How These Entrepreneurs Managed Team Dynamics As Their Companies Grew

Often, it's easy for a small startup team to work together effectively. It's only when the company grows that the troubles begin.

Back in 2009, at a street festival in Cambridge, Mass., Todd Horton founded KangoGift alongside a team of four. What started as a concept of sending a gift to a friend via text message has since evolved into an HR software company helping to improve employee-recognition programs.

Related: 5 Steps to Building on the Strengths of Your Sales Team

“We were successful because we were aligned to a common goal,” Horton, now CEO, told me. “We were in constant communication. We were excited about the potential and the unknown.”

Horton and his team had earlier developed a website; they then leveraged a booth at the street festival to spark interest in their company and identify local businesses as potential partners. In the end, the team wrote 3,000 lines of code, struck deals with five local businesses and processed over 200 gifts that first weekend. They launched KangoGift in 30 days.

“When building a team, entrepreneurs need to keep in mind that people want to work on something bigger than themselves,” Horton said. “It could be a social mission -- or feeling like they are working on something cutting edge that will offer an emotional benefit to people.”

Often, it’s easy for a small startup team to work together effectively. As KangoGift's experience illustrates, founding teams can be united and driven by their shared vision for the company. However, once the company begins to add new team members, this ease of collaboration can be difficult to maintain.

Here are five approaches to teamwork you should consider:

Start thinking about teams early.

“Sometimes, when a new company is expanding, instead of building a team, an entrepreneur simply hires people for their individual technical expertise,” Rick Gibbs, performance specialist at Insperity in New York City, told me. “As a result, not much thought is given to the idea of this ‘group’ being cohesive or having the ability to work together.”

As the team begins to grow, this can lead to conflict, especially if the employees have to come out of their bubbles and work as a team yet have little in common with anyone else.

“Often, there are groups of very smart, capable people who simply clash because relatively little attention has been given to the idea of what it means to perform well on a team,” Gibbs said.

How to avoid this issue? Build a team-oriented culture from the get-go. During the interview process, hink about how job candidates might perform on teams -- as opposed to hiring for individual skills alone. Especially in a startup,your first few hires will work more closely together than a more established company, so it’s essential to consider new hires' experience with teamwork.

Also, during the interviews, ask candidates to describe specific examples of past projects they completed on a team. Include current team members in the interview process to ensure they get on well with new hires.

The tech: Building a startup team that will work well together can start with referrals, and one tool that makes referrals easier is Boon. Boon's matching algorithms identify candidates and engage the right employees, custom rewards and gamification to inspire action. Integrations and analytics dashboards provide clarity and integrity to the program.

Foster transparency and trust.

Because startup teams can consist of people who have varying strengths and weaknesses, “Transparency is the key to success,” Seattle-based Prime Opt career coach Michella Chiu told me.

When leaders aren’t transparent with their team members, morale decreases. In fact, according to a 2015 Work Management Survey by Wrike of nearly 1,500 business professionals, 52 percent of employees listed missing information as a top stressor at work.

Related: The How-To: Building (And Managing) A Team For Your Startup

Transparency and trust go hand in hand. If teammates don’t trust one other, the work environment goes from being collaborative to competitive. This hurts everyone’s productivity. Set a good example by being open and honest with all team members. Communicate and share information that impacts the group.

Build a culture of trust by encouraging all employees to contribute.

“Hire great people and get out of their way,” Jacob Shriar, director of content at Officevibe in Montreal, told me. “Trust them to do good work and give them the autonomy they deserve.”

Shriar and his team recently traveled to Prague for a project, which was ultimately successful, he said he realized, because of the deep levels of trust and respect within the team.

Chiu,the career coach, agrees. “Build a solid system or set of procedures to facilitate better communication,” she said. “Make exchanging ideas easier for everyone.”

When everyone inputs ideas to the team’s successes, trust increases, not just between team members and leadership but among one other.

The tech: Social Chorus allows companies and team members to not only easily communicate in a way that helps them work together, but also to stay connected with and informed about the company.

Know how to direct energies.

When employees are asked to do something that doesn’t come naturally to them, they'll likely expend extra energy. This can quickly lead to burnout. However, when teams are built around their complementary strengths, everyone can focus on what comes easily to him or her individually.

“It’s less about strengths and weaknesses than it is about identifying the areas an individual has the most energy for,” Karen Gordon, CEO of 5 Dynamics in Austin, Texas, told me. “This is where productive collaboration can be improved.”

Gordon explained that her company had developed its "5 Dynamics methodology"  as a way of looking at work as a process, where each step requires full focus, one at a time:

  1. Understand the complete situation, see relationships and develop creative solutions.

  2. Build a team and excite its members about the idea.

  3. Develop a plan using data. Create schedules, budgets, timetables, clear roles and rules. Predict problems that may arise.

  4. Hold the team accountable for implementing the plan,  then measure its performance.

  5. Assess performance of the previous Dynamics by measuring external success and internal satisfaction within the team. Make changes to the process to improve both of these areas next time.  

Build a diverse team with varying skills. Then, identify tasks based on each employee’s strengths, where he or she will excel and still feel challenged. Look at the needs of employees individually rather than focusing on creating efficiencies with blanket solutions.

“This will create a team environment that avoids burnout, fosters positivity and success and offers pathways for communication that were previously unknown,” Gordon said.

The tech: Avilar's competency management tools identify and close critical employee skills gaps that could derail organizational success.

Show gratitude.

The greatest team in the world can become unproductive if the team members aren't appreciated for their hard work. Acknowledge impressive outcomes of teamwork, even if it’s through a simple “thank you.”

“Any number of us working for a startup could easily find work making far more money for much bigger names, but we chose something that inspired us beyond those frills,” Divya Menon, founder of Bad Brain, in Los Angeles, told me. “When a company is truly grateful for that work and people go out of their way to write you a heartfelt text on Saturday about the work you put in, you realize how much more important that company is than just a salary or a bullet point on a résumé.”

According to Officevibe State of Employee Engagement in 2017, 63 percent of employees surveyed said they didn't get enough recognition.

“I think it comes from a place of stress and fear, but startups have to realize that people sacrifice a lot of stability and notability to try and help out with a ‘cause,’” Menon said. “A startup is a risk for something we all believe in and think the world should have. Entrepreneurs should be really keyed into what their employees gave up to be there and let them know, meaningfully and frequently, how much it means to them.”

Encourage employee-leaders to recognize their teams in authentic ways. Lead by example to establish a culture of recognition. Thank employees often for the work they contribute individually and as a team.

Related: How Leaders Can Best Manage Conflict Within Their Teams

The tech: HR Cloud lets employees and managers give “kudos” so everyone being recognized for their achievements. It also provides metrics so entrepreneurs can refine their approach to building a team.
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