Leaders have a tremendous impact on a startup’s ability to achieve results and succeed. Although everyone agrees that having effective leaders is important, the reality is that in most startups the performance of people managers is less than ideal.
This was exactly the case in a fast-growth startup we partnered with. This tech startup was present in many countries across continents, and although they were revenue generating, they were missing their high-level growth goals for over a year.
When we did a deep dive it was evident that the main lever to pull was to help the managers get better, so People Bootcamp created a 12-month leadership effectiveness plan.
The context: Ineffective leaders, underperforming team
This startup was growing fast and facing the issues that come with that accelerated growth. Team members were leaving, they were missing some key goals and everybody was working really hard, but often on the wrong things which led to burnout and underperformance. More than 70% of the leaders were first-time managers and what came up in engagement surveys and 1:1s with team members is that they had a lot of room for improvement.
There are many reasons why this is the case. In our experience, we’ve seen three main reasons:
Lack of knowledge: most leaders learn on the job, and although this is an effective way to cement learning, if there isn’t a framework or formal training to work off of many leaders end up adopting the wrong practices. Common sense works in some instances, not not all, especially when dealing with people.
Lack of skills or experience: it’s very common in startups to have first-time managers in senior leadership roles, often because they were with the company early on and grew with it or because sometimes startups can’t afford to bring in someone who’s "been there and done that".
Lack of time: this is one of the things we hear most: "Yes, I know leadership is important but I have so much to do I can’t make time for people management”. Leaders end up prioritizing other responsibilities and leaving leadership, which has the highest impact, for later (or often never).
We made sure to tackle all three reasons in our plan to create an environment in which leaders could thrive and their teams could exceed their goals.
The plan: from barely making it to thriving
The plan consisted of 7 steps:
Define what effective leadership means to you: there are many theories and research that define “Good leadership”. These are great for inspiration but in the end each company needs to define what good leadership looks like to them. We did 1:1 surveys with all the managers and top performing team members. Combined with our own research and experience we created a leadership framework which consisted of 8 leadership competencies and key behaviors associated with each of them.
Gain buy-in: Leaders need to buy into this new expectation and commit to the program in order for it to be successful. To do this we explained the model and the program, what our research showed and Why this was the proposed framework. Then we had 1:1s with each manager to clarify questions and gain commitment directly.
Do a baseline measure: At People Bootcamp we believe that the only way to know if an intervention has been successful is to demonstrate it with data! So the first step was to assess what the current state was and the delta. To do this we gathered quantitative data through a 360 assessment and qualitative data through 1:1 interviews with their direct reports.
Build the knowledge and skills: to develop the basic skills every leader must master we rolled our Leadership Essentials program, which consists of 5 live online sessions covering how to recruit top talent, set goals that drive results, give feedback that works and coach others to achieve their goals, as well as prompts in between sessions to actually apply the learning and build habits.
Carve out time for conscious leadership: in order to address the lack of time, we implemented Deep Work Wednesdays, where leaders had meeting-free, dedicated time for management practices for a minimum of 4 hours per week.
Sustain the change: after the formal training, we included different ways to ensure the learning was being put into practice:
Peer-to-peer coaching: we paired up leaders based on their strongest and weakest areas so they would have complementary skills. Through this peer-to-peer coaching they kept each other accountable, shared experiences and helped each other.
Check-ins with the People team: once a month the Head of People would have a 1:1 with each leader to discuss any management-related cases and reinforce the importance of learning by doing.
Coaching: for the managers with the biggest delta we organized weekly coaching sessions to cement the learning and push past any limiting leadership beliefs that could be generating a negative effect.
Recognition: We asked the CEO to incorporate a leadership mention during leadership meetings to show appreciation and positively reinforce the right behaviors.
Follow up and iterate: after 6 months we repeated the 360 assessment. We reviewed the results and all the actions that were implemented to decide which ones to continue, stop and start. One of the follow up measures was to roll-out the Leadership Advanced Program for senior leaders and hold the Essentials course for all new managers going forward.
Within 6 months we saw an average increase of 25% in leadership effectiveness for the managers who participated in the program.
12 months after the program was rolled out we observed an even higher improvement in leadership effectiveness, as well as an average increase of 12% in the engagement score. In qualitative research it emerged that team members felt they had more clarity on their roles, could prioritize better and reported that many issues had been resolved.
During this time the company revenue grew 200% year over year and they secured another round of founding.
We had a very rewarding experience working with these leaders, and this case became strong proof that by improving leadership effectiveness we will have a ripple effect in many different areas of the organization, improving the potential to increase engagement, retention and overall results.