Talent management for truly complex & fast-growing teams

… or “Things I wish someone had told me before starting a department from scratch”

This article is based on a talk I gave at Elevate Summit (London 2016), back when I was building Customer Support for Typeform. As I’ve been recurrently asked for my slides since then, I thought about doing some 1-to-many sharing here.

What’s a fast-growing team?

In the world of startups and tech companies in general, things move fast. Hyperlooply fast. Product changes, investment rounds, leadership shifts… the rhythm is insane and can drive some people nuts. But what is fast for some may look slime slow for others. When can you say with confidence that you are in a fast-growing scenario? How can you put a number to that roller-coaster sensation?

In case of team growth, after some head scratching I found a very simple rule that applies to new teams and startups:

When a team’s growth forecast is 2x in less than four quarters, that team is fast-growing and requires more attention from management than a slowly-growing or a consolidated team.
Evolution of Customer Success headcount until mid’2016 and forecast for following quarters. On green, members of Customer Support. On white, members of other Success teams in the department.

This was happening at Typeform’s Customer Success when I gave the Elevate Summit talk. From early 2015 until mid-2016 we were recruiting like if we were a country suddenly facing war. And there were no plans to slow down anytime soon. That required some careful thinking about department structure, profiles needed, and newbie onboarding.

What is a complex team?

Back to the roller-coaster metaphor, this one in particular not only has more corkscrews than anyone’s stomach can cope with, it also fashions multiple tracks and, even though you are the engineer in charge and this is supposed to be a science, you can’t be 100% certain about which track will be taken by each of the cars in the train at a certain moment in the future.

Again, everyone in a team has their own circumstances, so how do you know your roller-coaster team can be legitimately labeled as complex? I’m not sure about the answer, but my experience tells me it should be close to this:

When the lines of work and specialties in a team are over 2x team members, both the team and the work it does are highly complex.
Customer Success´ structure vs Support team structure at Typeform in mid-2016. Non-Support teams domain and complexity is defined by team name. On the contrary, for Support’s structure there were 4 different ways to explain the architecture and domain of the team, according to scopes: Services covered (eg Billing), Teams (eg Technical Support), Areas (eg Learning & Development), and Channels (eg Twitter).

As the leading engineer of this unconventional roller-coaster, you can hope -and obviously work- for the best so all cars follow the same or similar tracks, they don’t collide at intersections at any moment, and no car train derails. But all these incidents may and will probably happen, and that’s where planning, structuring, and hiring the right people gets in.

Why all that might -and probably will- happen?

If you are hiring to cover a redundancy need, you may end up with multiple employees aiming at the same career path. This can be solved hiring different expertise levels, and splitting responsibilities according to operational areas (strategy, operations, product…), connection with other departments (ambassadorships, hybrid roles…), or market shape (user base segment, business regions…).

Moreover, people in the team will have more than a single knowledge area, which means you need to keep in mind multiple career paths for them that fit into your long-term plans. Remember that you need a solid set of plans, expectations, and predictions before interviewing even the best candidate on Earth.

Don’t hire someone just because of their fitness to the offered position and their individual potential; you need that person to fit — or purposely disrupt — a whole team.

As a manager, you should have a fairly accurate idea of where else that person can be useful for the organization in the future, and if their career path expectations align with your projections. Forgetting about this is the cause of many false positive issues, a drop in teams’ performance, and a puzzled expression on managers’ faces.

All this said, despite the headaches it may cause there are two key advantages of a highly-complex team compared to a standard one:

  • It can easily cope with someone leaving, for it has skills redundancy. That’s a lifesaving backup when hiring processes are slow but the show must go on no matter what, exempli gratia Customer Care services.
  • The need for redundant hires to guarantee coverage doesn’t sacrifice the breadth and variety of areas the team can operate in.

The real purpose of a career path model

Back to the bygone scenario at Typeform, it was clear that if we could tackle a first working version of a career paths model for our Customer Support team, it would be reasonably easy to export it other teams both in Customer Success and the company.

A career paths model is not just a list of roles for the people you currently have in a given team or department. It’s not something that people managers have to deal with and then store in a file cabinet until someone from Human Resources asks them; it’s an everyday management tool leaders should be involved with, because a good one must answer these questions:

  • What roles and areas do you have now, and how do they work together?
  • How is performance going to be monitored and support promoting the right people?
  • What are your plans and possible future scenarios the team/department might be immersed in?

That is, a career paths model is a layered map of roles and responsibilities (Structure visualization), a list of expectations (Assessment tool), and a collection of forecasts and potential paths that team members can take according to the manager’s vision, strategy, predictions and, let’s be honest, hopes (Long-term operations planning tool).

A practical example

Now let’s have a look at the first version of the model we built.

  • Structure visualization: Levels & specialties
  • Assessment tool: Skills and achievements
  • Planning tool: Career vectors

Structure visualization: Levels & specialties

The first tool is about what you have now versus what you want to build. It doesn’t matter if there’s seven in the team and the structure shows positions for 30; in fact it should, because envisioning how the area will look in the long term makes a manager to think about the future and grow as a true planner and leader, not just remain a reactive supervisor.

Let me be Captain Obvious for a moment and highlight that hierarchies have a lot to do with how seasoned are each ladder’s inhabitants and how much decision-making capacity and domain each level grants; but — and this is less than obvious in many organizations — one of the main points of having hierarchies is to make sure there’s a minimum time of permanence in each level to guarantee that employees have been able to walk the walk properly before breaking into a run, so they will know exactly what to expect from people under their care and they can act as mentors when they are finally promoted.

Any key accountability and decision-making node in the team that has not been addressed with clear role attributions and team structure will not turn into a flat team-inclusive network. Most usually, an invisible hierarchy to optimize decision making and resources allocation will be born from social forces inside the team. Invisible hierarchies rarely are aligned with business goals, and their fairness can’t be curated by managers.

A solid structure of level and specialties makes easier to design job descriptions, give candidates and the team the right expectations about the role, and detect and discourage candidates who are more into getting a foot in the door to navigate positions in the organization than into the job actually offered.

Basic structure of role levels and hierarchy. Note that there are multiple possible roles for each level, according to seniority and focus on operations and process management, people management, or expertise area and leadership focus.

Assessment tool: Skills and achievements

The second tool is about how you want to measure the performance of individuals versus each role you designed for the team’s structure.

The most obvious benefit is its usefulness as a people management tool, so for each employee their performance, areas of improvement, and reasonable career paths are easily monitored on a periodic basis.

The least obvious benefits are hidden in plain sight:

  • This tool is not only a matrix of skills for each individual/role, it’s also a skills matrix for the team as a whole. Assembling all team members’ matrices together you can visualize how well your team covers all its attributions and expected expertise, which means you can identify most urgent roles to hire next and weakest redundancy points.
  • Keep basic skills coverage right, for instance regarding operations and training, which are a must in every healthy team as some roles must focus on those tasks to help you manage the team — remember that there will be some times that you will have more direct reports that is comfortable — and onboarding newbies.
  • Expanding the team to new areas of coverage is fast. Just defining those area and skills you will see who can be shifted immediately or pursue a career towards a related vector, and what is key when hiring for those.

Remember not overengineering. There’s a limit on how much detail people managers can track, and what skills are truly significant for the whole team. If there are too many skills that only are expected from one or two team members, then consider excluding them from the general matrix.

Mapping between role responsibilities and skill accomplishment or role achievement (in case of quantifiable goals ). This is a visual simplification of a heatmap-like spreadsheet for both individuals and the team.

Planning tool: Career vectors

The third and last tool is all about about monitoring team dynamics. About understanding the growth potential and realistic career paths that each individual can have both inside the team and also towards other teams in the company

A career path doesn’t have to be always vertical, it can be horizontal too. There are people who are not interested in managing whole areas or teams, or would like to be involved in tasks around people management (from onboarding to hiring) but not on others like operations planning.

Many companies lose great contributors when they can only obtain recognition and salary increase through a promotion up the ladder. These employees leave for other companies offering a more mature and fitting seniority model that is better at preventing Peter’s principle from happening.

Career vectors are useful tools, as well, to preserve transparency and fairness, turning the manager into a trusted and respected partner for each team member. They, as well, help to avoid conflicts among team members, and guarantee performance levels after implemented changes.

Identification of skills and achievements as parameters for each career vector, be it to other roles inside the team or outside it towards other teams.

Keep it simple

At the most basic level, everything explained here is about:

  • Coherence: The same model for all roles and structures inside team nurtures cohesiveness and trust on the manager.
  • Fairness: The same assessment tool for everyone means that employees can trust to be evaluated correctly and receive the best feedback possible.
  • Openness: Clarity and transparency about expectations and career paths encourages positive information flows and dynamics in the team, enabling initiatives such as mentoring, and facilitates mid and long-term planning.
  • Flexibility: If these tools are kept in the highest level of abstraction possible, the team and its domain will have solid ground to grow on without having to revamp the approach to people management every few quarters, no matter the team size or area changes.

And, last but not least, keep in mind these words from Mike Steib about the most important point when identifying and managing talent for a team, no matter how complex of fast-growing it may be: