Business Opinion

The Growth Machine Is Human-Built

Graphic of workers working together to represent how a startup works.

When thinking about a startup, many founders believe tech is doing all the work. This is a fatal myth that causes great companies to fail.  In my experience, the survival rate of startups would drastically increase in 2021 if they started putting humans first and realized that tech is what drives growth into hyperdrive, it’s the humans that make it work.

In 15 years of scaling companies, I’ve seen that optimizing your growth engine alone isn’t enough to supercharge growth. Hyper-growth comes from empowering your people and aligning their personal growth with the goals of the company. When this is in sync, amazing things happen and you benefit from a number of key drivers to success. 

Leadership’s failure to recognize people as fundamental to growth has caused me to struggle over the years. I’ve found myself in situations fundamentally disagreeing with how people should have been treated. This has led to stress and tension between myself and other leaders at companies, including CEOs.

Still, there is no one perfect leadership style, just like there’s no one perfect employee type. Different leadership styles fit different companies. It’s a shared responsibility of the leadership team to have an idea of what type of leadership will benefit the company most. That said, you should always err on the side of your people. 

It’s unfortunate that within the startup space, many leaders see the easiest way to “fix” a growth problem is to switch out the person who isn’t achieving the result they want. Otherwise, to try another channel or mix in the hope that all channel success can be attributed to the value of the channel as opposed to the person running it. 

Sure, there are times when parting ways is the right move. However, in most cases though, it’s just taking the easy way out.

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The following are examples of outcomes of  how putting people first, giving them autonomy with a healthy dose of confidence in their abilities to creatively problem solve, can result in exceeding your wildest expectations of a channel’s performance:

  1. At one startup I worked at, data indicated that a certain marketing channel just would not work. However, one highly engaged employee insisted that it would. I gave that person a chance to run with it. The channel actually outperformed against all odds, and became one of the best channels in our growth mix! 
  2. Someone with zero years of experience but 1,000 percent effort turned a highly technical channel into an indispensable high-performing one. This someone is now one of the leading experts in the space. 
  3. A team that has continued to deliver above-expected results after nearly two years of non- or flat growth, simply by sharing accountability across the entire channel mix versus each person operating one channel in a silo. 
  4. A person that was on a performance improvement plan (PIP) for months prior to my joining the company who quickly became one of the top performers on the team. They left years later to take a role at one of the top profile companies in the healthcare space. 
  5. A person that was classified as a steady performer that requires little to no attention. Given a little attention and focus on their career development and goals, this person took on ownership and accountability than nearly 90 percent of the company. This person is now critical to the organization and has become foundational to culture. 

Being a people-first leader means truly caring about the people you work with. For me, this means the consideration I have for others has and will extend beyond the walls of the companies I work for. I believe that’s why I’ve been able to create so much goodwill with the folks I’ve worked with.

Whenever presented with a choice, the best advice is to err on the side of the interest of the employee. When you put someone first, you free them to forge a path that is far beyond the one you might otherwise have forced them onto as their manager. 

Simply put, focus on people and you free them to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

Or, if you’re a more glass-half-empty type, employees that aren’t empowered can’t be driven and you’ll never reach your true potential for growth.

For my part, I will always bet on people.

A man wearing a button up shirt sits at a table and smiles. His name is Sean Hurley, he is the writer of this article talking about the success of a startup.

About the author: Sean Hurley is a Growth Advisor and Founder and CEO of Pathright.

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