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Building Great Teams

Culture is the foundation of great companies

· entrepreneuership,Leadership,startups

Most startup founders hustle in 2-3 person teams. That’s fine when you are still testing product-market fit. It’s fine to run your company like a weekly hackathon, when none of the founders have partners or children. But what happens when you raise a funding round and have to ramp up hiring of 10–40 people?

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Chances are, team dynamics change dramatically. You start hiring older employees who have children, varying work experiences, and diverse backgrounds. Politics start to occur, communications become harder. Some even commented on "Why everything breaks at 25 employees".

One good book I’d recommend founders read is Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better. He chronicles how Google’s Project Aristotle spent 150 hours asking Google employees what they thought would make teams effective. After looking at 180 teams, they discovered that, personality types, skills or backgrounds does not seem to make a difference.

Not many startups can employ PhDs like Google, so why not follow what they do!

Myth of the Superstar

The project discovered that unlike the myth in our head- that you'll need superstars on your team, it is not WHO is on the team that matters, but HOW they interact.

(Caveat: In order to get INTO Google, I think you ought be quite good at what you do.)

Laszlo Bock, the head of the People Operations department at Google says, “You can take a team of average performers, and if you teach them to interact in the right way, they’ll do things no superstar could ever accomplish.” 

Most good teams demonstrated

  • Equality in distribution of conversation turn-taking

  • As long as everyone got the chance to talk, the team did well

  • High average social sensitivity

  • Intuiting how members felt based on their tone of voice

That’s great news to a startup, given the limited resources they have, they probably will not be able to hire the best tech talent, but you can punch above your weight by sorting out your company culture.

How can you promote an effective team culture?

The research show that the one key aspect of a functioning effective team is how the group fosters Psychological Safety.

That is, a shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks.

For example, the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up and that the  team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

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What this is means is that the million dollar question every CEO has to ask themselves each day is  this:

"How do you convince people to feel safe while encouraging them to be willing to disagree?"

Leaders Model the Behaviour

Google discovered that the team leader has the big influence to model the behaviour necessary in creating high performing teams.

Google then created checklists for every leader to follow. Team leaders should,

  • Not interrupt teammates during conversations

  • Demonstrate they are listening by summarising what people say after they said it

  • They should admit they don’t know

  • They shouldn’t end a meeting until all team members have spoken at least once

  • Encourage people who are upset to express their frustrations, and encourage teammates to respond in non-judgmental ways

  • Call out intergroup conflicts and resolve them through open discussion

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The recent funding rounds of startups in Southeast Asia has seen the rapid growth of startup teams. Leading small teams to a Series A round pose leadership challenges for founders and entrepreneurs alike. 

Having to grow as a company, working with diverse cultures and backgrounds, is no easy feat.

One important aspect in which founders should look for is mentors who have gone before you. It could be in an accelerator program or they could be serial entrepreneurs in a VC fund, getting access to such mentors can help guide founders past such culture missteps. 

 As the research shows, you can copy infrastructure and talent, but it is HOW you work that produces high performing startups in Asia. Here at VIISA, we believe strongly in creating the support for the entrepreneurial mindset to thrive. Our mentors play an important part in guiding our startup founders forward!

---Adrian Tan