Building in Public 9: How My Role Has Changed As We Scaled From 3 to 9 People

Recently at Steppen we have gone (quite quickly — in about 3 months) from 3 co-founders to 9 full timers. As the team has scaled my role as co-founder — in the weeds executing everything has evolved to be more ‘big picture’ focused. The skills I previously needed to be competent in my role — getting shit done quickly and well, has shifted to be more about communicating across the team our vision, goals & ensuring alignment.

Throughout the team scale up process there have been two distinct times I realised — oh this is not going to be like it has been previously…

Let’s jump into those instances and discuss how your role as co-founder changes as your team scales

Moment 1: Realising I need to up-skill as a manager quickly.

Situation: I was pinged by Dave saying a piece of work by one of our employees was not up to scratch. They are one of my direct reports — part of the product team. I was taken aback as I had gone through the work that morning and workshopped with them the changes required — but none of those changes had been made.

My reaction: Rather than taking a step back to ask how I could support in the work — I jumped to conclusions, basically assuming they had completely ignored our conversation that morning and been lazy.

Accordingly I sent them a pissed off and passive aggressive slack something along the lines of — “Why have the changes we discussed not been made? I clearly indicated that was top priority.

I am going to copy the card and show you how I would have done this as a point of reference.” Tbh the message I wrote I am pretty sure was both ruder and more undermining of my employee than what I’ve summarised.

Reality of the situation: they had been in back to back meetings following our conversation and then had to go straight to a doctor’s appointment (which they had told me about- but I had forgotten to factor into their day). So they just had not had the opportunity to make the relevant updates.

Reflecting on my actions:

I realised a couple hours after chatting to one of my mentors Simon- sending the message wasn’t the right response. I quickly detracted my message but the damage was done.

What I should have lead with was “hey — just wanted to follow up after our call this morning and see if there is anything I can clarify or support with?”

Instead I had instinctively felt that Dave calling out one of my direct reports work was a reflection on me and I had to swoop in and save the day. Which completely undermines the autonomy of our employees and does not give them an opportunity to learn.

Outcome: Luckily our team culture is pretty open — so before I could even apologise to my employee when we caught up the next day to discuss another piece of work they just called me out. Which was actually really nice. They explained to me how my message had made them feel stressed and like I did not trust them (which yeah my actions indicated I did not) and overall pretty shitty. I explained ‘yeah I know it was pretty shitty behaviour — I am really trying to be the best manager I can. But I am going to fuck up and sometimes I am going to need to you tell me that I have and then help me be better.

While this unfolded I was internally laughing a little — not because the situation was funny (I do have a tendency in personal situations to laugh at inappropriate things luckily this trait does not follow me too much into work…) but because I had been warned that management was hard, the expectation from the team on me would jump and I would be scrambling to keep up. Scrambling I was indeed! It was this conversation that I realised — fuckkkk I am need get up to spead very quickly as a manager so I can be so I can really support my team in their work. So I acted quickly and took the following actions:

  • Asked for help — I pinged the Startmate slack group and asked for any resources people recommended — the community got around me offering to catch up with me and suggesting some good resources
  • I signed up for the Mintable! (they are SM allumni) running courses for managers on how to actually manage. It was a four week course with 4 x hour and bit long sessions on the various different dimensions of management. I really enjoyed the course — my direct reports would tease me as I continuously would bring up a line something like — at the mintable I learnt xxx so let’s try that!!

Ultimately — I am really thankful that my employee felt comfortable enough to explain to me how my actions had made them feel and that I was mature enough to realise — cool I got to work on this quickly. I’d like to think I have become a much better manager as a result.

Moment 2: Realising I am no longer the primary doer.

Situation: I worked with Amy & Ryan on redesigning our entire app information architecture. It was a big, basically entire week task (that’s long for us bahaha) prompted by our refocus on our content creators (read about it here). Once we had figured out how our iterated app would high level look (e.g. main pages) it was time to delegate the work. I had asked both Amy and Ryan which areas they were excited by and used that to initially divide the work — fleshing out in more detail the potential solutions we could test.

The call ended and I realised — I had (rightly) not allocated myself any of the user flows.

Reflecting on the situation

I felt like I had lost something. I love going deep into product it get’s me excited. I love being able to focus on one thing and getting into flow (something I don’t always get to do in my role). But I realised that was not going to be the best use of my skills nor the best way to leverage Amy and Ryan. I also realised this was going to happen more and more. I took one second to mourn for that work and then resumed to my long list of more relevant tasks to sink my teeth into.

Reality of new situation: as your team scales where you can provide your real value as a co-founder & CEO becomes less and less as an individual contributor. Instead it comes from strategising, leading and communicating. Your value becomes leveraging the rest of the AMAZING people you hired (you hired them because they are awesome and talented). I want to stress you still have individual contributor tasks you will need to do but they start to become less frequent.

As the team scales

  • You also start to recognise what your strengths vs the rest of the team’s are. Sometimes for bunch of reasons — skill wise, time wise to handle day to day tasks you are simply not the best person for a task. E.g. I suck at copy. Me investing time into becoming great at copy does not make sense — as both Ryan, Amy and Jake are all good at copy. It makes far more sense for copy related tasks to be delegate to one of them.
  • You need to invest in your role as CEO. Honestly this is something I am working at and still navigating a lot.
  • With more people in the team context is more splintered. Alignment becomes something you need to more actively ensure. Being proactive when a team member is stressed, confused or frustrated or when business context changes becomes more vital. I do enjoy the CEO responsibilities — it’s exciting, stressful and keeps me on my toes.

However the behaviour and mindset to be a great CEO can often be at odds with the tunnel vision you had when it was all about you being a great IC. Acknowledge that. I have tried to ensure I am taking the relevant step back so my team can thrive at the tasks I used to do (often doing them better then I ever could which is when I know they are the right people). It can be hard. You can feel an urge to swoop in and make sure everything is right. You can also then be too hands off and not provide enough context setting people up for failure.

It’s a different role. It’s an exciting one. I am looking forward to many more lessons and specific instances where I realise okayyyy things are different — I need to adapt quick.

As I come across them I will continue to share them.

Thank you for reading — chat again soon!

Cara ❤️

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