Building high performance startup teams

Ross Sheil
Feb 3 · 11 min read

Originally published at https://rossysheil.com on February 3, 2020.

‘There’s no talent here, this is hard work. This is an obsession. Talent does not exist’ — Conor McGregor

I recently spent 2 weeks in San Francisco with a group of cross-functional leaders at Stripe from engineering, product, operations and revenue exploring best practices for building top-performing teams and it prompted a reflection on the best teams I’ve led and been a part of during my career. Whilst there are no mechanical set of steps a leader can implement to build a top-performing team there are behaviors and success patterns which an impactful leader encourages and optimizes towards to create the best conditions for a team to do their most valued work. Taking a 30,000 foot view the true function of a leader is to see beyond the individual, the role, the targets and the objectives to row in behind the social and business systems that ensure a team and its constituent relationships are greater than the sum of its parts.

Breaking it down the reality is that building teams and managing humans is equal parts art and science with a shot of unpredictability thrown in for good measure. As a startup founder or leader at early stage you are tasked with building a company and gradually moving from high output individual contributor to manager of people and resources wearing multiple hats projecting yourself through individuals and teams in an effort to deliver on the goals for the business. I’ve been through this journey a few times in my career and it’s a stage I have gravitated towards repeatedly as first boots on the ground launching new markets and teams at companies like Twitter, Stripe and a couple of Series A startups.

Getting the people challenge right is mission-critical to the success of your startup and the most important objective of a leader. In fact in recent research conducted by Harvard Professor Noam Wasserman in his book The Founder’s Dilemma 65% of startups failed in a sample of 10,000 due to people issues. Simply put, if you’ve lost a team you’ve got no product, if you’ve got no product, you’ve thrown away a business. In practice what you are optimizing for is maintaining the energy and development of a team, stewarding a team towards its vision and maintaining a healthy balance between task-orientation and people-orientation.

As an aside I’d highly recommend checking out Andy Grove’s High Output Management for best practices around this which is a people management philosophy encouraged by Dick Costolo during my time as Head of Mobile at Twitter which I wrote about in a previous blog.

So what exactly are the hallmarks of top-performing teams and how can you take steps towards creating this environment ? I must caveat that the results I have seen with the following concepts came from these being open, discussed and referenced across teams and not sitting in a manager toolkit gathering dust. As always openness and practice makes perfect with seeking to build high-performance behaviors in a team.

1. Top-performing teams possess a growth mindset

‘No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking’ — Voltaire

Every team will inevitably run into difficulty having to tackle new projects that they have no experience in, miss a stretch revenue target, suffer with product bugs or handle a tough conversation with a colleague. The outcome of how a team handles these issues is always a function of event + response = outcome. The response in that formula is informed by whether your team starts to develop limiting beliefs or biases toward developing a new muscle to solve the problem. The latter is known as a growth mindset popularized by Carol Dweck in performance psychology.

Individuals with a growth mindset believe that skills are cultivated there is no such thing as natural talent whereas individuals with a fixed mindset believe their failure is due to a limitation they have. In short the dichotomy is between individuals who have a binary interpretation of what is happening around them and those that have an adaptive interpretation. Those individuals that have an adaptive interpretation will actively enter the problem space and those are the high-performers that come from behind and achieve target or solve the process debt that exists on their team whilst those with a binary interpretation will fail so the key to success is ensuring your team has an adaptive interpretation.

The three biggest levers a leader has at their disposal to implement a growth mindset sit at the intersection of active introspection and feedback:

  • Create a culture of problem solving and learning
  • Build a culture of regular self and peer feedback in your team
  • Place high value on process and effort

As a tip ensure that the term ‘growth mindset’ is embedded in the vocabulary of your team and part of how your team approaches peer feedback and peer coaching. Over-time this will encourage problem solving behavior and adaptation so your team can become self-directed.

2. Top-performing teams do not shy away from conflict

In business, when two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary — Henry Ford.

If you adhere to Bruce Tuckman’s model of team development (which I do) every team goes through some conflict whilst they are figuring out communication norms, personalities and culture before they trust each team member. It is a commonly known dysfunction of a team that fear of conflict results in lack of feedback and ineffective communication.

Oftentimes in technology companies individuals can shy away from conflict or it is received as a bad word but the reality is that it occurs and when it does should be leaned into and channeled appropriately instead of being hands-off where it can incubate and evolve into something more sinister entirely.

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As teams move through their maturity from founding team stage ( forming) to mature team ( performing) there are various stages of growth each team will go through and motivation in the team evolves from fear to duty. In the forming stage individuals have a fear of where they sit in the group, how they are perceived and if they will be accepted whilst in the duty stage trust is firmly established and team members feel bound to each other by duty. In low-performing teams the risk you take as a leader is that your team stays in the forming/storming phase and simply threads water until the team implodes or grinds itself to a halt.

The key ingredient to creating a team that enters the performing stage is to ensure the team understands and has been coached on how to objectively assess team and self performance in the context of company values but most importantly openly articulate and embody this when communicating with peers and teams in the organization.

Namely the team should be able to immediately identify :

  1. What are the communication norms and values for collaborating and interacting with peers and other teams
  2. What does success look like in my role in the context of this environment

As an example Netflix and Uber are openly performance oriented cultures. Netflix former Chief People Officer Pattie McCord now infamous culture deck calls out Netflix as a sports team culture whilst they have a no brilliant jerks rule and expect high-performance. In organizations where culture is more tangible it is possible to navigate the path to high performance more easily where culture is the strongest filter available to a manager in building a team and new hires understand what they are opting into.

So, imagine a world where a Warby Parker employee coming from a team unity and peer coaching culture finds themselves in a performance oriented climate and straight talking team at Netflix, inevitably there will be some communications challenges in trying to reach the norming stage for how to communicate and collaborate.

In practice your role as leader is to ensure teams can communicate and adapt to this culture optimally so you can graduate stages quickly. Some of the best ways to approach this are through bringing cultural values into everyday conversations where employees can give public shout-outs and privately share feedback to peers using the values of the organization as a tool so they quickly understand the bounds of what is acceptable and how to be impactful.

3. Top-performing teams are psychologically safe

In teamwork, silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly.” — Mark Sanborn

In Google’s Project Aristotle the company analyzed data from 1,000’s of employees across 180 global teams in an effort to identify the common denominator of high performance teams. Hypotheses ran the gamut from manager effectiveness, autonomy, compensation, mastery, purpose, but the study struggled for months to identify the commonality.

Eventually the concept of psychological safety arose which in practice describes a team culture where individuals are comfortable being authentic and do not fear embarrassment for speaking up. A concept that I like to supplement alongside the findings of Project Aristotle is the Johari Window which is a tool that enables group members to better understand their relationship with others.

In the Johari window as awareness of each quadrant increases in the group so too does group trust and it is easy to identify where a perception or awareness vacuum exists. Have you asked your colleague about her weekend hobbies? Do you know she lost a close friend recently? Have you shared feedback with her on how she uses ineffective language? Have you let her know you admire her rapport building skills?

This is important as Project Aristotle found that psychologically safe teams respect two specific rituals :

  • They respect conversational turn taking in the group
  • They practice active listening and value empathy

As a leader high levels of empathy can be a super-power but to be genuinely empathetic you need to understand the individual and it is only through understanding the whole individual ( Johari window) that you can practice empathy. We’ve all been in teams where a small handful of individuals compete for the most air-time but this is not conducive towards building a top-performing team. Leaders that allow this dynamic to persist are ensuring the team’s communication is average at best and at worst team members feel unvalued and isolated. Your goal as leader is to act as distributor and moderator of conversation to ensure everyone feels listened to and respected.

4. Top-performing teams optimize for results

‘Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships’ — Michael Jordan

In high-performance team environments a leader’s role is to build both a learning climate and a performance climate to ensure team members can oscillate between modes to get meaningful work done and push themselves past their comfort zone whilst maintaining energy and motivation. In order to manage the output of your team accordingly its critical to manage the teams energy across both modes.

Understanding the motivation of each team member is central to creating an efficient frontier in the team. Each individuals motivation will be different either intrinsically motivated by personal growth and career progress or extrinsically motivated by rewards and praise. As a leader choose wisely the language and frameworks you use to motivate your team towards results using extrinsic language and communication to an intrinsically motivated person is like speaking a foreign language it simply won’t resonate.

Personally I’ve found the ‘skills, behaviors, results’ framework to be impactful in conversations with individuals to ensure not only are results being met but they’re achieved through company behaviors and the development of new skills in the team; this can be customized for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

For leaders OKRs can be the shortest distance between you and effective management outcomes; the most effective framework for results optimization is the OKRs framework popularized by John Doerr. OKRs very simply are a methodology for identifying SMART objectives and key results tied to KPIs. My experience of successful implementation of OKRs in over-achieving teams is that they should be tied to key company goals so the team can understand their work has a direct causal effect on the business acting as a north star metric in 1:1s, development conversations, team meetings and all-hands.

Lastly team members will often receive a mixture of strategic and tactical task-oriented work. In optimizing for long-term results and to get the best out of your people they need to be in a flow state focused on meaningful/strategic work in addition to the tactical work required to get the job done.

If your team is spending the majority of time on tactical work it is a long-term risk to the commitment of the team and there is an imperative on you as a leader to find a path to deep-work. I’ve seen transformative change in individuals when their day to day work is augmented with deep work across the team where they can develop expertise, confidence and a thought leadership role amongst peers.

5. Top-performing teams understand the vision

‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn’. Benjamin Franklin

Having no vision is failure-mode for a team. When there is a vision vacuum humans fill the void and ascribe lack of meaning to their work. Everyone has experience of a team where there has been a weak or no vision and it’s hard to rally for the team and leader. It’s also important to define what a vision is not. A vision is not some lofty statement that sits in an investor deck, nor is it a string of verbs and adjectives without an actionable strategy. It’s a meaningful validated objective that the immediate team can rally around and should be on the top list of priorities for a leader to define when building a team.

In high-performance culture a strong vision is audacious, ambitious with demonstrable impact. Compare Uber ‘ we ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion’ to Spotify ‘ our mission is to unlock the potential of human creativity-by giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by it’.

Notwithstanding the success Uber has experienced Spotify’s vision is exponentially more clear and a vision which every leader at Spotify can champion unambiguously with their teams. There is also a nuance in vision statements as teams scale; when you apply Dunbars number to company culture a vision statement can become less impactful at 500 or 1000+ people. On regional staff teams I’ve been a part of during my career like at Twitter Europe localized vision statements for regional teams have resonated more than the company vision which was seen as abstract and fluffy.

So in summary get it right from the beginning and invest in the process in collaboration with your team. A framework I’ve found useful in workshopping a vision statement with teams is Google’s vision statement toolkit from their ‘ Eight Habits of Highly Effective Managers ‘ which helps managers turn conceptual vision statements into actionable strategies. It’s a simple framework that guides teams to understanding a vision based on core values, purpose, mission, strategy and goals. Most importantly make certain your vision is actionable and measurable through a measurement process whether you choose to do OKRs or not.

What can I do as a leader to create a high-performance environment?

As a leader you are accountable for the conditions and environment your team operates in. So if you want a smart-cut to building a high performing team these are the areas I always start with :

* Build a vision 
* Embrace a feedback culture
* Bias to problem solving
* Promote a learning climate
* Establish communication norms
* Use conversational turn taking

Ultimately there are no short-cuts to developing teams and above all else it is important to not rush stages but in optimizing for the above you will offer your team the best possible odds of graduating to the performing stage and hitting a state of flow.


Originally published at https://rossysheil.com on February 3, 2020.

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Ross Sheil

Written by

Senior Leader & Business Builder, I write about coding, culture, leadership, management, technology, mobile, challenging yourself https://twitter.com/RossySheil

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +683K people. Follow to join our community.

Ross Sheil

Written by

Senior Leader & Business Builder, I write about coding, culture, leadership, management, technology, mobile, challenging yourself https://twitter.com/RossySheil

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +683K people. Follow to join our community.

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