On building motivated teams

ashwini asokan
7 min readMay 25, 2017

Building teams that scale with your startup ..

image cred: https://www.skipprichard.com/how-great-companies-fuel-innovation-through-diversity/

It’s not very often that we read or speak about teams in an ‘everyday’ sort of way. In the startup deadline world, to think consistently about the nuances of a changing, growing, hard working team can be challenging. After all, seeing beyond the individual, the skill set, the deadline, to thinking about the whole, the invisible qualities that make relationships work, daily work - efficient and enjoyable, can be extremely difficult.

As we’ve grown from seed to series A and beyond, I’ve watched the team grow, change, adapt to the needs of scale. Managing and growing the right teams are job #1 when you’re scaling a startup. Candidates have so many options in the market. Finding and growing a team that shares and is invested in your vision involves a lot more than pay checks and bean bags. To keep teams motivated, engaged, inspired through the different stages you grow through can be challenging if it’s not done in a conscious, focused manner.

Here are 4 aspects of team growth and management to think about as you grow your startup.

Help each employee orient, grow and adapt work goals towards company’s growing, changing business & cultural values

As we grew from 6 to 18 to 30 to 52 over the past 3 years, I saw a pattern in the people who stayed, who grew and who left. I broadly grouped those who stayed and stayed motivated, into three:

  • first, those who understood the business, the value of their work to the business and the impact it had on something visible like a product launch, a website design, a new algorithm powering a feature etc.
  • second, those who understood the values, the philosophy and culture of the company clearly and were happy to help grow and evolve with it at different stages.
  • third, those who loved their work, loved the company’s products and vision, had no trouble showing up and working through their deadlines, working out hardships and difficult problems and working together with other team members.

As a startup, you go through multiple phases. Helping your team orient their work, thoughts, values towards the company’s business and cultural values is not a one time activity.

There’s constant orientation and re-orientation required as you grow, change, adapt, pivot or scale.

At each stage, watch out closely for who’s growing and evolving with the company and who’s unable to do the same. In short, bring the team along for the ride. Ones that grow farther from the vision and the core goals, tend to fall out and can’t relate to the company in a meaningful way. Consider this just like any other relationship!

Watch out for bad managing styles

If you’re at a stage where you have managers at your startup, it’s extremely important to guide and mentor them into managing teams in a way that reflects your company’s business & cultural values.

  • Managers running little cliques of their own with agendas that don’t line up to the larger organization is a red flag,
  • Tyrant managers that micro manage or kill creativity can kill the spirit of an employee even before they’re given a chance to explore,
  • Watch out for favoritism, nepotism and more!
  • Encourage regular meetings within groups, 1:1s, mentoring and more to build tight skill set or practice oriented groups, while simultaneously making cross disciplinary teams to thrive.
  • Show every employee what growth is for them, why your startup is the best, why they can thrive there in ways they can’t elsewhere. This isn’t just a hiring pitch, it’s a continuous, consistent process. For companies to grow and scale, you need to nurture, mentor, grow and scale the capabilities and mindset of the teams that make magic happen.

Break down invisible hierarchies

Startups are synonymous with multi-tasking, distributed decision making, being nimble, agile, versatile systems, having individuals take on multiple roles. But it’s natural to think about hierarchy in the traditional, corporate sense of the word aka don’t have too many managers when young or growing. Organizationally, this is something that is visible, and an easy rule of thumb to follow in the early days. However, there are many invisible hierarchies that can become team and motivation killers.

The skill set hierarchy:

As an AI startup, I’ve heard marketing, product, engg. teams, and anyone not building the core AI IP tell me they feel emotionally drained at watching people so much more accomplished than themselves, seemingly adding way more value to the business than them. As a Product founder myself, I’ve worked hard to bring in people from the humanities, design, product centric skill sets and strengths. To hear about the disparity in perceiving self worth, despite that, was eye opening to me.

  • Disciplines, backgrounds, degrees, school names, all come with stigma, power hierarchies — said and unsaid.
  • Integrating every team member into the core business, training them to understand their work in the context of the larger whole and motivating them to add value across different types of work, can help break some of these preconceived notions about who is superior and who isn’t.
  • Do not allow one or a few kind of skill sets to constantly take centre stage, smack down, talk down or ignore the rest.

Balance similar skill set groups, optimizing for speed of delivery and scale with diverse skills and personalities that inject creativity, demonstrate parallel thinking, unique & powerful problem solving skills, building a path for growth ahead.

The demographic hierarchy:

Age and gender can be deeply dividing in a startup. I’ve written extensively about the same and on our own journey building a team with a gender balanced team. It’s a lot easier when this is done from day 1 of the startup. Break the hierarchies down and build a culture of mutual respect. Having a team acknowledge culture, hiring rules, unconscious and conscious bias early enough in the life of a startup, can prevent problems that arise from demography based discrimination and hierarchies as the company grows.

  • Lay the ground rules of zero tolerance towards sexism, caste or religious bias, both conscious and unconscious, and overt and covert types. Relentlessly, hold onto them.
  • Have conversations on these topics regularly with different groups and make an honest attempt at creating safe and comfortable spaces for everyone in the startup. Hierarchies form so easily around these biases in particular, because of unsaid rules around power structures and struggles between the older and younger, the different genders, between people who speak more and less, those louder and quieter.

The social hierarchy:

A team typically comprises of a variety of personalities. Extroverts, introverts, people doing what they’re doing hoping they don’t get put into either of those two buckets and more! The perception game is a hard one to fight.

  • Don’t play favorites. Don’t play who’s cooler than whom.
  • Be inclusive of people that don’t always want to participate in one or a particular profile of activity. Maybe it’s not just a LAN party, maybe it’s also watching a movie! Maybe it’s not just drinking again, maybe it’s a board game too. Maybe it’s not just late nights, maybe it’s lunches too.
  • Create quiet and safe spaces for those not confident or comfortable speaking in larger groups. Pair them in smaller working groups, nurture and mentor those voices into finding their own in your organization. Most end up finding their voices, one way or another if they realize you care as a company, as founders or managers, about them and their work. The ones who end up never caring to integrate, eventually leave. Putting in the effort to nurture each employee this way in the early days, allows you to build a stable, strong, committed group of people who will be in this with you, through the tougher times, not just at times of joy and success.

Communicate. Communicate. Over communicate!

I’m wedded to this one. I ask my team to always err on the side of over communication. With data scientists, computer vision experts working alongside product managers, front end, back end, sales and marketing experts, the cognitive load itself can kill. In a 50 person startup like ours, lines blur between research, development, design and delivery. This means people work across that spectrum of activities and often with different teams. I tell the team to speak in simple terms, in ways that everyone can understand. Following simple rules can help your team feel part of important milestones, the vision as well as the daily rituals. These are some below:

  • No jargons, No discipline/skill set snobbery of any kind.
  • Highly collaborative teams, daily stand ups or scrum, with clear R&Rs, goals of each team and accountability
  • Escalate if there’s an issue, all the way up to the founders if it’s not resolved. It’s not about the people, it’s about the problem.
  • Communicate and offer to help, the cycle always goes around. You’ll find more people helping you learn faster when they see you lend a helping hand out often in other places.
  • Speak up if there’s something to be told, asked, questioned, challenged. Prevent catastrophic failures by bringing team along for the ride and being aware of risk. Graceful failures allow quick, rapid progress since everyone is aware, along for the ride, invested and trusting of each other.
  • It’s never personal. Get over yourself!
  • Taking the time as founders, to be transparent about the business, communicate important decisions and milestones, recruit people into the vision and the way you plan to build it, is the bedrock of a trusting relationship between the founders and employees.

At the end of the day, a healthy team, motivated and invested in both the vision as well as the journey and the daily grind, will take you places. Identifying and removing spaces, people and causes of a toxic environment, as soon as you can, helps you grow the team in a positive way and keep them motivated and invigorated to handle the rocky, up & down journey, that is a startup life! And more importantly, as the company scales, so much of the success of the system can depend on discipline, attrition, the presence of a stable core group for the long haul and the way in which the team scales at each stage.



ashwini asokan

Founder CEO Mad Street Den, an AI and Automation startup. Musings on life, growth, AI, SaaS, Startups, Design.