The Dirty Little Secret About Start-up Success—It Can Be Brutal For Early Employees
This is an article written by me and my long-term colleague, MaryAnn Rettig-Zucchi, based on our experience coaching start-up execs.
Anyone who has been in on the ground floor of a start-up can tell you what an intoxicating experience. What they may not tell you is how being successful can change it all.
In the trenches together, the early employees are more than mere colleagues. They are comrades and have one another’s backs. They become one another’s primary social circle given the sheer number of hours spent together. It is a heady experience to be passionate about bringing a dream to reality, building something from seemingly nothing, and bonding with others in the process. The hours may be long and the pay-off uncertain, but those early employees are richly rewarded in their sense of pride and ownership in the organization as they begin to taste success. It is at once challenging and fun, exhausting and magical. And they can’t imagine it being any other way.
But here is the dirty little secret—before long it will be another way. While some may have heard stories about big changes at other start-ups as they grew, many early employees delude themselves into believing that they are immune from such growing pains: “What we have is special—we aren’t going to fall into the trap of all of those other places that change as they grow.” “That would never happen here—we’re different.” “This place can’t survive without us—we are its heart and soul.” Sadly, these beliefs can lead the very people who have indeed poured their hearts and souls into creating the initial product to be left on the sidelines as attention needs to shift from just “how do we make our product great?” to include “how do we make our organization great?”.
When a handful of people are sitting around a table making decisions collaboratively and getting results, there is little need for consideration of systems, structure, management, or functions like sales and marketing. Everyone is a part of everything, making it up as they go. The seeming irony is that the very approach that lead to initial success can doom the venture to failure if the organization, and those key early employees, are not able to readily adapt to new organizational structures and ways of operating. Marshall Goldsmith entitled a book on career development “What got you here won’t get you there”. The same holds true for leading a start-up beyond its initial success. What got it to this point will not take it to the next level.
When early employees think that doing things the way they have always been done is with the road to success in the future, they can inadvertently sabotage the very changes needed to grow the company. And there can be many changes that early employees are hesitant to embrace—bringing in new leaders who have not been there all along, introducing structures and systems, no longer being a part of every decision. Seduced by the fun, freewheeling early days, they feel like they have lost a lot of the “juice” that made it so exciting to be part of the start up. Some become resentful, angry and question the motives of leaders introducing change. Some feel like victims, underappreciated and edged out of what has become an inner circle.
What can early employees do to ride the tumultuous waves of change?
1. Accept it as inevitable. What got you here won’t get you there. That means that the way decisions are made and the way work gets done may have to be quite different moving forward.
2. Realize that this isn’t about you. Really. Having put so much into those early days, many find their identity wrapped up in their roles and take organizational decisions personally.
3. Understand that business success requires more than a great product. Bring your great spirit of innovation to looking at how the organization can evolve to drive further growth.
4. Hold back on the conclusions. It is all too easy to draw conclusions about others’ motivations and intentions. (e.g., “they are trying to get rid of me!”). Do yourself a favour and ask rather than assume.
5. Mourn a bit and move on. Of course you are sad to lose the intimacy of those early days. It was fun. It was all about possibilities. Now you are into reality and, to reap the rewards of that early dream, things need to change.
6. Cut yourself some slack. If you weren’t put in an executive role it doesn’t mean you will never get there nor does it mean that you are not valued. Ask yourself what new skills you need to develop to take on such roles in a larger organization.
7. Cut others some slack. When folks are new they will make mistakes. You have been there all along and you, too, will make some more mistakes along the way. Better than just giving folks some slack and not rejecting them, look for ways to integrate new leaders into the organization. They can only learn about what makes it special if you are willing to work with them.