Empowered Team

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Retaining your Early Stage Team

Ginni Lisk

Head of Talent and People

Hiring fast is critical to your success as early-stage startups; you need to meet the right people and bring them into the fold quickly so that they can start to have the desired impact. But once you have them, how do you retain your early stage team?

Having a Team Makes You Busier

When you hire, you are bringing into the mix additional transferable skill; a core enabler of any business, not least an early stage one.  Having this additional skill in-house means that you will be able to achieve more;

  • at a company level - where goal-setting, planning and productivity is concerned,

  • and as a busy founder - with increased bandwidth to prioritise on what your own skill enables you to do.

However, it’s naive to bring new people into a group situation and subsequently turn your attention elsewhere entirely.  Having a team makes you busier.  You are now a manager, and a leader! 

As a leader, you need to motivate, engage and adopt the most appropriate strategy to retain your early stage team. 

Be a Good Manager

In Kim Scott’s First Round talk on Radical Candor, she says;

“One of the worst things about managing people is that you are going to learn your most important lessons and you’re going to make your most important mistakes off the backs of other people, so it’s really important to learn quickly...”

In startups, this is palpably the case.

Regardless of their skill level or expertise or years of experience, in a small team, your people are all covering more ground in one role than would be covered in a later stage/more established business.  You therefore need to retain people who demonstrate the right values and have the right intrinsic motivation to cover this additional ground. 

These people are not only going to be tolerant of, but actively motivated by working in a lean way; making regular pivots and channelling their inherent lack of resistance to change, in the pursuit of a fast pace and meaningful work.   

With those brilliant motivational foundations in place, not only do you have fewer people with which to get management wrong in a small team, you have a higher stakes scenario; you can’t afford to lose even one person who is great at their job in an early stage team - particularly if that person accounts for 25% of your team - and especially when their departure comes as a surprise. 

Retention of an early stage team is an interesting and unique challenge; but is also an opportunity. 

Below I highlight some key themes to consider when creating your culture and developing a retention strategy; how and why you should enable honest communication, how and why your should invest in training and development (even at an early stage) and why you need to motivate your early stage team to work hard.  

Honesty = Agility

You want a team that is honest with you.  You should strive to understand how long your employees intend to work for your company, and feel confident in accepting that a highly engaged, incredibly hard-working employee who pushes the needle massively for your company over two or three years, could be a better hire than someone who might stay for longer, but achieve less. 

Strive to provide opportunities in your early stage business that simultaneously springboard your company as well as the individual's career.  Choose an appropriate retention strategy. I realise that may not feel like an aspirational policy, and may even feel counter-intuitive, but it is a realistic approach that will enable managed expectation and fewer suprise replacement hires! 

Importantly, you can also retain your early stage team by enabling honest communication amongst themselves. Being part of a highly functional team is a brilliant source of engagement and retention in small companies. 

  •  Create and encourage a culture of communication that self-corrects.

    • The aim is a well-oiled, close-knit team that will pull each other up in tough times and has the confidence and respect to give corrective advice, to each other, when things are going wrong.  

  • Create unity, and to do this positively and emphatically, in public.

    • Give encouraging advice and be happy to communicate on an impromptu basis - when you see something good happening in units, recognise it and give praise. Guide your teams to do more of that good stuff!

    • You should share criticism where you need to and manage expectations with clarity.  Managing performance effectively is incredibly engaging for employees!  But be wary of individual criticsim in public; avoid negative group dynamics and biased group think by having more formal corrective conversations on an individual basis, in private.

Develop Ability

Enable your team’s ability.  At an early stage, where it's unlikely you'll have a budget for learning and development, you need to be creative.  You can offer incredible opportunities to learn, that don't have to stem from a paid-for training course. 

  • Trust is key.  Demonstrate as a manager and as a leader, that you care about your team, and that you will get ‘out of their way’ so that they can master their skill.

    • Think about where you go above and beyond for your team and how you show them that you have their back. Demonstrating your trust in delegating work, and your confidence in their ability, will enable quicker and more confident decision-making, faster rates of improvement in execution - and crucially - a team that prioritises and drives self-learning and self-improvement.  Show them that you want them to be as successful as they can. 

  • Signal the cultural norms you want to see; set an example.

    • Where and when do you ‘call it’ and move on?  What is the process for knowing your hypothesis has been tested?  What does mastery look like in your early stage team?

Hard Work: Enable, don't Demand. 

Micro-management is regarded, quite rightly, as a killer of motivation, which in turn is a killer of retention.

As leaders, you should: 

  • Enable your teams to manage their own productivity and achievements;

    • Think about where your team tracks their workload. How can they easily visualise their progress, achievements and areas for improvement?

  • Seek out opportunities to engage with everyone; including your high-performers

    • It may feel natural to leave your highest performers entirely to their own devices, or you may unconsciously be more hands-off with over achievers - they’re smashing it, right? In actuality these people crave involvement and inclusion, they want to feel part of your business discussions, so seek out opportunities to share informtion, to ask their opinion and be transparent.

  • Hire and grow balanced teams

    • Hire for a diversity of perspective.  Belbin famously discussed nine team roles, and there are a range of psychometric, personality and cognitive processing tests out there… whether you choose to use them at this stage in your business is up to you, but whatever the case you should know; who naturally provides encouragement in your team, who naturally monitors their colleagues, who is outcome-focused, who is process-focused? You should strive to find the right balance to enable hard work and productivity. Providing the opportunity for hard work and high productivity, a chance to seek out and self-drive meaningful achievements for your early stage start-up, is the best retention strategy you have! 


Relevant Links

Kim Scott: Radical Candor — The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss

Kim Scott: Superstars vs Rock Stars: Inspire Your Team to Do The Best Work of Their Lives

Belbin’s Team Roles

Dan Pink & RSA: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us




Ginni Lisk

Head of Talent and People

Ginni has worked in people functions for nearly ten years and is passionate about building, retaining and developing high-impact, high-performing teams. From identifying core values, to designing performance-enhancing strategies, to running the best interview processes in the business, Ginni brings her expertise to Forward Partners following hands-on experience of fast-paced team growth at VC backed FinTech startup, DueDil. Ginni has a MSc in Human Resources and Organisational Analysis, and Level 7 Associate CIPD qualification.

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