How to communicate with growing teams (toolkit)
Communication, whether deliberate or unintentional, is powerful. When you engage with your team, your communication style shapes your company’s future. How you communicate is a conscious decision that influences how your team performs, how they communicate with each other, and how the company’s culture fosters growth. Communication, or the lack of it, permeates all levels and aspects of your organization and it has a ripple effect as it grows.
As a consequence, the importance of communicating well as a leader as your startup grows is crucial to the success of your business because the way you communicate will shape how confident, autonomous, and proactive your team is. It will also solve conflicts and shift the trajectory of your efforts in the right (or wrong) direction.
Communicate as if you were telling the story of your company
Your company has a story: past, present, and future. The past is usually what inspires investors to fund your business, and people to join your workforce. The present is about building the products and services that people love. The future is made up of all the stories together setting the vision of what’s to come.
Every single time you communicate with your team – whether it’s to release a new feature for your product, inform about this quarter’s key results, or talk about your team’s personal goals – you are building that story.
As they are repeated, these scripts become the foundation of your company’s culture, growing along with your customer base, your funding, and your headcount.
In order to tell your company’s story as a developing narrative, Frances Frei, professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School, shares how to build a compelling story that impacts your team. As you may have guessed, it has three parts to it: past, present, and future.
- Past: Honor the past, both the good and the bad. Frei stresses the importance of honoring lessons learned. Understand clearly what your company has learned through its wins and losses and how this history is changing the narrative today. If your company pivoted from one service to another, included new product features, or improved the customer experience in any way, this is where the learning happened.
- Present: Once you’ve understood your past and what you can learn from it, have a clear and compelling change mandate. This mandate will help the team understand your decisions better and will help them make decisions themselves (i.e., why the ICP has developed into a more nuanced and specific demographic).
If the company is facing new challenges that require changes to be made, this is the part where you answer: “Why do I have to change now?”
- Future: Chart a course that leads to a specific destination. Help your team clearly understand the direction that the company is taking and communicate clearly and timely at every turn in the road. If there is a change (and change will most likely happen while your startup is growing), ask and respond “Where is the change leading us? What are the expectations and why?” Leaders need to be rigorous and optimistic when communicating this future.
5 key points to communicate better with your growing team
One of the most important tasks of leaders is to communicate the story of their company and connect with their teams. The quality of these conversations in which relationships are built, feedback is provided, and instructions are given, shapes the company’s culture, influencing everyone in the organization.
This is especially true for growing teams. Every new hire brings their own background and values, but they also need to adapt to the company’s culture over time.
When a company is small, founders and executives can interact easily with everyone and share their vision. But as the company expands, they may lose touch with their larger and more diverse team.
As an example, think of a fintech that’s just reached its Series C funding. Fintech companies are expected to scale their operations and expand into new markets when reaching this stage. This may involve entering international markets, serving more customers, or increasing the breadth of financial services offered. These changes will result in a new direction for the company that needs to be communicated throughout the team.
How can leaders ensure that their culture remains healthy and consistent, even if they can’t personally welcome and talk to every new employee? How can they communicate effectively with the team that they do have at arm’s reach? How can they teach others to do the same?
Five common pain points impact growing startups, and all of them create communication challenges. Do any of these sound familiar?:
- Struggling to Build Relationships
Establishing genuine connections with a rapidly expanding team can be challenging, leading to a lack of trust and cohesion within the group.
- Handling Difficult Conversations and Feedback
Dealing with tough conversations and feedback can be a source of anxiety, causing discomfort and potential conflict among team members.
- Discouraging Tone and Language
Using the wrong tone or language can inadvertently demotivate team members, potentially harming morale and productivity, eventually leading to employee turnover.
- Ineffective Listening
Amid rapid team growth, not actively listening to the diverse ideas and concerns of team members can hinder collaboration and foster misunderstandings.
- Communicating Difficult Ideas
Explaining complex concepts and ideas in a way that’s easy to understand can be a major hurdle, leading to confusion and misinterpretation.
Keep reading to understand how these pain points can be solved with our 5 key points for better communication.
1. “Relationships don’t scale, but culture does”
Building relationships with everyone in the company becomes almost impossible when the team is hitting the three digit mark. Having a deep, meaningful connection with hundreds of people is no longer a possibility for founders and their executive team.
Still, the fact that they can’t have these relationships with every single person in the company doesn’t mean that leaders shouldn’t try to build relationships with their direct reports.
These relationships will foster the company’s culture, especially if you ask the executive and team of directors to do the same with their peers and subordinates. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, explains that caring personally and challenging directly at the same time is not only possible, but actually ideal for leaders, teams, and the company as a whole.
In the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast, Scott shared that the philosophy is “radical” because it’s rare. She’s drawn the famous radical candor framework to help leaders communicate better with their teams.
“When you challenge directly, but you fail to show that you care personally, that is obnoxious. Aggression and obnoxious aggression is a big problem. It’s a problem because it hurts other people. It’s a problem because it’s a waste of breath. If I am obnoxious to you, if I’m a jerk to you, you go into fight or flight mode and then you can’t hear what I’m saying,” says Scott.
If a leader truly cares about their direct reports and also challenges them directly, it’s bound to become part of the organization’s culture.
2. Leaders are feedback experts
We often think of leaders giving feedback. But the first rule of feedback is this: Leaders ask for it before giving it.
Be constant and open about receiving feedback. Request your team to provide you with three comments: two positive ones that highlight your strengths and one constructive remark that sheds light on an aspect where there is room for improvement.
Your own reactions are important, so pause after listening to what they have to say before reacting. Take note of what subordinates tell you and don’t use this feedback against them in the future.
Every leader knows that giving feedback is not always about giving praise. Many times, feedback is meant to show a subordinate an area in which they need to improve. Conversations where feedback is due can be challenging, especially when team members are diverse. Their reactions may fluctuate during the course of the conversation.
The first thing a leader should do is acknowledge the emotions throughout the conversation and navigate them with care and empathy. Don’t ignore people’s feelings and don’t expect them to have stoic reactions.
Kim Scott offers the suggestion of handling difficult conversations with a direct report by using the “sandwich feedback” method: the leader gives a positive comment, followed by a “negative” one, finishing with another positive note. This lets people know where they need to improve, but sandwiched between positive acknowledgment of areas in which they excel.
Sometimes, one difficult conversation is not enough. Sometimes it will take several conversations to get your point across. Be patient.
3. Lead your company with better language
In his book, Leadership is Language, David Marquet reveals how he transformed employee retention and created a culture of self-directed and empowered drivers without altering variables like schedules, promotions, legal obligations, procedures, or policies. He had no control over who he hired, either.
The text describes how he changed his language to create a different culture. Instead of using language that was reactive and based on external pressure, he used language that was proactive and based on internal motivation.
Two specific examples are:
- Avoiding “Tell and Ask” Language: Marquet suggests that leaders should move away from traditional hierarchical language, where they tell subordinates what to do and then ask if they understand or if they have any questions. Instead, he promotes the use of “Tell and Listen” language, where leaders actively seek input and feedback from their team members before making decisions. This creates a more collaborative and empowering environment.
- Eliminating the “Just Culture“: The author also talks about the concept of a “Just Culture” where leaders encourage open and honest communication by avoiding blame and punishment for errors. Instead, they focus on learning and improving as a team. This shift in language and mindset can lead to a more accountable and responsible team.
They also moved from language that focused on showing and doing, to language that emphasized improving and learning. Finally, they adopted a language that expressed vulnerability and curiosity, rather than invincibility and certainty.
4. Be an active listener rather than a dominant speaker
It is not just about hearing words; it is about comprehending, empathizing, and responding thoughtfully. Active listening is the key to becoming a leader who fosters a thriving and harmonious team.
Active listening requires humility, setting aside preconceived ideas and acknowledging that every team member has valuable insights to offer. A humble leader is open to the fact that they don’t have all the answers and that they are willing to learn from their team members.
When a leader actively listens, it creates an environment where everyone feels valued and heard, enhancing team morale and trust.
To listen actively:
- Maintain eye contact: This simple act demonstrates your engagement and focus on the speaker.
- Ask open-ended questions: Encourage team members to share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns more openly.
- Avoid interrupting: Let team members finish their thoughts before responding. This shows respect for their perspective.
In “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership,” conscious listening is a core concept that emphasizes a particular approach to listening that goes beyond simply hearing words. Conscious listening involves being fully present, attentive, and empathetic when you are engaged in a conversation.
Specific tips include refraining from becoming defensive or argumentative when listening to others speak. Rather, provide reflective feedback after the speaker has finished with their thoughts so they feel like you’ve been listening all along.
Another important point is suspending judgment while listening staying open and curious.
5. “Clarity of thought precedes clarity of language”
For Ali Rowghani, YC Partner and CEO of the YC Continuity Fund, thinking clearly is the first step to communicating clearly. Although, as he says, “leadership is not a one-size fits-all formula,” all effective leadership styles share certain traits, such as the ability to communicate effectively with your team.
“Clarity of thought precedes clarity of language,” he says. He encourages founders to get coaching in this area and ask for frequent feedback to understand if their efforts are bearing fruit.
Leaders often overcomplicate their communication when they deeply understand a topic; that’s why it’s important to simplify it for broader influence and persuasion.
Tips for simplifying your communication:
- Use Clear and Concise Language: Avoid jargon and complex terminology that your listeners may not know. If you must use this terminology, make room to explain its meaning. Use simple, everyday language to ensure everyone can easily understand your messages.
- Summarize Key Points: After discussing a topic, summarize key takeaways. This reinforces important information and helps team members remember what’s most crucial. Establish TL;DR processes so that emails or lengthy communications are available to the busiest readers.
- Establish Clear Objectives: Define clear goals and objectives for each communication. Make it known what you want to achieve, whether it’s brainstorming ideas, making a decision, or providing an update.
- Set Clear Expectations: Define response times and expectations for communication within the team. This helps everyone understand when and how to communicate effectively with you, and other team members.
In conclusion, effective communication is the foundation of a thriving startup, especially as it evolves and expands.
Leaders who craft the narrative of their company, embracing the past, defining a compelling present, and setting a clear path for the future, are building a company culture that scales.
By focusing on building relationships, seeking and embracing feedback, using language that motivates and empowers, actively listening to team members, and simplifying communication, leaders can navigate the complexities of a growing startup while fostering a harmonious and successful environment through impactful communication
For more insights on leadership topics for startups, visit our leadership section.