One of the hardest things about management is actually doing it. This still doesn’t come easily to me, despite having read too many books on the subject. Management is like music: you can learn the theory, but only practice will make you good.
Frustratingly, most management theory focuses on how to make sure bad things don’t happen. This isn’t helpful for new managers, especially if you’re running a company: you can’t read books whenever you need to do something; and, once you know the books you should’ve read, the bad thing has happened.
Even the best leaders struggle to grow companies without making mistakes. You’re more likely to make mistakes if you’re stretched, and your company is more likely to create them if its growing. Management is hard even when your company is doing well.
Rather than get good at management, I’ve found a better strategy for new managers running growing companies: build a team that can handle your mistakes.
It’s harder to get everything right than to be robust to getting something wrong. The Three Beliefs are how to be robust.
Last year the Entrepreneur First team grew like never before. We started with eight people full time. By the end of the year there were forty five people on the EF team across Singapore, the UK, and the US.
Growing the team is easy, but doing it right is hard. We messed it up before, prematurely hiring the wrong people for the wrong roles. The first couple of times we grew past ten people, we came back down again. It was painful.
This time I think it’s the right time to grow, but there are still growing pains. The beliefs of your team can make these growing pains hurt more, or hurt less.
It’s supposed to hurt
Growing pains are a good sign: they’re a consequence of growth, which should mean you’re succeeding.
Each wave of employees, from the founders to interns, feels they’re different to the next. They might be right, but the pains they create stay the same: painful distance; painful decisions; and painful mistakes.
Growth creates an increasing distance between people.
With each wave of hires, existing team members lose visibility and direct influence. This applies within teams – as management layers increase people necessarily get further away from each other. It applies across teams – as teams specialise most individual roles become less linked to other teams.
Distance can be a good sign, if it’s a consequence of growth. But it creates resentment. You’re having distance problems if the existing team view new hires uncharitably (especially senior ones), perceive a lack of leadership transparency, or resent losses of influence.
Team growth is bad for decision making. You need to make decisions while trying to maintain speed and quality.
One option is to have an increasingly small percentage of the company involved in making decisions. Which precise group should depend on the decision. This means you can make fast, bold decisions, only involving people with relevant marginal information.
This approach gets difficult as the company grows and decisions are made in proportionally smaller groups. People who aren’t involved in making a decision are less likely to cooperate. So, though you can decide quickly, you have to implement slowly. Even if the decision is good, the politics will be bad.
Alternatively, you can frontload the politics and involve more people in making decisions. Decisions will be accepted quicker, but made slower. Dangerously, you will encourage consensus decisions. Consensus decisions get worse as you grow because proportionally fewer people have relevant information, and individual interests can appear to diverge from the company’s.
Painful decisions can be a good sign, if they’re a consequence of growth. But they undermine egos. You’re having decision problems when your team resist good decisions they don’t make, perceive conflict between their interests and the company’s, or make worse decisions.
Team growth inevitably creates lots of mistakes.
The right reason to grow is that your team needs to operate beyond their maximum capacity. But when you’re this stretched, even if you know what to do, you’ll sometimes mess up the implementation.
Growth means more things happen at a faster rate so you will, in an absolute sense, make more mistakes. At any given time more things will be going wrong, even if more things are going right.
Mistakes will get absolutely bigger, too. The organisation is more complex, the stakes have increased, and you’re taking more draws from the distribution of possible mistakes. Your worst problem at any given time will only be getting worse.
You are going to hire the wrong people, mismanage things, and let people down. As a higher proportion of your team are new joiners, these mistakes will represent an increasing proportion of the combined experience what it’s like to work at your company. It becomes difficult to control internal narratives.
Mistakes can be a good sign, if they are consequences of growth. But they fuel doubts. Your mistakes become problems when they’re treated as character flaws, when people leaving the company is taken as a sign, and when people begin to bitch about the leaders or direction of the company.
The Three Beliefs
There are three things that everyone must believe for your company to grow quickly without it being too painful:
The company leaders want what’s best for the company.
The company leaders want what’s best for each individual in their team.
The company leaders are competent and dedicated.
These are the Three Beliefs. If everyone believes them, you are robust to lots of problems. If they don’t, your growing pains will stunt your growth. Your job as a leader is to constantly reinforce them by demonstrating and communicating that they are true. Whenever things go wrong, the first thing you need to do is find out which belief went missing, then restore it.
Importantly, you should reduce the conflict between 1 and 2. Good growth is a good thing for good people: it creates space to move into above and below, increased responsibility, and new business opportunities. If there is a genuine conflict between 1 and 2, you’re usually doing it wrong. The best companies enable great people to flourish, and monetise them.
Be robust, not perfect
Growing pains are addressable through improved communication, process, and management.
But often you’ll only realise something is wrong when it’s too late. If best practice were easy to do, management consultants would be entrepreneurs. Instead of trying to be infallible, you should use the Three Beliefs to be robust.
The Three Beliefs build robustness into your team by providing context to compensate for your imperfections. They give you the benefit of the doubt when you need it most:
If your team believes you want what’s best for the company, distance is accepted as a consequence of scale. New hires are enablers, not threats. Lack of visibility is inevitable, not deliberate. Loss of influence increases effectiveness, not obstacles.
If your team believes you want what’s best for them, decisions are easier to make and implement. Decisions are good or bad, not political statements. Their interests are decision constraints, not collateral. You can make the best possible decision, not the best decision possible.
If your team believes you are competent and dedicated, mistakes can be forgiven. You can make a mistake, not become one. Leavers are unfortunate, not prescient. Bitching is extinguished, not encouraged.
The Three Beliefs won’t make your growing pains go away, but they will provide relief. Your job as a leader is to constantly reinforce them. When things go wrong, the first thing to find out is which belief has gone. Without all three, growing pains will stunt your growth.
Thanks to the EF team for reading drafts of this. If you’d like to grow with us, start here.