The hidden dangers of incredible success
Growth brings change that is both evident and stubbornly hidden. As a company succeeds and it’s engineering department doubles from 50 to 100, and then again to 200, it loses the “dorm room vibe” that characterizes so many startups. Lost in the logistics of so many new employees working on so many new projects is the fact that a growing company requires new internal systems that preserve, communicate and update the company’s operations, knowledge and culture.
This need has a long fuse, which allows it to sneak up on management; it is often ignored where other growing pains are quickly addressed. If it’s acknowledged at all, it’s seen as an area that can be held together a little longer with scotch tape and good luck. And so new hires continue to be educated via a scattered collection of out-of-date Google Docs, while capable veteran employees are consistently interrupted from their official responsibilities to answer more questions about why things are a certain way.
There is something ironic about the idea of a company “maturing” while continuing to rely on these ad hoc operations. Although these processes emerged organically, they were only meant to solve for the short term. Rarely, if ever, did they include a thoughtful means of knowledge transfer; rarely, if ever, did a person take the time to document the how and why of a company’s emerging operations. Every business passes through this phase, drunk on the contagious excitement and extraordinary demands of early success.
However as a company scales, those sloppy operations function as the hangover of that growth, and, as with a real hangover, everything slows to a crawl and productivity plummets. New employees require months rather than weeks before they’re capable of making meaningful contributions. Silos form within the company, as different teams take different approaches to shipping product, making internal communications unnecessarily difficult. Veteran employees get frustrated and then anxious, certain that they’ve stopped growing in their current role. Soon they begin looking elsewhere for new opportunities.
Innovative companies eventually realize that continued success requires a more thoughtful means of onboarding, knowledge sharing, and employee retention. They see these issues as interconnected, as existing within a shared ecosystem. As such, the correct approach offers an integrated and holistic cure to a company’s growing pains. We call that approach Tech Enablement (TE).
Tech Enablement is a deliberate, ongoing initiative which sets up your technical employees for success at scale. It does so by unlocking the internal company knowledge that is stored in the experiences of veteran employees. It is the process of turning the ad-hoc into something more formal. Access to such a clearinghouse ensures that all employees possess the same shared understanding of how to work together. As a result, performance won’t slow, culture won’t erode, and employees will be set up to do the best work of their careers.
The real perks your employees crave (and may not be getting)
Companies are often unaware that they possess the time and resources to make a necessary course correction. In truth, though, it does not require so much effort or staffing to implement a TE solution and fix operations. These companies often have many pieces of the puzzle. The work, then, consists of finding those pieces, scattered though they are, putting them together, and ensuring that employees throughout the organization have easy access to them. A common saying has it that culture happens one way or another, by choice or by chance. A decision not to assemble this puzzle means a company takes the latter route, gambling with its hard won gains.
It is difficult to understate the impact of this sort of sustained employee engagement. Study after study demonstrates that a strong correlation exists between positive company culture and employee retention. In order to create this sort of engagement though, many startups in Silicon Valley mistakenly default to offering extrinsic perks. They stock tasty snacks in the kitchen and serve free beer on tap each Friday. Friendly dogs might be permitted to accompany their owners to the office. These are all well and good, although they don’t move the needle on the most important perk of all: the authentic promise that a company represents a chance for someone to do the best, highest impact work of their career. More than free beer, employees want to contribute their know-how to their colleagues and engage in effective company building. The recognition of such an opportunity is what attracts the best talent, and the fulfillment of that promise is what keeps it.
Protect your most valuable assets
Veteran employees are in many ways the lifeblood of a company, as they possess invaluable institutional knowledge that management would prefer to keep in house. This preference often runs headlong into a veteran’s desire to branch out and seek new challenges. It’s in everyone’s best interest, therefore, for veterans to find those new opportunities in house. This is no small concern, given the moment we’re living in: record numbers of people are quitting their jobs, leaving behind overburdened colleagues who scramble and strain to pick up the slack.
In order to retain their best talent, most innovative companies look for ways to provide their veterans with new opportunities to have an impact, challenge themselves, and grow their careers. They can accomplish this by providing easy access to the skill sets which make it possible to contribute anywhere across the company. If a veteran can quickly retool themselves and find a new niche, they have no reason to leave and take their institutional knowledge with them. A proper TE program enables this sort of dexterity while simultaneously giving employees an active role in defining company culture. By contributing their know-how to their colleagues, people effectively engage in company-building, which becomes woven into the very culture of their organization. The creation of the program therefore gives employees an active role as authors of the company’s own DNA. In so doing, they become the stewards of highlighting what is most important to the company while affecting the change they wish to see.
When employees stick around, secure in the knowledge that there is no end to the impact they can make, they do more than help build outstanding products; they also help build an outstanding culture with a reputation that precedes itself, serving as an ever shining star that easily attracts and retains the best and the brightest.
The TEMI Index
Of course, that’s the end result of a well-executed T.E. strategy. Before a company arrives at that point, however, it generally passes through five stages which we refer to as the Tech Enablement Maturity Index (TEMI). It’s worth briefly outlining each of those five stages before diving into the topic any deeper.
1. Sink or Swim
These are the very earliest days in the life of a company, when the culture is still being formed and the collective knowledge, if it has been recorded at all, is scattered like leaves in the wind. New employees who join companies in this phase often catch up to speed via a laborious process of asking questions as they pop into their heads. There is very little structure to tech enablement, which, though frustrating, can also contribute to the romance of the situation, as people are consistently making decisions with the potential to impact the company for years to come.
2. Hero Volunteer
At some point, typically after the company has experienced a spur of growth, an existing employee recognizes that the new hires are struggling to get up to speed. Maybe onboarding is too chaotic and the veteran employees are spending too much time re-explaining things to the new hires. In the process, silos have begun to form, with nascent teams focusing solely on their own tools and processes, unaware that another corner of the company is evolving with a different culture. In response, someone takes on the responsibility of bringing order where there has been none.
Sometimes this is a result of a leader tapping an employee on the shoulder and asking them to sort it all out; sometimes it’s a result of a forward thinking employee simply taking the initiative. This new responsibility is not what they were hired to do, and comes with little, if any, institutional support. Peer-to-peer sharing results from the “Hero Volunteer” formally documenting and organizing operational knowledge; they will pass along the database they have created whenever they see fit, although their ability to identify such a situation is limited.
The “Hero Volunteer” is an unsustainable situation; a critical task is being performed without critical resources. Such a responsibility is too important for a person to handle informally. Nevertheless, this is an important first step. There can be no solution until a problem is first recognized, and the “hero volunteer” has done exactly that.
3. Partial ownership
Now a person formally owns these tasks, though they are a part time concern, and are bundled in with other, possibly related responsibilities. In spite of this progress, partial owners often sit on the wrong team (such as HR), or have too many other things on their plate to fully capture the TE potential.
At the partial ownership phase, management plays a role in supervising and perhaps even contributing to the documentation process. As such, knowledge sharing is made available more readily to new employees, while veterans are more succinctly persuaded to participate in the process. At this stage, a TE culture is beginning to take shape, with tangible benefits such as more efficient onboarding and more clear communication between separate teams.
4. Full ownership
Leadership finally recognizes the opportunities that TE affords by hiring someone with the requisite skills to own the program. The person tasked with full ownership shows up on the company org chart, and is only concerned with achieving these goals. This recognition, however, is no silver bullet. The new program manager is often trying to teach people a way of doing things that has neither been formally decided nor enjoys broad consensus. The manager will often set about interviewing people in an attempt to reverse-engineer how the organization works.
While other employees may object to the way in which some things are being codified during this phase, they are, more often than not, grateful that this work is being done. When companies stop at this point, it is often a function of scale. Sometimes they accurately judge that one person or a small team is all that is necessary to run things smoothly. Other times, however, they are simply contenting themselves with “good enough”, even though it can still be made better. Regardless, making it this far is a solid accomplishment of planning and vision, and a company will inevitably reap the corresponding rewards.
5. A well-funded team
At this point, the benefits of TE are widely recognized, and leadership is allocating appropriate resources towards its execution. There are multiple people thoughtfully placed throughout the organization who coordinate TE, relying on a centralized platform to do so. As a result, there is a sense of belonging that is felt by nearly everyone, regardless of the length of their tenure.
Management is now harvesting the rewards of their foresight, as TE enables them to communicate more directly with their employees, keeping their hands on the wheel that steers culture and operations. At this stage, the organization is fully invested in the success and growth of its employees while also enjoying extraordinary efficiencies in product development and cross-company collaboration. Live seminars are often hosted, in which veteran employees or outside experts broadcast their particular know-how. A virtuous cycle is realized; excellence in onboarding, knowledge sharing and employee retention results in a company culture that offers employees an extraordinary sense of professional fulfillment.