Building the Right Team for Growth

One of the most important things in scaling is the team. The team includes you as the founder, your team and the culture you build. It will entail relinquishing some element of control. This can be difficult, but you can’t properly scale the company without handing over some amount of power.


One of the most important things about scaling is the team. The team starts with you. So that’s the first thing we’re going to talk about. Then we’ll talk about your team, and then we’ll talk about the culture you build. If infuses everything you do. So let’s start with you, the CEO, the founder, the leader. What does it mean? It’s going to be difficult because when you scale, you lose some element of control. Think about when you started, it was just you or you and your founders and you did everything—engineering, marketing, housecleaning, catering, you did it all. As you scale, and as you get bigger, you’re going to get a bigger team, you’re going to manage people, and ultimately, you’ll manage managers. You need to empower the team that works for you, and to get them to understand how to be successful going forward. But it will feel funny. Your first instinct is to try to do it all yourself. You can’t. You won’t scale that wide, and you’ll limit the kind of growth that you get. So you really have to lean in to think about how do I build that team, how do I be successful, how do I let go, and let them go forward so we all together can create something much bigger than what we started with. That’s the whole point of scaling. That’s what we’re trying to build.

So the most important team member is the conductor of the symphony and that’s you. And there are different models, there are different paths you can take in terms of growing as a CEO. Steve Wozniak, one of the engineering founders of Apple, stayed as the core engineer. He was the brains behind the first product. Steve Jobs is who took the company forward. And there’s Mark Zuckerberg who started Facebook in his dorm room, but when he hit that scaling phase brought in an executive who was really experienced at Google, Cheryl Sandberg, to become his COO and in partnership help him run what is now a large and successful company. And then you take the example of a company like Microsoft. Bill Gates, like Mark Zuckerberg, also started in his dorm room and remained CEO for a long time and is now Chairman. He took it all the way. And then there’s Google, also started in Larry and Sergey’s dorm room, and they started out as co-CEO’s, and stepped back when the scaling started, and brought in Eric Schmidt who’d been at Novell to really take them through that first scaling phase. But in the last couple of years, Larry Page stepped back in to be CEO of then Google, now Alphabet. So you can take different routes as you move forward and decide how you want to scale as a CEO.

So how do you know which model is right for you? How you can scale, how you can grow? There are a couple of different ways you can think about this. First of all, you really need objective feedback about how you can be better, how you can continue to grow because you are moving into a really different phase. I think there are two techniques you can think about. The first I spoke about in a video that Stanford E-Corner has posted on composite mentoring—a whole composite of people who are experts in different sectors to help you. I often don’t tell people that they’re my mentors. I know somebody who’s good at sales, I know somebody who’s particularly good at marketing. I bounce ideas off them in each of their respective areas. I take them to lunch when I want to get feedback. There are people who are my mentors that I simply observe and watch about how effective they are at managing groups of people, how they speak in public. And I use all of that as my composite mentor going forward. It’s free and you just need to think about it and be thoughtful about how you build each of those skills. Or, you can go the professional route and get a coach, like elite athletes. Serena Williams has them for her swing; Steph Curry has it for his jump shot. Hire somebody who helps you become the best you can be, that can critique what you do, and really is on your side in terms of going forward. I interviewed a CEO not long ago who said he felt it was his responsibility to get objective feedback on behalf of the shareholders, on behalf of the employees, and even on behalf of the customers so that he could do the best he could. His job was to lead and manage and to be that conductor of the symphony. He needed someone to help him make that leap to the next generation of growth as a leader himself. So think about bringing somebody in to be by your side as you scale to that next level.

When you think about scaling, you’re entering a very different phase of a company’s growth, and when you think about a team you’re going to need more people, but you’re going to need people with very different kinds of skills, different work style, different background. And as you go forward, you need to be really thoughtful about how you manage that. One way for you to think about it and your original team is that as the company gets bigger, oddly enough it feels like your jobs get smaller, they get narrower. You each get more specialized, and you begin to have different horizon about where you can grow, and you’ve got to be comfortable with that. In Silicon Valley we refer to this as horses for courses. We find in Silicon Valley there are people that make it a practice of specializing in one or another. Some people love that startup phase, they like the chaos, they like that sense of discovery. There are others that like to take a company at its beginning stages of commercialization. They want to make it a $50 million company, they want to see it go public. They both can be successful. They’re journeyman and they move on to their next construction project. So as you scale, you’ll find you’ll be able to grow some of your early team members, and you’ll be excited to watch that. You’ll have natural turnover, and you’ll add new members to your team to complement the skills that you’re going to need as you go forward.

So one of the other tricky things for you as a leader of a startup that’s going from that startup phase now into scaling, you’re actually going to want to blend in the skills of both the startup team and a scaling team together. You’re going to have a hybrid because you’re going to constantly, if you’re going to grow, continue your rate of innovation. You have to stay fresh. You have to continue to meet the customers’ latest demands, and grow the customer set you’re addressing. And what you’re doing as a CEO, as the leader, is putting that symphony together. Building a team can be one of the most important and one of the trickiest parts of scaling a business. You can’t scale without building a team because you can’t do everything yourself. And you’ll feel really excited. When you have a team that meets a milestone, that crosses the finish line, and you all realize the company has succeeded, your team has grown, and you’ve grown, that sense of excitement that you all have about what you’ve achieved will make it all worth it.

Suggested Readings

Founders School || Scaling Your Company || Building the Right Team for Growth || Impact Guide (PDF).

James Richmond. “Avoid These 3 Mistakes When Scaling Your Business.” Article. Fast Company. July 24, 2015.

Jana Matthews. “A Top Team is Key to Growth.” Blog post.

Ronnie Castro. “How to Build the Right Team for Your Growing Startup.” Young Entrepreneur Council. Article. April 14, 2014.

Bijan Sabet. “Getting Promoted Too Quickly.” Bijan Sabet blog. Blog post. December 19, 2011.

Fred Wilson. “MBA Mondays: Turning Your Team.” AVC. Blog post. August 12, 2013.

Founder’s Dilemmas – “Challenges on the Road to Growth” with Noam Wasserman

What Kind of Co-Founder Am I?” with Noam Wasserman

Leadership and Motivation with Daniel Pink. Every day, and in many ways, an entrepreneur must lead and persuade others. Understanding what motivates people, how to inspire them to do their best work, and how to lead with purpose and vision is essential for any entrepreneur.

Questions for You

What is my role in scaling?

What kind of founder do I want to be?

How do I gather feedback on what kind of job I’m doing in the company?

Who are the people I would include in my composite mentor?

Would a coach be helpful as I’m scaling my company?

In what areas do I need to bring in specialists to get the company to the next level?

Where can I grow internal members to take on larger roles in the scaling phase?