Scaling Success: Key Takeaways from our ‘Operations for Scaling’ event
At our 'Operations for Scaling' event at The Lightwell, experts Jonathan ‘JB’ Bullock (Highliner, ex-COO at Softbank), Kim Stringer (People Director at Techspace), Rob Stevenson (COO at Techspace), and Kristen Shannon (CEO of Highliner), shared strategies to address these challenges that occur when transitioning from a start-up to a scale-up.Insights + resources
Company culture is not static. As companies grow, culture changes and adapts with it, but often this is where challenges arise. Fast growth can introduce issues like politics over job titles and progression, siloed teams, challenges in performance management, and a lack of organisational structure and individual accountability - all of which can negatively impact overall performance. Not ideal, particularly if you are under pressure from investors.
Our event, 'Operations for Scaling,' hosted at The Lightwell, featured a dynamic panel involving three seasoned experts in operations and people management, Jonathan ‘JB’ Bullock (Senior Partner at Highliner and former COO at Softbank), Kim Stringer (People Director at Techspace) and Rob Stevenson (COO at Techspace) – organised alongside Kristen Shannon (Founder and CEO of Highliner)!
They shared invaluable insights on effectively addressing these challenges and tips on how to ensure a seamless transition during periods of growth.
Seven takeaways from the event
Growth tipping points - the rule of 3s and 10s
Company culture often undergoes significant shifts as the team size increases in increments - a good way to think of it is increments of 3s and 10s - milestones at 3, 10, 30, 100, 300, and beyond are key moments for cultural evolution. Around the 10-person mark, roles like ‘Operations Lead’ may be introduced to support growth but a HR function might not yet be necessary.
At a company’s earlier stage, the CEO usually has a role in driving cultural change, though it’s worth noting that not every CEO has the skills necessary to be a catalyst for change, it requires a strategic and pragmatic mindset.
When asked for the relevant time to create a People/HR function, Kim suggested a heuristic: When you no longer know everyone's name on the birthday card getting passed around the office!
Another key challenge is providing appropriate support and training to managers of managers, MoMs. These people will be crucial culture carriers and drivers of change in your business but very often don’t get the support they need to succeed.
Have you got the right team to grow with? Prepare your team for layering
When scaling a company, having a team willing and capable of executing the growth plan is crucial. Legacy team members, even strong contributors, need evaluation for their adaptability and effectiveness in continuing to contribute to the company's growth - enthusiasm alone may not be enough.
To ensure you have a solid team, the focus needs to be on aligning skills, values, and vision. Goals should be clearly defined and growth expectations need to be communicated, alongside the company’s overall mission. This is a time to invest in ongoing training and development to upskill existing team members and you mustn’t shy away from bringing in new talent to index up the skills in your team to get to where you want to go.
Reid Hoffman's concept of "blitzscaling" categorises growth stages as family, tribe, village, town, city, and nation, each requiring adjustments to culture and processes.
The culture needed at the "family" level is typically more intimate, close-knit, and focused on personal relationships. It emphasises trust, loyalty, and support among its members. In contrast, the culture at the "nation" level is broader and often more diverse. It involves a larger group of people with varying backgrounds and interests. This culture tends to prioritise shared values, identity, and collaboration on a larger scale.
The key difference lies in the scale and scope of interactions and relationships within these two levels, which influence the cultural dynamics.
Titles and progression
Don’t give away C-suite titles too early in your company’s life. C-suite titles should generally be reserved for larger companies, typically those with 250 or more employees, unless your company has been going for over three years, by which time employees there from the start will be wondering about their personal progression.
When your team reaches around 30 employees, introducing competency frameworks and structured career progression becomes a must. This framework aids in evaluating promotions and ensures alignment with the company's core values so that promotions are not purely tied to longevity, but also performance.
Bear in mind that this is easier in certain roles. Structuring career levels for technology and sales roles is often based on performance and tech proficiency. With more creative roles like marketing and design and first-time managers, deciding frameworks might take more research and time to carve out.
Solving resourcing constraints
It’s not uncommon for teams to come to seniors with requirements for extra staff, but this may not be possible. Handling resource constraints is a required skill.
Prioritising investments in your existing talent pool shouldn’t go amiss, which is why learning and development initiatives are crucial as your company grows. Senior members should be able to identify high-potential individuals who can significantly contribute to growth with the right training and support. Identify what skill gaps these teams have and which existing staff could fill them.
Outsourcing is another possible solution. When expanding your HR capabilities is not immediately feasible, consider outsourcing or hiring fractional HR roles to meet your needs.
What works in the UK doesn’t always work internationally
When expanding internationally, recognise that scaling strategies may vary across regions. What succeeds in the UK might not necessarily apply to the US or other countries and candidates from different countries have different titles, definitions, ideas and hiring packages. Additionally, Europe has more robust labour and HR protections than the USA. Understanding and adapting to these regional differences is essential for a successful global expansion strategy.
This also applies to growth and funding. European companies sometimes rush into international expansion prematurely, while US counterparts can move faster in expansion due to a larger domestic market and wider access to capital. Therefore, it's essential not to solely rely on US-based literature for insights for your business.
Operations staff as “integrators”
The Chief Operating Officer (COO) holds a pivotal position within an organisation, often acting as a counterbalance to the CEO. As described in the book ‘Rocket Fuel’, companies need both ‘visionaries’ and ‘integrators’. The visionary, often the CEO, sets the strategic direction and identifies key priorities, while the integrator (COO) is responsible for translating these priorities into actionable tasks and ensuring they are executed effectively. This dynamic partnership between the CEO and COO is crucial for a company's success.
Efficient project management plays a vital role in task prioritisation and categorisation by importance. It's essential to create a comprehensive task list that includes every possible item. Then using cost-benefit analysis, you can distinguish tasks into three tiers: priority 1 for critical tasks that require immediate attention, priority 2 for those that can be deferred, and priority 3 for tasks that can be revisited or even removed from the list altogether.
In summary, navigating growth in the world of tech startups demands adaptability, strategic thinking, and understanding regional variations. The journey needs strong people and operations teams to hire the right people, execute growth plans and translate CEO-led strategy into action whilst keeping investors happy and on board.