Startups struggle with volatility. Scaling companies struggle with volatility and complexity. Like the bodies of adolescents, these developing organizations behave in unexpected, sometimes unnerving ways.
Their leaders, consequently, require new skills and approaches to navigate this challenging stretch, says Scott Belsky, the chief product officer at Adobe and founder and former CEO of Behance, a platform where artists and designers showcase creative work. Belsky characterizes this “middle” period as a time of swiftly alternating lows that must be endured and highs that must be optimized.
Belsky’s new book, The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture, addresses founders and others in the middle of both ambitious undertakings and their own leadership journeys. Here are three of his useful tips.
1. Take a light touch to process
Belsky calls process the “excretion of misalignment.” Startups, he explains, comprise small teams in which everyone understands the vision and acts on it. Communication is frictionless. To the extent leaders can maintain that alignment through the middle stage they will need less process. “It is only when people start giving you different answers to questions like ‘What are we trying to do?’ or ‘What are our priorities?’ that you [need] to process,” Belsky says.
Leaders can’t avoid process but they can minimize it. For example, founders who fret they’re losing touch with their expanding organizations may set up unnecessary sign-offs or regular check-ins just to maintain the feeling of control. Don’t do that, Belsky cautions. Also, don’t create processes in a vacuum. Instead, A/B test them to see, for example, whether it’s better to brainstorm as a group or have people dream up ideas on their own and submit them for discussion.
Also: always be auditing. “Processes may outlive their usefulness,” Belsky says. “Are we meeting every Tuesday just because it’s Tuesday? Why are we having 360-degree reviews at the end of the year?” Improving or outright killing processes frees up time and releases creativity.
Belsky tempers his personal anti-process bias with this warning: If teams devise their own work processes, don’t interfere. You may know better than anyone else what the business needs to succeed. But your people know better than you what they need to get things done.
2. Market internally
Alignment trumps process. But as companies grow, alignment weakens. New folks sign on, new products and projects pile up, and the mission gets obscured. So in the middle, Belsky says, leaders must convey the company’s message to employees as loudly and clearly as they do to customers and the public. “It is wild how much money companies spend marketing themselves to the world, yet they do so little to market themselves to their own people,” he says.
A company’s external marketing can help. Employees are more likely to believe promises made to the public, whose trust it must earn, “than some kind of internal rah-rah email,” Belsky says. He advises, for example, that companies create external collateral–such as the splash page for a new product–to share with engineers before they start developing. Then everyone coalesces around that vision as they bring it to life.
Belsky also recommends liberating signs of progress from spreadsheets and project management tools and mounting them on large public dashboards that denote metrics like bugs quashed and customers landed. At Behance his team plastered “Done Walls” with completed project plans, checklists, and sketches. When making presentations about future work, he began with slides recounting what teams had already accomplished.
The leader’s main job is constantly to remind employees where to focus, particularly when change and growth throw out so many new narrative threads. Belsky likes the approach of Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, who treats every year as a new chapter for his business with a central theme: For example, the “Year of Going Global.” That way,” Belsky says, “even with all the volatility, everyone has the same answer to the question, ‘What is our No. 1 priority this year?'”
3. Help your hires
Hiring for cultural fit has both yea- and naysayers. Belsky is strongly agin’ it. Small startup teams are typically pretty homogenous, so scaling is an opportunity to enlist discordant viewpoints, he argues. “You want people who can spot an edge that in the future will become the center,” Belsky says. “That means you need edgy people.”
Such people can be polarizing, but that’s what produces bold outcomes. “On your due diligence calls you are probably asking, “Is this person easy to get along with? Did the team like him or her?'” Belsky says. “Those are the wrong questions.”
Post-hiring, leaders must act like surgeons, grafting on new employees–particularly senior people–to the existing team and suppressing the cultural immune system so it doesn’t reject them. Belsky advises checking in often to make sure new hires are settling in and to solicit feedback while their impressions are still fresh. Make sure they’re invited to all the relevant meetings and that everyone on the team understands their new colleague’s role.
Leaders must also foster psychological safety so new people know they can speak up without getting shut down or mocked. That includes safety when challenging the CEO. “I love it when people disagree with me in an interview,” Belsky says. “Sometimes I’ll say something I think they’ll disagree with just to make sure they are going to stay in the fight.”