“Scaling People: Tactics for Management and Company Building” came highly recommended, and rightly so. The author, Claire Hughes Johnson, worked for Google as a VP and was the COO of Stripe. The book is a perfect playbook, using the tools that Stripe uses. For that reason alone, it is worthwhile. Tools, templates and lessons.
The book is slightly mechanical in its approach, and for those tools and templates, you should buy the book. I am going to share some of the nuggets that I found interesting (I do not have a mechanical mind):
- You can always spot a great manager by the strength of their team. A top-level manager builds a fanatical followership.
- Teams become mirrors of their managers.
- There are massive coordination costs to company-wide processes. If you impose too many, chances are your employees and managers will devote their time and headspace to following your procedures instead of developing new ideas and getting work done.
- The benefits of uniformity must also outweigh the benefits of variability, and there aren’t too many structures that, when standardised, benefit the entire company.
- “Scaling to the call” means that as a company grows, its individuals are called to lead in larger and more complex roles.
- Identify the guidelines you use to make decisions and get work done. They’re guardrails for your management approach and decision-making. Read “Principles”
- Build self-awareness to build mutual awareness.
- Good communication is about providing timely and honest information, including being willing to acknowledge mistakes. People forgive mistakes but lose trust when information is hidden, false, or misleading or leadership says something but doesn’t follow through.
- Go meta.
- Do you talk to think or think to talk?
- Your teams will be much stronger if you can build a portfolio of people with a diversity of preferences, experiences, skills, and capabilities.
- Writing a “Working with Me” document forces you to reflect on how you like to get work done.
- Say the thing you think you cannot say; apply radical candour.
- The purpose is everything.
- Culture has three levels: artefacts, espoused beliefs and values, and basic underlying assumptions.
- Teams should create a team charter.
- Strategy should hurt.” The trade-offs—where you invest time and resources and where you don’t—should be painful and disappointing, either internally or to your customers.
- Be sure to distinguish between these varying maturity levels and to plan differently for the different business stages within the company.
- Allow for autonomy: Aligning around and committing to a shared definition of success creates accountability.
- Does your goal start with a verb (“launch,” “build,” “refactor,” etc.)? Then you probably have an action, so reframe it to describe the outcome you want.
- You must build for future scale and challenges, both in your team practices and among the individuals on your team.
- Having shared definitions of core concepts is more critical than you might think.
- The first step in implementing accountability mechanisms is to identify who is going to participate in the mechanism and the cadence.
- Team-level accountability mechanisms are likely set on annual, quarterly, monthly, and weekly cycles. For managers, the frequency of the accountability mechanisms should correlate with how quickly your team can impact the metrics in question.
- Trust is inversely proportional to hypocrisy.
- Company-wide communications are one of the best ways to weave your operating principles into the company fabric.
- Plan to communicate important information at least three times using different mediums or channels.
- Communicate more in crisis and times of change.
- Watch out for defensive processes defensive—or, more bluntly, cover-your-ass—process.
- Process is not synonymous with meetings.
- Be transparent about the work environment.
- If your company is scaling, it helps to remember that your primary goal is to work yourself out of a job.
- Earlier-stage companies tend to organise teams around product, engineering, support, and sales functions, which makes sense because companies usually start with just one product.
- Generating spontaneous social interactions and connections. Humans are herd animals. We have a need to connect on a level beyond the professional.
- Managers often fall somewhere on a continuum between the “extreme coach” and the “forgot-to coach.”
- High performers tend to fall into two groups, which she calls pushers and pullers.
She has an interesting perspective on structure. The concept of management structure has existed for thousands of years, and—aside from some industry forays into a decentralised approach called holacracy—she believes it’s because management structures work. Read
And then make up your mind.
Management and leadership
Distinguish between management and leadership. Great leaders put forth a vision and set lofty goals that inspire others to forge ahead, even when the path isn’t always clear. Great managers run teams that do the actual building. Managers are superb at solving technical problems. Tackling adaptive problems takes leadership. Technical problems have a solution and achievable resolution, while adaptive problems are continuously adapting. They’re an infinite game if you will. Leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can absorb. Leadership is ultimately about driving change, while management is about creating stability. Stability is important in a work environment, but confronting challenges and realising new ideas require discomfort. That means that you and your teams must abandon the stable and familiar in favour of an uncertain—but exciting—new direction.
Direct, clear and consistent
If you’re not direct with your opinions and judgments, how will people know where they stand and trust that you have their interests in mind? If you’re not clear on whether you’re managing to a defined goal or charting an entirely new vision as you build a company, how will your team trust that you’re leading them to success? And if you don’t maintain a foundation of consistency and stability, how will those around you know what to expect?
The author uses four main quadrants of all work style
- Analyzer (introverted, task-oriented)
- Director (extroverted, task-oriented)
- Promoter (extroverted, people-oriented)
- Collaborator (introverted, people-oriented)
On working with founders
Founders did not train to be managers, Founders are coming from a place of first principles, and you’ll be coming from a place of experience. You can both learn a lot from each other. Your relationship will also involve friction by design. Understand what matters. Just as you should understand your reports’ values, you should also work to understand your founders’ values. Better yet, ask them to write down the company values if they haven’t already.
Every company’s mission should be part of its founding documents. Founding documents detail the plans for the entire enterprise, including the company’s long-term goals and principles and your company philosophy: why and how you exist and operate. Having strong founding documents that share why you exist and what you seek to achieve ensures that the operating systems you put in place share a common purpose, flow from your objectives, and are guided by a clear company ethos from top to bottom, from leadership to individuals. You also need to codify at the highest level your company values, which form the basis of your culture.
An operating system is a set of norms and actions that are shared with everyone in the company. f the founding documents are like a house’s support structure, then the operating system is like a house’s mechanical system. The operating system also represents a stable, consistent frame of reference. It serves as a touchstone when external forces inevitably affect your priorities, and it helps gird the company amid the chaos of rapid growth. It will be based on how you hire and develop your team and the rhythms of how you operate: quarterly goals, metrics review meetings on Mondays, team meetings on Tuesdays, weekly 1:1s, offsites for big-picture thinking, and so on. You will be effective because you have a routine.
McKinsey has a famous framework of three growth horizons:
Horizon 1: Current source of growth
Horizon 2: Next source of growth (one that’s still nascent but looks promising)
Horizon 3: Investment in a yet-to-be-determined third source of growth
Google would devote 70 per cent of its resources to the core business, 20 per cent to emerging products, and 10 per cent to research and development for future products. In tech, you often need to start working on Horizons 2 and 3 very early on. Read “The day after tomorrow”.
- Are your goals more than one page, more than three to five objectives, or more than three to five KRs per objective? No one will read them—let alone remember them.
- Could one team member think a goal is achieved and another one completely disagree? Then your goal isn’t specific enough.
- Can you imagine a scenario where the goal is achieved, but you’re still dissatisfied with where you ended up? Then your goal isn’t specific enough, or an aspect is missing.
- Could you be successful without achieving the goal? Then your goal is overly specific, and you should rethink how to define success.
- How do you manage against the goals? If you set good goals and have real buy-in, then the whole team should have a set of shared goals you can use as a foundation.
- Goals and metrics should have owners who are ultimately responsible for completing the work.
It reminds me of “The Crux”.
At Stripe, writing is a key part of the internal communications strategy. Discussions are written down and sent out as notes. Important company reviews require a pre-read. And “presentations” are often delivered as written memos. First, writing is an equaliser. Great documentation provides context for the people not in the room: another team, a colleague in a different office, or someone who has yet to join the company. Second, at Stripe, we believe long-form writing leads to higher-quality thought. Finally, writing is efficient. People who are great written communicators are, perhaps, also somewhat lazy communicators: They don’t want to have to repeat themselves. The cost of a strong writing culture is that you end up with a lot of documents. It means you have to be diligent about content management across the company. You also have to be strict about writing guidelines. Read “Working backwards”
Because humans are fundamentally creatures of habit, you’ll want to create an operating cadence—the schedule or rhythm with which your company, divisions, or teams provide progress reports and make decisions—that they can follow naturally. Cadences will vary by manager, team, and individual, but they should be agreed upon upfront by all of the relevant parties. Examples of operating rhythms include annual planning processes, quarterly business reviews, monthly all-hands meetings, biweekly 1:1s, weekly snippets and team meetings (with metrics reviews) daily standups. The key is to provide predictable, common, and consistent structures that serve as touchstones for every person in the division or team. Having a process that guides how you run things isn’t inherently bad. Bad processes cause bloat, but good processes help provide clarity, which leads to faster execution. Good processes should create lightweight checks that solidify alignment and achieve a combination of speed and adherence to best practices so that participants no longer have to divine the best way to do something.
Beware of stale processes
Just like meetings, processes can get stale and become rote. It means that the process has outgrown its purpose, and it’s time to revisit it. Revisit your processes every six months or so. Allow for experimentation. If you do experiment with your processes, make sure to: State how long you’re going to try the process for. Determine when you’ll check back in to see how things are going. Set your evaluation criteria for whether to continue or revisit the process.
In crisis situations, Stripe invokes code yellow. A Code Yellow is a special operating mode intended to increase execution speed and reduce execution risk around a given project. The Code Yellow team will:
- Be shielded from other organisational obligations.
- Be resourced quickly and aggressively.
- Have daily standups and write up frequent situation reports (typically daily) on progress and priorities.
- Have a dedicated physical space (optional but encouraged). Have the power to convene the leadership team to make decisions with a 24-hour response time.
- Typically work longer hours than the average team, including longer hours on weekends when needed.
- Update the company on active Code Yellows at every all-hands meeting
- To avoid burnout, we try to limit the duration of Code Yellow projects to no more than ten weeks.
The book gets very specific about hiring, recruitment, scaling, rewarding, interviewing, selection, onboarding, team structures, team dynamics, delegating, meetings, offsites, diversity and coaching. Maybe too specific if you are a generalist.
Her final thoughts on management
- Manage your time and energy.
- Figure out which tasks are easy and which tasks are hard for you.
- Give yourself permission to set boundaries.
- Know when you’re most productive.
- Learn to disappoint people with your time.
- Reframe how you think about your strengths and weaknesses.
- Focus on the important and urgent work.
- Ask for help.
- Foster relationships.
- The biggest trap is to fall into getting stuck either chasing someone else’s version of success or in a role that doesn’t prioritise their strengths or make them feel fulfilled.
The lesson from the book is cadence, routine, operationalisation and predictable structure. Read this book with
And you will have a complete playbook for leadership, management and scaling.