Lay the Foundation for Success Now, Not Later

Elisha Gray (EIR at Ripple Ventures) discusses how strategic job design in the early days attracts and retains the right people from the get-go.

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Preface

We all know that hiring is top of mind for founders at start-ups. Everyone wants to make sure they have the best team to execute on a vision to achieve success. Last year, First Round Capital conducted a survey with 529 founders with one of the questions being “What are the top three issues that keep you up at night?”. Just over 66% of respondents had hiring good people as their main concern, more so than acquiring customers (62%) and revenue growth (55%). Often we focus so much on growth and product and we forget that it’s the people that are growing the business and building the product.

With this in mind, we wanted to dig deeper into this within our own portfolio companies regarding hiring, people, and culture. The questions and answers ultimately revolved around building a better foundation for your company to scale. We sat down with Elisha Gray to discuss creating role guides to help hire, manage, and build start-up teams (here’s an example that she put together for visualization that we will elude to later on).

Elisha is a Success Coach and HR Consultant with an operations background more than 10 years’ experience in the startup space. Known for her people-positive workplace architecture, Elisha works one-on-one with management teams to build strong leadership practices and create modern programs for scaling startups. She’s the former the Director of People Operations at Myplanetand Chief of Staff at Street Contxt. Elisha now coaches top executives to develop a more successful leadership style and build deeper bonds with their team. She also partners with Ripple Ventures and Startwell as an in-house coach, and works as a senior HR consultant with Bright + Early.

Here is Our Interview:

Q: What are some common problems that you see companies struggling with?

When I’m working with startups, problems tend to come up because scalable processes (understandably) haven’t been built yet. Hiring, managing performance, and career pathing are the most common challenges.

A couple of incidents that require low upfront effort today that tend to bite companies later on regarding its employees include:

  • Bully hiring (aka rushing to hand out job offers without taking responsibility for defining success) can lead to employee churn quite quickly. CEOs usually know there’s a skill gap that needs to be filled, but they don’t have much time to spend proactively designing the role itself. The last-minute mindset of “I’m pretty sure we need this role, so let’s try to piece together some job descriptions from other companies that are similar. Then we’ll interview the best people that come through the pipeline and hopefully they will be a great fit for the team.” can really hurt the chances of matching someone with the right skill set to the job, which means risking forward momentum.

  • Some CEOs hire “smart people who will figure things out on their own”. I’ve seen this go wrong more times in the last year than I can count on one hand. Typically, this starts when there are a few “special projects” for someone to take on, but once those projects complete, it becomes increasingly harder to find new and sustainable work. Next thing you know, the employee is struggling to find their place and produce results while the CEO starts doubting ability and performance. Neither party can picture a future, so they agree to part ways or the employee is fired. It’s a shame and a surefire method for driving away talented contributors.

Q: If preparation is the key to success, what can I do to set a foundation for scaling my team properly?

Most of the common issues around hiring, performance, and advancing employees within an organization comes down to job planning. Managers sometimes feel that intentionally designing roles isn’t a good use of their time, but I would argue that it’s the golden ticket to attracting, landing, and retaining top talent. It’s important for organizations to be clear with employees about what success looks like in a role and you can’t do that if you haven’t thought about it. (After all, you can’t say that hiring top talent is what keeps you up at night when you haven’t put any real effort into hiring top talent.) With constant change and little time, it benefits both parties to get clear about what the expectation is and how it will be met.

“Managers sometimes feel that intentionally designing roles isn’t a good use of their time, but I would argue that it’s the golden ticket to attracting, landing, and retaining top talent.”

Mapping out a few key pieces of information before starting the hiring process will bring clarity, efficiency, and confidence to the entire hiring process — for everyone involved — starting from job posting through to contract signed and beyond.

“After all, you can’t say that hiring top talent is what keeps you up at night when you haven’t put any real effort into hiring top talent.”

Q: So how can I start mapping this out?

Start by asking yourself these questions:

  1. What kind of company do I want to build?

  2. What is the company’s current identity? Is there a disconnect?

  3. What needs to happen in order to become the company I envision?

  4. What pain points am I experiencing and do they tell me I need to hire someone?

  5. What does success look like for a person who is responsible for this work? What can be qualified and/or quantified?

  6. What are the best skills someone could bring to the table to fill this gap?

  7. What types of work related experience is needed for this job?

  8. What characteristics might someone who would be successful in this role have?

  9. What is our company culture and how would these skills/experiences/characteristics fit?

  10. What support, resources, or commitments am I willing to make to a qualified candidate to help them be successful in this role?

After considering these questions, you’ll notice how this becomes the foundation for a job design framework that can be applied to vet the idea that the team needs to grow. I like to call it a role guide. The main components of a role guide are:

  1. A one-liner stating the purpose of the job + summary of the job that includes the primary focus of the job, what the day-to-day work looks like, and what the key characteristics or skills are most needed to perform the work (this comes in handy when having to justify roles to your board)

  2. The thematic responsibilities of the role (aim for 3–5)

  3. The key accountabilities (aim for 3–5) and associated behaviours (1–3 per accountability)

  4. The core competencies; primary (up to 5) and secondary (up to 5)

  5. The qualifications (your non-negotiable must-haves)

While this may look like a lot of work on paper, role guides shouldn’t take longer than an hour to build out a first iteration. You might choose to come back to it another day or float it to other trusted members of your team for their input. We’re not looking for a novel (ideally it’s a one-pager) and what’s super important to remember is that it will change and grow just as the company will. It’s about building a shareable, evolving document that transparently outlines what success looks like for the person doing the work.

Here’s a template with some sample text to get you started.

“It’s about building a shareable, evolving document that transparently outlines what success looks like for the person doing the work.”

It’s easy to see the impact that thoughtful job design and the use of a role guide can have on an employee’s, and therefore, the company’s success. This process offers a relatively simple and extremely effective way to map out a role in your company so you can make smart hiring decision from the get-go.

Q: After all of this work, when would CEOs start seeing results?

The act of putting together a job and role guide design immediately gives CEOs the ability to:

  • Better understand their company’s identity and articulate culture to others

  • Speak confidently and clearly about the role and what it entails

  • Assess candidates on their experience, associated skills, and qualifications relating to the role

  • See how this role fits bigger picture and what their major job functions will be

  • Frame a direct and detailed conversation on a new hire’s very first day about expectations

  • Design 30/60/90 day plans that are clear and objective

  • Evaluate performance and deliver job-based, constructive feedback without surprises

  • Hire quickly into open roles that already have role guides

  • Lay a foundation for career pathing (usually starts at the one year mark) and maintain retention

  • Plan for long term success on the people side of the business

What’s even more powerful is that role guides help evenly distribute the responsibility and accountability of job success between the employer and the employee by ensuring everyone is on the exact same page (because mind reading isn’t a thing). And if you’re really into it, there are some additional components that can be used to enhance the role guide, such as compensation structure, confidence builders/detractors, OKRs or team goals, and company values alignment.

“…role guides help evenly distribute the responsibility and accountability of job success between the employer and the employee by ensuring everyone is on the exact same page (because mind reading isn’t a thing).”

Q: Any final words on foundational HR for our readers?

As a founder, you’re likely pulled in many directions. Putting in time and energy toward job design can net a powerful return on that investment, impacting not just hiring, but overall company success. By building a workplace where scalable frameworks like role guides are in place, you’ll be laying down the path for a high performing culture. For extra help, and to save time, companies can partner with a modern HR consultancy like Bright + Early, who specialize in building scalable, custom designed employee experiences. For those who would like to build a framework themselves but just require a nudge and some guidance, executive coaching can be just the right option. As a coach, my role is to help you be the best leader possible, whatever that looks like for you.

Invest now for a strong relationship with your team and successful company long term. It may not be what other startups are doing, but you’re not like other startups. Happy building!

Thanks for reading and feel free to give us a clap! Follow us on Medium for anything tech and VC related, updates on our fund, and more.

Written by Dominic Lau, Associate at Ripple Ventures