Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Startups and more developed organizations – making sure the right people are in the right chairs

Posted in HR and personnel, startups by Timothy Platt on October 21, 2009

I have been adding postings that focus on startups since I first went active with this blog. Some of them have focused on best practices as considered from a more positive perspective, and some from a more cautionary, things-gone-wrong negative side. All of them have had their roots in my own ongoing experience working with startups and this posting is no exception to that pattern. If you want a startup to succeed you have to get the right people into the right chairs. And they have to be able to work together as a coherent team but at the same time each of these people has to have the latitude to make decisions in their own areas of expertise and responsibility.

There are potential conflicts here and especially where the people and the chairs in question involve founder participation. On the one hand new businesses are driven and built on the energy and enthusiasm of their founders, and by their confidence and drive. On the other hand, these same people have to know when to step back and turn decision making authority over to others – not always an easy change in perspective. And perhaps just as importantly they have to make hiring and onboarding decisions that rest entirely on business needs and candidate capabilities to meet them and not on outside personal considerations like personal friendships. I add that while acknowledging that it is vital to be able to trust hires for those key chairs and that knowing candidates in advance can form a sound basis for that type of trust.

Getting the right people into the right chairs can also mean resisting hiring and other decision making pressures from investors, and early investors who step in to help pre-revenue can have significant voices and justifiably so. But here I focus on the ongoing puzzles of setting priorities to know what chairs have to be filled right now, and who should go into them.

I will add as a final thought that even for a particular functional area and chair within it, early startup requirements can be very different than the job requirement needs that same position will evolve into as the business takes off. So this is not a set it and forget it issue. This all has to be continually assessed and reassessed and it requires both communications skills and tact.

Communication skills are needed to convey an ongoing understanding of the position and of how it helps meet the needs of the organization, and tact is necessary to manage carrying through on filling those chairs while maintaining a confident, happy workplace. This is not necessarily an easy balancing act but it is central to what the founders and leaders of this new business should be doing in building a foundation for success.

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5 Responses

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  1. Bruce Lewin said, on October 21, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Hi Tim, couldn’t agree more, especially your points about avoiding conflicts! Now if only there was a way to predict and avoid such conflicts in advance…


    • Tim Platt said, on October 21, 2009 at 4:35 pm

      Hi Bruce and thanks for your comment. I agree that there isn’t a readily available answer to your question, but I would suggest that there are some components to such an answer that can reduce the problem in scale.

      You company offers part of the answer with your analytical approach to building teams with psychologically compatible members. But that can only be a part of this as even people who basically get along and very well can still drift into conflict and misunderstanding. So this has to be and should be addressed starting with the basic mission and the organization itself. That means, among other things, that the business plan and its development and buy-in have another function piled onto them. This also means that the senior executives setting up and running a business or other organization either need to have experience building businesses as working communities themselves with good communication flow, or they need outside help from someone who can assist them in doing this. And I add this means everyone checking their egos at the door, or at least an ongoing willingness to set them aside as needed. In my experience ego should be listed as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse for startups and I cite my experience seeing that one play havoc in writing this reply.

      Bottom line, a lot of this is about defining key roles and the job descriptions to manage them and that is an evolving issue. This is also about communication and conveying that members of the team – all members of the team are respected and listened to. And it means identifying problems early and addressing them but that is probably subject for a separate posting.

      Thanks again, Tim

      • Bruce Lewin said, on October 22, 2009 at 4:47 am

        >But that can only be a part of this as even people who basically get along and very well can still drift into conflict and misunderstanding. So this has to be and should be addressed starting with the basic mission and the organization itself.

        Sure, nothing is perfect but I’d like to thing there is a little more robustness to our work than I took there to be in the above! That said, you can never undersestimate the importance of the mission, buy-in and leaving egos at the door!

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  3. Tim Platt said, on October 22, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    I want to quote then respond to a feedback comment from Bruce for this posting where he wrote “Sure, nothing is perfect but I’d like to think there is a little more robustness to our work than I took there to be in the above!”

    I would also like to think there is more robustness in our work, and I will add that includes real robustness in our business organization and structure and our business processes as well as in our products and services and the customer-facing side of our operations.

    I will add that this is not necessarily about doing OK or well, but of outcompeting and being the best in our market space. There, any internal impediments that limit our reach and capabilities can have impact and especially where they limit the potential of our employees. We do need to identify and address the points where we can work on and improve our organizations and their operations, and more effective staffing and human resources management is one place where most businesses can probably do that.

    I admit that while this applies to ongoing concerns it really applies most fully to startups and to businesses in significant transition and those facing particular external challenge. I add startups to this list as they, by definition, do not start out with an ongoing momentum of accomplishment or of accepted process or staffing organization for maintaining it. They do not have systems in place for identifying and effectively limiting this type of issue and its impact. Businesses in transition and those facing particular external challenge simply do not need this type of issue piled on their plates to add to their already significant challenges to their staying competitive. And it is of the nature of lost opportunity, and thwarted capability and capacity that it can be very difficult to clearly see it let alone definitively quantify it as lost value according to a clear monetary measure. Think of this as bleeding from unseen but perhaps persistent wounds.

    For startups, I will add, issues of who does what and with what authority and team support, and team cohesiveness can be quite sufficient to end what would otherwise be a really great business opportunity. I have seen it happen. So this is something that every business has to be aware of and for some (many when the economy is especially challenging) it can be particularly pressing.

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