August 27, 2014

3 ways startups hurt professional development

I’ve seen this story unfold more than a few times. Young people, straight out of college (or not), join a tech startup. They start as interns and with their high energy, can-do attitudes and simple presence in the room they become a part of one startup’s history and culture.
Cultural bonds tighten as they also find their friends (and dates) within the confines of the startup team and they learn a way of working specific to that one startup, with that team of people. And sometimes, without the context of having experienced anything or anyone else, they develop a kind of ultimate attribution error and believe this one way is “the best” way.
The people managing teams at startups may not have had any previous experience coaching people, and may not have benefited from development coaching themselves. Worse, they may have picked up some bad habits or simply don’t value it. Professional development could even be actively denigrated as a “big company” or “bureaucratic” concept.
We know the majority of tech startups end in failure or acquisition and not in highly publicized multi-billion dollar IPOs. And the reality is that these young people will likely need to work somewhere else over the course of their career. By ignoring professional development, leaders at startups are doing these young team members a critical disservice.
Things move quickly and it’s easy to see how investing time on efforts which derive long term benefit for the business and, personally, for any one team member could fall below the line. In my experience, it’s not done intentionally, but through benign neglect. And that’s a shame.
There are 3 areas of professional development that suffer the most:
Valuing diversity
Many startup teams are not at all diverse. It makes sense because it’s easiest to work closely and well with people who are most “like” yourself - gender, ethnicity, education etc. As a business grows, integrating new people into the team becomes necessary and if those tasked with recruiting lack the needed professional development around building a strong team, bias is that much more likely to creep into the hiring.
Of course, valuing diversity goes beyond hiring practices. It means seeking input and feedback from people who think, communicate and approach solving the toughest business problems differently from you. This appreciation of diversity, of difference, comes with experience and self awareness, and is generally learned from seeing it modeled and through day to day situational coaching.
Young professionals who do not have the opportunity receive this kind of coaching/development early in their career may tend to chalk up style differences to “not a good culture fit” versus recognizing the need to adapt their own style in order to get the best from different kinds of people. This lack of adaptability and understanding of situational leadership may make it harder for them to ascend to and succeed in leadership roles.
Collaboration
Many startups, in the early days, are appropriately run as “command and control”. Team size is small, communication is simple (all in one room) and there is a single priority -- build an awesome product.  Founders assign a team member to execute a desired tactic soup to nuts and this is possible because its execution doesn’t create dependencies on other departments because there are no “other” departments.  Nor are there competing priorities across functions because there are no functional teams.
As a business grows and the team grows, actual collaboration becomes necessary. One needs experience navigating and negotiating across competing needs and priorities in order to build empathy and understanding for different points of view, even when (or especially when) you disagree. True collaboration requires investing the time to understand how best to work with others for a successful execution, and this is not generally required within a command and control startup.
Soft Skills
I’ve written about how a leader’s soft skills are perhaps the most important part of professional development and are one of the hardest to coach even under the best of circumstances.  Soft skills comprise:
Gravitas is consistently displaying confidence and credibility so people will feel “safe” giving you leadership roles and following you
Communications is the ability to “command a room” and covers actively listening and relevantly adding to discussions
Appearance contributes to how others perceive you and perceive your gravitas and ability to command a room.
When the development of soft skills are neglected, or worse maligned, in startup culture, it hurts young team members most if the startup is acquired by a larger organization. Unlike founders who are looking to ‘rest and vest’ in that situation, the young team members who may want to advance their careers there are at a disadvantage because they haven’t had the soft skills coaching that would allow them to take on roles in the new organization.
For young people starting out their professional careers at a startup, I suggest proactively asking for professional development coaching and, actively seek out mentorship from leaders outside your company who may be better able to provide it.  
And for startup founders and leaders, it’s important that you keep the professional development of your teams a top priority. It isn’t “bureaucracy” or the dreaded “overhead”, it is the right thing to do to support the young people early in their careers who are helping make your vision a reality.
Related Links