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When Notion considers the challenges the companies we invest in face, one that comes up over and over is the people challenge of scale. In particular two areas – how to hire ever better people (Game Changers as we call them) and how to build high performing teams and how to do both these things when growing fast.
We are covering the hiring piece in our Game Changers programme, led by Maddy Cross, but when it comes to helping founders build companies there are few organisations that match the unsung skills of SNP. San Francisco based SNP has been working with many of the world’s leading technology businesses helping founders find their voice and build high performing companies since 1989 with the likes Sun Microsystems, Microsoft and Oracle through to today with Facebook, Google and AirBNB amongst others.
“Like Lionel Logue with King George VI, as epitomised by the film The Kings Speech, we help founders find their voice”, says Maureen Taylor, co-founder of SNP with Renn Vara. “Typically the best founders are product people and while they understand entirely the technology, sometimes they don’t understand the human operating system of a fast growth business. First and foremost we help them find their voice to communicate their vision clearly, but then to help them appreciate that if they want to build a great tech business, then they have to have great people too. And some with very different skills to their own.”
Technology founders must stay true to their vision, while learning to respect the human operating system.
Maureen compares tech founders to artists pursuing a passion.
“They have a consciousness that is different from many others – they are creators first and foremost – and first you have to connect with that, but not in a phoney way, but in a respectful way as they do magnificent things. And then cajole them to appreciate that intelligence is present in many other aspects of the universe, as represented by what we call the human OS, because the people they hire, the culture they build and the values they demonstrate are critical if they are to achieve their vision.”
SNP have repeatedly seen the biggest shift comes when the business moves to somewhere between 42 and 56 employees. Before then they are lean, mean dedicated teams but suddenly it changes.
“I think of it like puberty. One moment you are a child, the next a teenager. You are so messed up that you don’t know up from down, and for anyone who’s had children saying ‘don’t worry honey it’s just puberty” is the worst thing you can do.”
Organisational and operational excellence is critical if the artist is to fulfill their vision
As they enter what Notion call’s the Grow-Up phase (somewhere around 50+ employees), founders and their leadership teams must suddenly think about organisation design and operational excellence in a way that supports the mission, vision and values.
“It’s a different drain on the brain”, says Maureen, “and founders will need to attract very different people and that can be a big challenge”.
Founders need to bring in people with that operational excellence, whether in sales, product, tech, finance who have a repeat pedigree of the growing pains the company is facing.
Think of it like building a global tribe
Tribes have shared stories and legends, shared values and behaviours. When you bring in new people you need to maintain or even enhance the distinct essence of that tribe. So the challenge is not just to bring in the people with the right experience and repeat pedigree but people who also have the right values.
“We work with founders to help them understand their values and to help them operate in a way that stays true to those values”, continues Maureen. “From the very beginning the culture and the values are established by the founders and they need to be real to them, not just words on the wall. They must reflect what they are building and the people they want to surround themselves with”.
“So as the company grows, it’s the code of behaviour that fulfills those values that represents the culture. That’s what you companies should keep coming back to. As the company gets bigger it gets diluted as that’s what happens as you grow, but it starts and end with the leadership. The leadership group set the tone with their code of behaviour.”
The people who succeed in building a global tribe while growing fast are successful because they implement their values and behaviours through their interviewing, their onboarding, their training and it is all designed to ensure people share and explore the code of behaviour.
The Artists need the Operators.
For the artist – aka the founder – the work they are doing is their mission, their life. “The artist is always the artist, they are fortunate to have a passion, but there are limitations they need to compensate for.”
And one of the the things they MUST do is hire people who augment their shortcomings, who bring the missing acumen they need.
“The problem can come if, as they scale, they focus only on what they do and don’t acknowledge there are other pieces to the puzzle that are just as valuable. Learning they need different skills and learning to respect people with those skills is critical. One of the biggest challenge is when the investors shove some guy down their throats and they hate that guy. First they need to understand they need people with operational excellence, that this is a missing piece of their puzzle.”
Great artists / founders need extraordinarily high levels of support from people we rarely know.
Maureen compares the tech founder to the great artists, for example Michelangelo, painting the Sistine Chapel in the 16th Century.
“Michelangelo is known down through the ages, but he would never have achieved his vision without some incredible operational support. The scaffolding for example. The scaffolding needed to be very robust but also highly flexible to reach into the far corners of the roof, to revisit areas that needed finishing off. Those scaffolders will never be immortalised, but their role was critical.”
The better the support structure, the more likely the founders is to achieve their vision.
“In the beginning the types of people founders attract are dedicated to the mission. And there is a huge camaraderie. But has you get bigger, and depending on the strength of the culture, the structure can become as important as the art; job security, career progression, OKRS, performance reviews – those work systems become incredibly important.”
Embracing the need for a unique combination of founders and operators.
- Establish the code of behaviours unique to your business, aligned to the vision.
- Learn to appreciate the human operating system is as important as the tech
- Embrace operational excellence and people with repeat pedigree of the challenges you are facing
- Build a global tribe by hire, onboarding, training and managing in line with the values
- The better the support structure, the more likely the vision will be achieve.