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  • Writer's pictureShannon Mahon

3 Beliefs about People and Company Building

An illustration of an impossible object, a cube
Impossible object

When I started Mile 88 to help leaders of all kinds overcome blockers to achieve their business goals, I met - over and over again - founders and investors who were struggling with the same people challenges I spent more than a decade addressing at Google: how to bring people together around a new vision, how to resolve conflict and improve performance, and how to strengthen culture when facing growth and change.

It turns out these may just be the challenges of the human condition.

Through my work across many different types and stages of companies, I have honed 3 beliefs that drive the WHY and HOW of what I do:

1. Founder-led companies are as much about the founder(s) as they are about the idea

No matter the company stage, or market, or location, running a company is very much an inside job. As a founder, you are one with the idea. And because of that, when you invest in a founder-led company, you are investing in the person as much as the idea. How we as leaders run weekly meetings, handle inevitable conflicts, or decide on performance management systems reflect our own experiences and points of view about the “right” way to do it. While the lessons you bring with you are the result of an individualized path, the common denominator as a founder running a company is that how you do it is centered on your experience. 

Ideally, you can grow with the company, shedding the elements that no longer serve the company’s growth while maintaining the right level of engagement with your team. 

This requires a complex set of skills to be woven together, and every founder brings them together in ways that result in a unique culture. Ideally, founders have the ability to:

  • Inspire followership & obtain resources: Founders need to fundraise and attract necessary resources to launch and sustain the company in its earliest days. This includes attracting the right people and maintaining their engagement through the rollercoaster of pivots common in the earliest stages but also through the growing pains of later stages.

  • Apply second order thinking to people, as well as strategy: Strong leaders understand that every interaction creates a ripple effect. The best can see a few moves ahead to anticipate how those interactions will shape the company’s culture and performance.

  • Do and delegate: At the beginning, founders and early teams need to do almost everything, so the ability to do is paramount. Leadership at this stage highlights ownership mentality and collective purpose. As we move to later stages of company maturity, leadership looks like balancing ownership mentality with the humility needed to accept that the job requires more than one person can give it, forcing delegation. An opportunity in this difficult moment is to elevate leaders, widening a collective sense of ownership and increased commitment to the company.

  • Align others: Founders use the ability to understand individuals and cause and effect within the company system to align others with overlapping but sometimes divergent points of view. Whether an investor, board member, co-founder or employee, founders must be able to effectively align across different groups to increase the speed of the company’s output.

  • Lead change effectively: Finally, founders must be able to lead change effectively. This includes designing change that advances part of the company’s strategy, leading the change directly, and landing the change when resistance occurs.

All of the skills listed above require deep knowledge of the self and an openness to exploring blind spots. Indeed, a learning mindset may be the most important quality a successful founder embodies. Founders may have some of these skills finely tuned when starting a company, but recognizing their strengths and opportunities gives everyone choices about how a company might evolve over time.

2. Management teams create value

When most people think about value creation, they think of activities like increasing growth rates, exceeding customer expectations, and launching new products and services. But the driver of all of these outcomes is a strong management team. It is your people who create the conditions for an output like higher revenue.

Without a strong management team, business outcomes suffer. We innately know that cooperation is a strategic advantage. And yet we struggle to form properly collaborative teams, get frustrated when our progress slows, and disheartened when people quit. Investing in the management team upfront creates a key leverage point for future growth and value creation.

3. Companies that have solid cultures will result in higher engagement, better designed products, and faster growth

How we interact with each other is everything. Operating within a culture can feel ephemeral and empowering but also imprisoning and restrictive. The right culture is one that advances your goals. I personally like cultures that are developmental, address difficult challenges, and fun, but that’s a bias I carry from MIT and Google.

In the lab I supported at MIT and in my work at Google, student and employee engagement were high because people felt invested in a greater sense of purpose and had found a sense of community. There was an innate drive to create better technologies and products to help people (whether they did or not is a different post and tl;dr: both). And Google experienced rapid growth driven by success outcomes and attraction of talent.

These components create a flywheel that is highly interdependent. Can we increase engagement without demonstrated success of our products? Can people create new technologies if they don’t feel engaged? Will the company even exist without growth fueled by great talent with a track record of success? Can we be successful without engaged people?

It is easy to see how leading a company can seem a lot like staring at a M.C. Escher drawing for too long.

But you don’t need to re-create one of those cultures to be successful. If anything, MIT and Google are outliers among successful institutions that report high employee engagement, beloved products, and high growth. Create a culture of your own, refine it until it produces the result you want, and - through your leadership - evolve it as the company grows.

Founders, management teams, and culture are three dimensions of company architecture to look at to understand the possibilities when it comes to improving the performance of a company through the enablement of its people. By understanding what a company needs out of each of these areas independently as well as collectively, we can create new solutions to the people challenges we all face.

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