creating an award-winning culture stay up to the date with the team on Twitter (@Grovo) and visit them here.
Images retrieved from Grovo and Entrepreneur.