‘People Stuff’ (psychology for scaling a startup business)

This is a guest blog by Skye Trubov (Consultant Business Psychologist, Speaker & Author) who did a Fireside Chat with Jim Beirne (CEO, Live Theatre) on our ‘Growing & Scaling Day’ during Newcastle Startup Week 2017.

SkyeTrubov and JimBeirne onstage at Newcastle Startup Week 2017

When an idea takes off and a team of 3 becomes a company of 30, the ‘People Stuff’ begins to look a lot different. You’ve hustled and worked sleepless nights to get the cash flowing in and product flowing out but as the business challenges increase in complexity and scale, organisational psychology shows that a focus on individuals in the workplace will provide the clarity of direction needed to ‘scale up’ a company ready for growth.

At this stage, leadership drives initiatives on building enough structure to support growth with enough freedom to execute judgement and maintain peoples’ autonomy. Structure provides clear guidance for people to grow and succeed in a growing company.

The most important theme to keep in mind when considering scale is one of ‘identity’. Ruthie Penfold (Director, Talent Acquisition at Shazam) does an excellent job of espousing the virtue of staying true to yourself and to what you do when growing a company (or growing in a company) – the ‘Rise of the Individual‘ as she posits, is now.

Assuming the startup has in fact, done something differently and is now in a position of growth, why not extend the same disruptive mentality when it comes to people? Growth for a company of any size elicits a number of challenges and here are a few key people principles that when outlined and defined can serve as a foundation on which a growing company can build:

People Principle #1: Define and streamline

Identifying functionality of roles will enable individuals to focus on key responsibilities and drive productivity in their specified arena. Jim Deters of Galvanize explains in his blog that functionalising roles is a critical step to take in the scale up of a company in order to get people focused on the right moves. A team of ten entrepreneurial and autonomous people may be able to do what needs to get done without much provocation or specificity but within the larger context of a 50 person company, that model doesn’t quite hold. Deters adds that at this stage, a restructure may even be necessary to better understand where everyone fits.

Streamlining roles will help maintain focus on priorities, which has a positive effect on productivity and also establishes framework for effective conversations around performance. Additionally, developmental psychology shows us that humans react well to structure (definition need not impose nor restrict but rather lay out a direction on which people can forge their own path). Defining roles helps people understand what needs to get done and shouldn’t dictate how to do it.

People Principle #2: Mind your Culture

Company culture is difficult to define but faces the risk of being lost if not properly understood. The definition of culture itself is also varied and continues to draw much debate from practitioners and researchers. Regardless, companies can define their own culture in their own terms, which allows people to connect and perform on a common ground. Finding identity and purpose by asking a few questions can be a good starting point to ensure that the culture grows with the company.

Some questions to ask include: What do we value? What do we create? What do we enjoy? These are only starting points to gain a sense of what the company as a collection of individuals stands for.

Culture can also be shaped from specific goals and values that the founders or broader leadership put in place. A manifesto, a motto, a set of values can all set out the norms on which people operate within a given context. Apple’s famous tagline ‘Think Different’ sets a tone for innovation within the company and for the consumers. Alignment to organisational values is strongly associated with employee engagement (e.g. Goring 2008) and can lead to other positive work-related outcomes like job satisfaction and performance. The aim is to communicate some message that conveys: ‘This is who we are, what we do and what we stand for’ and a strong culture will proliferate that message throughout the company.

People Principle #3: Communication – what and how?

There will be a point at which communication is not as easy as standing up and making an announcement to your team of 6 people but clear and effective communication keeps everyone on board, on task and moving in the right direction.

Communication concerns general priorities on what and how messages and feedback are delivered. There are plenty of tools and resources available to streamline dialogue, which can improve the process rather quickly.

On a general level, the process of on-boarding serves as a perfect opportunity to clearly communicate to new employees the expectations of the role and the values of the company. On-boarding is extremely important for imparting the vision and values of the company and serves as a critical period for induction into the company’s operations and socialisation into the culture.

On a more specific level, the question of how to communicate feedback will depend on the receiving individual because despite our advanced capability of language, humans still seem to struggle with communication. The processes around delivering feedback, performance insight, delegation and simple day-to-day items varies in efficacy and if done well, can be carried out in ways that foster a ‘growth mindset’ by encouraging improvement across the board.

This theme divides into two categories: how communication is physically or digitally delivered (e.g Slack, email, etc.) and how communication is verbally delivered (e.g performance conversations – does your team member need encouragement or pressure to deliver results?). Communication also helps to shape identity, culture and offers the parameters for streamlining productivity – all critical components for successful growth.

These people principles have only introduced a few building blocks on which companies can scale. Organisational psychology supported by mountains of research (which have informed the points in this article) provides insight into what people and companies need during times of growth and change. After all, a company of 50 or 100 simply cannot operate like a company of 10 or 15 people – it’s still fun, just different. Be yourself!

If you’d like to comment on or ask Skye any questions about this blog, please Tweet her @TheSkyeLaw. And if you’d like to learn more about how to adopt a ‘Growth Mindset’ at work or improve processes to help grow your business, we’d love you to join us at our 1-day ‘Newcastle Scaleup Summit‘ on 23rd November 2017.


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