When I was an undergrad at Georgia Tech, I had the opportunity to hear the legendary Jack Welch give a talk. There are some talks like this one where a few bullet points stand out and stick with you. One that stuck with me was about the mentality headquarters.
Jack told his people: “If you are in GE headquarters, then you are here to support everyone else on the front lines. You should receive more phone calls than you initiate. You shouldn’t be creating work for the front lines, you should be making their jobs easier.”
Other organizations call it an Upside Down Org chart. Put the customer at the very top, then you have sales and front-line representatives, followed by team managers, and then at the very bottom, you have the executive team. Right there at the foundation, supporting the rest of the team.
In a growing startup, the CEO has to think about the shape of this chart every day. I’ve written before about the jobs of a startup CEO. A CEO’s main duty on a daily basis is to support the team. When you’ve handled job #1, and made sure that the company has the financial resources to pay the right people for the right roles, then it’s time to support them. Here are some tactical ways that I am trying to be better at supporting Team Voxa.
1. Have more unscheduled time than scheduled time. My friend Dan Kurzius over at Mailchimp taught me this. His calendar remains largely open so that he is there to bounce around and help team members all day. This is the one I struggle with the most and have written about it before.
2. Don’t take on tasks for yourself. Also something I’ve written about, but still it’s hard. When you love creating, it’s so easy to say “I’ll handle that one.” I’ll write that marketing copy, spec that product, make that proposal, etc… but what I’m finding is that for each task I put on my plate I am hurting the company more than I’m helping the company.
3. Prioritize your team over others. CEOs have a ton of inbound pings and requests for attention. Vendors, investors, other entrepreneurs, other commitments. It’s important to be intentional about showing the team that they come first, that they are your first priority. It will sting to turn down some of those distractions, but being there for the team is important.
4. Avoid the urge to be the one creating all the processes. There are a ton of processes to be created in a startup. From sales processes to onboarding, to engineering/spring planning, dev ops, daily stand ups, employee onboarding… In my experience, while helping the team understand that intentional, well-designed processes for every single thing we do are extremely important, it’s not necessary that the CEO actually create them. Just that the CEO help reinforce their importance.
5. Let go. Allow failure. If you want your team to become resilient, antifragile, and committed. It’s important that you allow them to find their own way. Let experiments happen. Let them lose deals. By letting go, you create an entrepreneurial culture where everyone has true ownership of their role on the team. It’s hard to watch, when it’s so easy to jump in and handle it yourself. But jumping in does nothing for helping the team member grow.
6. Understand the personality/DISC profiles of your team. Put this in the category of “Things I wish I knew 15 years ago.” You can learn so much about people when you have a firm grasp on DISC and the primary personality types. This will help you predict with great precision when someone is going to handle a task/project well, how it’s going to go for them, and how you can help. We have leaned on DISC and HBDI for the teams at the Atlanta Tech Village and Team Voxa and I can honestly say I don’t know how I ever built teams without these tools before. If you aren’t doing DISC, here is the best one I’ve ever seen, and it’s free.
7. Have a core team. As a CEO, you need an inner circle. Whether you call it a Management Team, or Executive Team, Partners, Founders, whatever… it doesn’t matter. You need a core circle, even from the very beginning where you have added meeting cadences to be together, to evaluate your progress, to ask hard questions, to consider dramatic changes, and to keep the oxygen of ideas flowing into the company. Be sure that each major functional area of the company is represented in your core circle — Sales, Product, Marketing, and Customer Support.
An upside down org chart is more than a cute talking point for culture. It is a leadership mindset.
Day 1 in the smallest of startups isn’t too early to start building these habits that will make your team and your company more successful… and tons more enjoyable for everyone, by the way.