When You Have to Adapt as Your Role Evolves
Or, how to balance between business responsibilities, product delivery, and team management
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Q: I’m the cofounder and CTO of a startup. I manage both tech and product. We are in the midst of raising a Series A. How should I balance my time between business responsibilities, product delivery, and team management?
I’ll start by saying that every startup goes through this phase, so what you are experiencing is natural. Series A is the most challenging phase because, unlike seed stage where you have to just work work work to reach product/market fit, this is the first time you are being pulled in all directions. Here’s what you can do:
First, identify all the jobs you do. You may write code, review PRs, do design reviews, have 1-1s, plan the product roadmap, contribute to the product strategy, etc. Write down all of them.
Second, divide them into three levels: high, low, medium, based on their long-term and short-term impact. For example, writing code is a low-level job. They are fun, but they aren’t for you (any more). Similarly, writing PRDs is a low-level job.
Working on the company vision, focussing on fundraising, handling the company budget, hiring execs—these are the high-level jobs. Spend 80% of your time in them.
Okay, now let’s come to mid-level jobs. These are important jobs, and often have long-term impact, but there are other able (and senior) folks in the company who can take care of these. You can be involved, but it should strictly be optional. These jobs should get done without your involvement. For example, reviewing designs and PRs are mid-level jobs.
If you are having trouble dividing the jobs into categories or, if there are some jobs where you are the only one (even if you aren’t the ideal one), ask yourself this: which of these jobs can I afford not to do? Would I regret my decision six months from now, or can I live with it?
If you can live with it, let go of that job. There are certain important jobs that may have setbacks if postponed but, there are certain other jobs where, if you don’t pay attention now, you cannot make up for them later. For example, putting wrong initiatives on the roadmap has longterm consequences. Similarly, a bad hire wastes time, effort, speed, and morale. It’ll take a lot of time to recover.
Your immediate goal is to completely detach yourself from the low-level jobs. Delegate them to your reports in the next couple of weeks. And in the next couple of months, make sure your presence is absolutely optional in the mid-level jobs. Your sole focus should be high-level jobs. But before you do any of that, you’ll have to prepare your team so that they can take the load off you.
One good way is to consider yourself as a barrier in your team’s growth. As of now, they do the work upto a certain extent and hand over to you. Change that, and let them take the work all the way. This is a great opportunity for the team to up their game and take more responsibility. Communicate this in advance so that the team prepared.
Be okay if they make mistakes. Things may slip in the beginning when you start delegating important jobs. They are learning, and you are a startup—so you can still afford to make some mistakes. But if you avoid these mistakes, it would be very hard for the team to transform.
It’s also a common practice to bring in a Sr. PM or an Engineering Manager into the org at this time to handle some mid-level jobs. It’s not a bad practice, but be mindful of the risks.
Delegating important jobs to a brand-new person is almost like an organ transplant. It takes some time for the body to accept this new member. The entire team will have to get used to a new way of working along with this new person.
The team may also reject the new member. This is always a risk. That’s why some teams prefer to promote internally, but it depends on the team size and seniority as well. Either way, even if you plan to delgate your work six months from now, you’ll have to start today.
Now, once you have detached yourself from all the low-level jobs, and delegated all the mid-level jobs, you don’t have access to the pulse of the team any more. This is not good. You always need to know what’s going on in the team, especially if it’s a team that you’ve built. Moreover, they shouldn’t feel abandoned by you.
Here comes 1-1s. If your startup already invests in 1-1s, it’s great! If not, get started right away. Even if you cannot make it a company initiative, start the practice in your team. The benefits are obvious. Others will soon follow suit.
1-1s give employees an efficient way to voice their concerns. Weekly 1-1s have a lot of impact on the product, the velocity, and the culture—because it impacts people. It helps you understand not only what’s going on in their mind, but also what are the problems they are facing as a team.
You need weekly 1-1s with the new manager, of course. But you also need to have skipped 1-1s with their reports once a month. That’s what gives you an overview of them team at multiple levels. As a leader, you always have to stay grounded, and this is the easiest way to do so.
In conclusion, a company changes drastically pre- and post-Series A. If you aren’t mindful, this change may work against you. But if you prepare in advance, communicate the change to your team, and slowly ease into the process, it’s a pretty smooth transition—one that prepares the company to reach greater heights.
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Until next week,