It’s been an incredibly tough year across – the pandemic, the election, and, amongst it all, building a company focused on GovTech. When nothing is easy, and everyday feels like a lesson in survival, it can be tough to find the motivation to face the next challenge.
As I look at this year, and start to break down where the wins came from – even if few and far between – one theme consistently stands out – people.
There’s a whole blog post to be had on the family side about watching the babies grow, and how amazing that’s been this year.
But professionally, I can point to investing in people and seeing the returns in spades as my biggest win. This year, I picked up engineering and product marketing to go with product management. That made it all the more difficult, and all the more fun.
As a people manager in a startup, I have three lanes:
- Make sure people are solving the most valuable problem to the business that they can
- Make sure that people are developing the skills they would need if the startup were to fail (and probability says we’re going to fail) in their next challenge
- Make sure that people are developing the skills for the next stage of our business journey for when we succeed, and we need to accelerate things even faster than we already were
With a multi-discipline team, the lanes don’t change, but the milestones do. Studying job descriptions from other companies, and building a mental reference for a career ladder has helped me center around what success looks like for the folks on my team. Another great source for me has been reaching out to peers and managers alike from the past to understand how to build OKRs and goals in a way that’s valuable, but avoids gamification. The primary way to learn though has been to listen to the team and understand what success looks like for them, and then find ways to codify that and measure success together.
At a macro level, the hardest part is balancing the lanes. It’s hard to be everywhere at once, and so I’ve got to tie the business goals and roadmap (lane 1) into the skillset and growth areas of the team (lanes 2 & 3).
There are moments where all you can do is lane 1 because of the chaos of keeping the business afloat. That can wear a team out as you tend to trade off short term wins for long term value and stability. Living purely in lane 1 leads to lots of debt – both technical and product – that, while necessary in a startup, will burn you when you need scale. All problems that I’ve learned the cost of in a much more visceral way as I balance business, product, engineering, and product marketing.
It’s a very different conversation with customers about why stability, story, product experience, or a whole range of expectations is inconsistent when it’s all one team making the trade-offs. And I’m responsible for that team.
Hence the focus on balancing all three lanes.
The best part as I look back over the year is that finding the time and space to invest in lanes 2 & 3 has led to a better organizational structure, higher team morale, and higher throughput for the team. The trade off is that projects take longer. They tend to be more complete, but that isn’t guaranteed. The underlying solutions tend to be more robust. And our ability to be more nimble to customer requests seems to be much higher. Above all though, it decentralizes me as the single source of decision making, and empowers the team to have the autonomy they need to make important decisions quickly.
Ultimately though, as we face the very real threat that as a startup our moment of reckoning is upon us, in the off chance it doesn’t go our way, then I’ve taken a group of individuals on a journey of growth that will set them up well for their next adventure.
I’m very confident that next adventure is growing and scaling this business we’ve built. But if it isn’t, then they’re going to land in a much better situation than where they were when we started one year ago.
And that’s what I’m the most proud of professionally in this crazy year of years.