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Hire Right to Scale Up
This week’s guest post is by Parul Gupta, Co founder of Springboard. I first met Parul in 2018 as a co-panelist in an edtech conference in India, while I was managing Udacity’s India business and Parul was busy scaling up Springboard globally.
It was around the time that she was looking to build her leadership team for India. Her thoughtfulness around intentional hiring came out within the first few minutes of our interaction. Fast forward to 2022, I have really come to admire Parul’s intellectual curiosity in whatever she is doing- from starting a new office to starting a new business line, from thinking what matters to students to thinking what matters to her in her next gig.
I am glad Parul is sharing views on hiring practices as she helped scale the team to 200+ employees. She talks about how hiring remains a priority through different stages of the company, while the hiring needs keep on evolving very quickly as the company grows. I hope you find the guest post immensely useful, as you think of your team building for scaling up the business.
Hire Right to Scale Up
- Parul Gupta
For leaders, building the right team has always been an essential pillar of scaling a business. Today, it is more critical than ever as the global economy reels from a massive talent shortage due to the great resignation. In this mad scramble to fill roles, what's easy to miss is that the "right team" can look quite different depending on business maturity.
This topic is one close to my heart. If I were to pick one contribution that I am unabashedly proud of, it would be the exceptionally talented and mission-driven team at Springboard. Since its inception in 2013, the team evolved from two founders to 200+ full-time employees supported by a globally distributed freelance community of 1000+ domain experts. The business grew to a $40+M run rate through a portfolio of products and market launches, each achieving different maturity levels.
In this post, I share learnings from seeing teams operate at different levels and what I consider essential traits in three stages: a new business, a maturing business, and a new business in a mature business.
If you're an early-stage startup searching for your first product-market-fit (PMF), you're here. I also refer to it as the 0->1 phase. The discovery process is full of ambiguity and uncertainty, and a lot can change about the business in short periods.
In this phase, you need self-driven, entrepreneurial people who embrace chaos rather than be intimidated by it. The hours are long, the pay sucks, yet some strange inner drive keeps them doing whatever it takes. True innovation requires analytical and first principles thinking, the courage to try new things, and a growth mindset when faced with failure. It's ok if they don't have relevant experience or skills, but the right attitude is non-negotiable.
Further, at this stage, you need makers, not managers. There's enough work to go around, and resources are scarce. Everyone pulls their weight and some more. The team leans towards a bias to action over excellence. They might not be the best at every task, but they can do each one needed to ship.
Finally, it's essential to assess core values, trust, and collaboration. There's no room for "this is not my job" nor for titles and territorial conflicts. An interview we added to Springboard's hiring process quite early was a "values round." Usually taken by an interviewer on a different team, this round wasn't about functional skills or experience. Instead, it aimed to understand the candidate's mindset about collaboration, feedback, failure, etc., through informal dialogue. We often heard from candidates that this round showcased our focus on culture and became a strong selling point for them.
Post-PMF growth stages cover a large spectrum – a team going from 20->100, 100->500, and each stage after that has a different flavor. Ambiguity gives way to repeatability as jobs become well-defined and need to be optimized.
It's time to hire functional experts who can leverage their experience and best practices to push towards higher quality, better efficiency, and larger scale. As roles specialize and clear boundaries start to emerge, you'll need an intentional shift to hiring for strength and not lack of weakness. You will also need to ruthlessly prioritize must-haves vs. nice-to-haves and discern what's coachable to fill roles expeditiously.
As teams grow, you'll need more formal people management. A natural tendency is to promote early hires to managers. However, manager responsibilities differ considerably from ICs, especially for specialized technical roles. Not everyone will enjoy being a manager. If your early hires do not have experience managing people, an intentional conversation about what it entails and whether it fits with their strengths and goals will help. If they are eager to give it a shot, support them. The transition from doers to new managers is surprisingly non-trivial. Proactively investing in training & development will save everyone much heartache. And if either side senses a mismatch (off the bat or after the transition), it's better to address it openly.
This stage is where your HR/People team will come into existence and mature like all other functions. You'll make your first hire and add expertise gradually. At Springboard, adding stage-appropriate expertise in recruiting and HR systems helped us streamline considerably. E.g., hiring playbooks, rubrics, and interview training were game-changers for holding a consistent bar across a growing number of interviewers. Similarly, using an ATS helped us take the same data-driven approach to candidate funnels that we adopted for our growth funnels. Our People Team leaders were valuable partners in the aforementioned manager training and career conversations as well.
New business in a mature business
When growth in the core business plateaus, companies need to look for new levers that can augment (or even disrupt) the core. Of the three stages discussed, setting up a "new initiatives" team for success is arguably the trickiest because of the conflicting dynamics of new and mature businesses. Org design and resource allocation are as critical for success as team traits.
As in 0->1 teams, bias to action and first principles thinking are paramount; generalists often a better fit than specialists. Unless your company has the resources to spin up an independent skunkworks team, intrapreneurial teams have to be scrappy with limited resources. These teams depend on internal shared resources for support, where continuity of context, relationships, and culture helps get things done. At Springboard, a repeatable, successful team configuration was tenured entrepreneurial generalists moving laterally to lead or co-lead new initiatives.
Most importantly, these initiatives need people who can question long-standing beliefs (at the risk of being unpopular) and break new ground. They are forces of nature who can withstand the naysayers and counter forces exerted from the larger core of the existing business(es).
In summary, there isn't a single talent playbook that works for all scenarios. A business's trajectory might not always be linear through these stages. Failure to cross the chasm might necessitate a pivot, sending you back to the drawing board. Macro-environment changes might necessitate layering on new businesses sooner than expected and even sunset a mature product line. The best thing leaders can do is adapt their hiring philosophy visibly when crossing over into a new stage. In the absence of this reset, the org's default behavior is to stick to existing playbooks, leading to wrong decisions despite the best intentions.