Learning by doing: My first years as a manager in a tech start-up — Part III: People development

Sophia Höfling
9 min readNov 9, 2019

Watching the Netflix documentary about Bill Gates, one quote from his mother struck me:

“Each one of us has to start out with developing his or her own definition of success. And when we have these specific expectations of ourselves, we are more likely to live up to them. Ultimately it’s not what you get or even what you give. It’s what you become.” (Mary Gates)

From my point of view, as a manager, it’s not only crucial to develop your own definition of success. Your job is to understand and help form the respective success definitions of each of your team members. Subsequently, you create the conditions that help them thrive towards achievement.

With this article, I want to share my take-aways from guiding people in their career development. My learnings are based on the past three years when I was growing a Customer Experience Team of 28 people from scratch at the start-up NavVis. Fast-growing start-ups are not necessarily known for putting a strong focus on the development of their employees in the early days. It’s all about launching products and growing revenue. Growing the capabilities of the people often falls short. I was lucky to learn from my outstanding managers and an incredible people team to put people development high up on my priorities from day one. Fostering the professional growth of everyone in a team became one of the fundamental building blocks of my leadership DNA.

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

As a rookie manager in a start-up, you may wonder if it is really worth to put time and effort into people development in the early days of a venture. Isn’t the idea of a start-up to throw people in the deep end? To give them lots of responsibilities so that professional growth simply happens automatically? From my point of view, this only holds true to a certain extent. Learning by doing is useful, but even more so if it’s guided in the right direction. People development is not about you developing your team’s capabilities. It’s about helping your team understand where their growth has the most significant impact and providing them a guardrail to grow accordingly. As Joi Ito writes in his (highly recommendable) book Whiplash: “Education is something that is done to you. Learning is something you do for yourself.” Learning will take much longer and might not take place where it’s most needed to achieve your team’s mission if no support and orientation are provided by you as a manager.

Additionally, having a clear people development concept is a powerful employer branding booster and a means of retaining talent. Especially in the early days of a start-up, it’s difficult to hire good people. If you can demonstrate how you will help people grow, you’re more likely to bring capable people on board and keep them.

Besides the economic advantages, from a somewhat selfish perspective, I find helping others grow one of the most fulfilling aspects of management and leadership. Business success is ephemeral. Personal growth isn’t. I am convinced that once my hair is grey and my skin wizened, the thing I will remember is how I (hopefully) impacted my colleagues’ professional paths rather than the revenue growth I achieved.

Hence, both from a business and a personal perspective, I consider it indispensable for every manager to build a well-thought-through people development system early on.

From my point of view, effective people development has three main building blocks:

  1. Setting expectations and building identity
  2. Creating a culture of feedback and self-reflection
  3. Providing structured learning opportunities

1 — Setting expectations and building identity

As described in my previous article on onboarding, clarifying expectations avoids misunderstandings and aligns you and your team on a joint mission. As soon as someone new has joined, find out what their expectations towards their role and development path are. Then explain your expectations. A practical tool to express your expectations is a role description. It describes the impact the position is supposed to have on the overall company objective and its key responsibilities. A more comprehensive role description may also include a variety of skills to provide guidance for development. I started way too late to write down clear role descriptions. Once I did, I felt that those descriptions were an excellent basis for feedback discussions and helped everyone to stay focused. For the first one to two people in your team, it’s probably an unnecessary overhead to write such role descriptions. When the team is small, everyone does a bit of everything. Clear role descriptions can even be harmful as they stop people from being open and creative and tackling the problems at hand, not the problems that fit their role description best. Once the team grows bigger, it becomes necessary to divide and conquer. Include the team in developing crisp role descriptions for themselves. Then make those role descriptions accessible for everyone in the company. It’s important for everyone who cooperates with your team to know who is responsible for what. Role descriptions help build identity.

For me, another essential tool to understand what everyone in my team valued and aimed to achieve are “strengths finding workshops”. Such workshops are based on the belief that one should foster one’s strengths rather than trying to cope with one’s weaknesses. Fixing weaknesses prevents failure. Strength building leads to excellence. Before the workshop, everyone defines their core strengths individually. There are multiple tools to do so. I’ve used the Top 5 CliftonStrengths online assessment from Gallup. It’s based on a vast database and years of research, and it’s relatively cheap. During the workshop, everyone reflects and visualizes their strengths on a canvas. In a share out session, the strengths canvases are shared with the team. Everyone presents their own strengths, how they want to make use of them, and improve them further. Afterward, the group gives feedback. It’s all about positivity! Don’t tell people what they are not good at but reassure them what they excel at. When I first introduced this format, I sensed a certain degree of skepticism in the team. “Another personality test? I have done this before!” “Sharing how great I am with all my colleagues? I don’t feel comfortable doing this!” Luckily the workshop dissolved all those worries into thin air. The team and I felt that after the workshop we understood much better what everyone valued, was good at, and where someone needed support to grow their strengths even further. On top, it gave everyone a massive boost in self-confidence. From a management perspective, such share-out sessions are great as they take the weight from your shoulders. Potentially there is a team member A who can support team member B in their strengths development area X. Hence, the team bonds closer and people take up some leadership responsibility in helping others with their growth.

2 — Creating a culture of feedback and self-reflection

A prerequisite for personal and professional growth is the recognition that there is potential to grow and the belief that you can improve ability through practice. With such a growth mindset (as described by the inspiring Carol Dweck), people see feedback not as an attack but as an opportunity to learn and improve. I consider it a cornerstone of a productive feedback culture. How do you help people develop such an attitude?

I believe that, first and foremost, you must act as a role model. Frequently ask for feedback, thank your team for feedback when you received some, and show them how you learned from their input by acting upon it. When asking for feedback, be precise. I remember that I used to ask after every team meeting if anyone had feedback on the meeting structure. I rarely got an answer. Only when I made my questions more precise, I got the reactions I was hoping for. Instead of asking if anyone had feedback, I asked how effective they found the workshop structure, if we should change the order of the agenda, or if we should split the meeting group in two. Usually, people have an opinion. Make sure you tease it out. Demonstrate that “I’m looking forward to your feedback” are not just empty words but an honest assertion.

Along with being a role model in receiving feedback, you should become a role model in providing useful feedback. In that respect, two aspects matter: empathy and clarity.

Empathy:

Before providing critical feedback, consider the circumstances under which a person was working. Were they not able to do better, because they simply lacked the skill? Were they not willing to do better because they lacked motivation? Or did the work setup prevent them from doing better? I learned about this skill/will/system-error method in a coffee chat with another department lead who had years of management experience. I’ve been using it ever since. It is super helpful to see the person in context rather than just the problem.

Clarity:

Feedback without examples is difficult to understand and act upon. In my first ever feedback meeting, I had noted down big terms like “structured organizer” or “unclear communicator”. The colleague I was talking to asked for examples and ideas on how to improve. At that moment, I couldn’t come up with concrete cases, which made my points less persuasive. From then on, I made sure that for every feedback point, I noted down at least one example in advance.

Another angle to look at feedback is when and how often to provide it. Here you can distinguish between ad-hoc feedback and a planned feedback process.

Ad-hoc feedback:

Usually, feedback from managers falls short while the team is actually longing for it. Try to force yourself to do better! After a meeting or a presentation, catch the person you have feedback for and discuss it right away. If it’s a more general feedback point that everyone in the room can learn from, give it during the meeting or after the presentation. Sometimes your schedule might not allow you to follow-up right away. For this reason, I made it a habit to take five minutes at the end of every workday to think about whether I had provided all the feedback I wanted. If I hadn’t, I dropped the respective people a two-liner-email.

Planned feedback process:

Regular (annual or bi-annual), planned feedback discussions serve to reflect on a higher level on past performance and development areas. From my perspective, a well-rounded feedback discussion covers four aspects: self-reflection, peer feedback, your feedback, your team member’s feedback to you.

Aspects of a well-rounded reflection and feedback discussion

Preparation is key. Ask people to reflect upfront and come prepared. Collect peer feedback and prepare your feedback alongside the role description, the person’s targets, and the key development points from the last feedback session. During the session, make sure to start with the self-reflection. I made the experience that this is by far the most effective part of the whole session. If someone recognizes a success or a development area, they are much more willing to work on it. Position yourself rather as a moderator of a reflection session than a feedback provider. Talk less, listen more. Believe me, it works.

3 — Providing structured learning opportunities

Based on the self-reflection and feedback discussions, you should offer the possibility to learn, practice, and internalize the respective new skills or knowledge. Training is a great way to do so. In the early start-up days, you might not have enough budget to hire external coaches or trainers. At NavVis, we turned this limitation into an opportunity and started a series of self-organized training workshops. Every other week someone from the team organized a workshop around something they thought might be helpful for the rest of the group. Even later on, when we had enough budget to bring in external trainers, we made sure only to do so if no one in the team could do it otherwise. In the end, teaching is a great way of learning. Hence, self-organized workshops have a double positive effect. My conclusion: Frequently run self-organized workshops. Occasionally organize training sessions with external coaches.

Last but not least, I consider it a manager’s task to inspire their team to stay informed about industry trends, methods, and best practices for their roles. I made sure to share all I read and found helpful with my team, gave people books as Christmas presents, and frequently recommended meet-ups and conferences to attend.

In summary, people development matters from day one. As a manager, your job is to help people define and strive on their development path by building identity and providing opportunities for effective feedback, self-reflection, and suitable training. Don’t be an educator but help your team to learn.

Management categories

Next up in this series is a post on self-management — how to connect to, coach, and organize yourself in order to serve your team.

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Sophia Höfling

Entrepreneur & product leader writing about product & leadership. Building clean tech @ReiCat. Formerly CPO & co-founder @Saiga, HoP @Babbel & HoCX @NavVis.