Aaron Epstein is the cofounder of Creative Market.
One of the most difficult things about starting a company is that you have to create both a product that people love and a company where people want to work at the same time. It’s usually not enough to just have a great product, or just be a great place to work, because great people build great products, and great people won’t tolerate a bad environment for very long.
People leave managers, not companies, yet while most founders are obsessive about trying to build a product that people love, many first-time founders raise a bunch of money and start building a team without any management experience at all.
I was one of those first-time founders who had to quickly learn on the job, so here’s some advice I wish someone had given me when I was just beginning to grow and manage a team at Creative Market.
As a founder you’re used to doing it all, and it can be scary to shed responsibilities you’ve always owned, but you can’t scale yourself and focus on the highest leverage opportunities until you get things off your plate. If you think you’re going to have to work especially late or can’t get to the things you need to in a given day, take that as a signal to delegate to your team.
Create growth opportunities.
Great people often care about personal growth way more than money or any other tangible benefit you could offer them, so the flip-side of delegating your responsibilities is that you create opportunities for people on your team to do new things, learn, and grow. Don’t hoard them all for yourself.
Invest in your stars.
Similar to how it’s much easier to retain an existing customer than to acquire a new one, it’s much easier to keep an existing star employee happy than find a new star. Go above and beyond to make sure your stars feel valued, appreciated, and rewarded.
Set a high bar. Great people want to do big, meaningful things. Push your team with aggressive goals, and you might be surprised what they will accomplish.
Lead by example.
Teams embody the characteristics of their leaders, and the things you care about will be the things your team cares about. If you sweat the details, your team will learn to sweat the details too.
Your team’s success is your success.
Get satisfaction and the feeling of accomplishment from the success of your team. As an individual contributor, it’s easy to look back at the end of a week and feel good about all that you’ve directly produced. As a manager, you’re responsible for the accomplishments of your team, which can be a difficult transition for a lot of people. The advantage is that you can scale yourself and your vision.
Deflect all credit and absorb all blame.
Use “I” when talking about a screw-up, and use “we” (or better yet, specific contributors’ names) when talking about successes. A little recognition goes a long way to make people feel valued.
Share the big picture.
It’s important for people on your team to understand how their work and role fits into the big picture of the business, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’ll give them a sense of purpose and motivation to understand how they’re contributing to the success of the business. It’s easy to take it for granted that your team is clear on this, but this is one of those things where you want to constantly make that connection.
Repeat yourself often.
You should feel like you sound like a broken record about the things that are important to your company — your mission, your vision, your KPIs, etc. You think about it all the time, but the people on your team don’t, and most people need to hear something many times before it truly gets ingrained in their memory. You’ll know you’re repeating key messages enough when every single person on your team will be able to explain them to a complete stranger exactly how you would’ve said it.
You’re in charge.
It can be uncomfortable telling people what to do if you’ve never done it before. But you are the leader, and everyone on your team will be looking to you for direction and guidance, so own it. People want structure and direction, so don’t be afraid to use phrases like “I need…” and “I want…” to shape your team in your image.
Focus on the What, not the How.
Communicate your vision for what success looks like, to give your team a framework and goals to guide their decisions and work. It’s a way for you to “be in the room” when the work gets done without micromanaging the work.
Set deadlines and hold people accountable.
When you give someone a task, ask “by when?”, then add a note to your calendar to follow up to make sure it’s complete. If standards or deadlines are not being met, give direct feedback to change future behavior.
Verbalize your thoughts.
Simply saying things like “I’m disappointed in this work” is extremely powerful in helping people directly understand where you stand. People aren’t mind-readers, so rather than just jumping into solutions when giving feedback, state your feelings out loud to be clear and direct.
Manage for the employee.
My favorite interview question for manager candidates is “How would you describe your management style?”, where the best possible answer is “it depends on the employee”. Each person has a unique combination of experience, motivations, personality, etc, and it’s up to you to take the right management approach that helps them succeed and maximizes their contribution.
Understand that everyone’s different.
Just because you may be an achiever that’s self-motivated to get things done doesn’t mean that everyone else on your team is. Get curious to figure out what drives and motivates each individual on your team, rather than assuming everyone’s like you.
Hire slow, fire fast.
It’s the thing everyone says and few have the discipline to do, but hiring well is the most important thing you can possibly do to positively impact your business and your team. Great people want to work with other great people, so resist the temptation to fill open positions with mediocre candidates, and don’t settle. You should be thrilled about each new hire.
Hire for hunger. It’s great when a potential candidate walks in the door with all the skills needed to succeed in the role, but passion for your mission, business, and team will do more to drive an employee to make a big, long-term impact than any specific skills they may have. Passionate employees will be quicker to teach themselves new skills too, especially as your business changes and grows.
Set your team up for success.
It’s unfair to expect even the best people to hit the ground running on day one without being properly onboarded. As their manager, it’s your responsibility to invest the time early on to set expectations, show them the ropes, teach them about your business, train them, and provide clear direction and a well-defined role. Anything less will diminish their ability to succeed.
Your trust should be earned.
Don’t just assume that new and more inexperienced team members will hit the ground running and understand your expectations from day one. Make them prove themselves first by working more closely with them and frequently reviewing their work until they’ve earned your full trust.
Shield your team from distractions.
Provide structure, focus, and clear goals for your team to maximize their ability to execute on the strategy. They should come in to work each day knowing exactly what they’re working on and exactly what they need to do, and any other distractions should be deflected to keep from derailing productivity, wasting time, and knocking the team off course.
Include your team in decision-making.
If you’ve hired great people, you’d be crazy not to include them in important decisions. Define the decision-making process upfront to set expectations for your team — will it be a decision by committee, will someone else on your team own the decision, or will you gather feedback to make the final call yourself? Listen to their thoughts and opinions with an open mind, make sure everyone feels heard, then decide the best course of action. It may even go against the consensus of the team, and that’s ok so long as you’ve defined the process and expectations up front. Even if your team disagrees with the final call, by including them in the process they will better understand the decision, feel like their opinion was valued, and be able to get on board to help support the decision going forward.
A little professional tension is healthy.
Differing perspectives help make teams and products better, so a little professional tension can be really valuable to help push your team to think about things in new ways. It should be net-positive though, so if it’s forcing too many decisions to get stuck in the mud, or if the tension moves from professional to personal, then you need to take action to eliminate it quickly before it drags down the team or blows up.
Show your work.
Explain your decision-making process. Whenever you take a controversial action or make a difficult decision, it’s especially powerful to fully explain how you arrived at that decision so your team can understand your thought process and rationale, and ultimate help support the decision.
It’s ok to not always know the answer.
Ask questions, probe, and admit when you don’t know the answer to something. There’s nothing wrong with saying you’ll need some time to think or learn more before making an important decision.
Have consistent 1-on-1s every week.
These are for the benefit of your employees, so you should let them drive the agenda each week. From your side, it’s an opportunity to set aside some focused time each week to talk privately, get on the same page, and ask open-ended questions like “how are things going?”, “how are you feeling?”, “what are your thoughts on the big news that was announced earlier this week?”, “what’s your opinion on X?”, etc. Prioritize these meetings in your schedule, go out of your way to keep from canceling or rescheduling them whenever possible, and your consistent time and attention will send a signal to your team that you care about their happiness.
Ease the maker to manager transition.
As you scale from a team of individual contributors to a more structured org, the maker to manager transition will challenge your best people. Just because someone is an outstanding individual contributor doesn’t mean they’ll be an outstanding manager right off the bat, because it requires a completely different set of skills and experience. And during the transition, their instinct will be to take on both their prior maker and their new manager duties – spending 75% effort on making and 75% effort on managing – a 150% workload resulting in less than 100% output in each area. Put structure in place to allow them to focus on being a manager first and foremost, and take maker duties off of their plate.
Create a career path.
Every 6 months, ask your employees where they want to be in their career in the next 2–3 years. Work with them to put together a plan, help them get the skills and experience they need, and guide them on a course to get there.
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