The people-situation at the outset of my first CEO gig was rocky. We needed to grow and up-skill the team but were in no position to attract top talent. The company was midway through a sizable pivot, cash was dwindling, and our immature SaaS platform needed serious investment. Economic realities had dented our company valuation, making stock options an ineffective recruiting tool; and our dreary, subterranean office-space certainly didn’t help. So, we staffed-up the way so many other start-ups have done in similar situations: we hired eager, inexpensive recent college grads and gave them tons of responsibility. They loved it and responded with energy and enthusiasm. But they also desperately needed training, guidance, and consistent coaching. So, out of necessity, we got good at that.
Specifically, we grew adept in an area that is critical to any growing SaaS business: delegating meaningful work to entry-level employees and providing them with enough scaffolding to aid their near-term success while also supporting their long-term growth. This post addresses one small aspect of this broader challenge that so many growing SaaS businesses face: how to assign projects to less-experienced professionals in a way that works well for individual contributors, for their managers, and for the overall company.
First things first, it really helps for the company to identify one named person to be responsible for assigning work to any given entry-level employee. This may sound obvious, but is certainly not a given in many fluid, early-stage businesses. Among the benefits of this simple step is that it helps the employee avoid the complex, sometimes fraught responsibility of balancing simultaneous commitments to multiple senior people. It also ensures that assignments are given and received via one consistent voice, which avoids a lot of miscommunications.
Beyond the above, though, we’ve found the most important “must-do” is to support every assignment in writing. Even better, do so using a standardized format. A standardized format offers a structured, easy-to-understand written summary that codifies that project for the junior team member. Templates can take any number of forms; and below is an explanation of the template we’ve been using for this purpose at Lock 8 Partners:
- Summary: This is a 1–2 sentence summary that frames up the general work being requested and the broad expectations of what the project will entail.
- Objective: This explains at a granular level how the project and resulting work product will be used within the business.
- Business Goal: This ties the project back to relevant higher-level goals of the company in a way that clarifies for the employee how their work contributes to the greater good of the business.
- Deliverable: This explains in specific terms what the manager is requesting and expecting to be produced or delivered by the team member.
- Format: This gives guidance around what the deliverable might look like and general tools to leverage in completing the task. This can help avoid flagrant swing-and-miss situations where an employee just uses the wrong tool for a given job. I suspect I’m not the only manager who has been surprised by someone using Word, when Excel clearly would have been easier / faster / more accurate / less error-prone…or PowerPoint when something (anything!) else would have been better.
- Sources: This step ensures that the person leverages the breadth of resources available throughout the company. It helps avoid the “dead-in-the-water” problem which keeps someone from getting any traction at all. It also forces employees to think beyond “the Google machine” when contemplating credible, purpose-built resources at their discretion for completing research and other projects.
- Timeline: This is a critical criterion for ensuring that expectations are met and miscommunications are avoided. Established deadlines are also crucial to holding less experienced employees accountable and establishing a foundation of trust among manager and individual contributor. It also helps keep managers honest. Specifically, it protects against the “my manager’s last-minute assignment just blew up my sister’s graduation-weekend” problem (by forcing them to think through workload and the reasonableness of their assignments).
- Opportunities for Creativity: We all want to have a level of autonomy over our work; and much has been written about this dynamic within the modern work-force. The general rule of thumb is for leaders to be clear about “what” they are assigning, but to be far less prescriptive about the “how” one should / could go about executing that assignment. We like to go one step further and explicitly encourage creativity by identifying specifically where a project really could benefit from someone’s innovative thinking. This is NOT intended to limit someone’s creativity or to convey that this identified area is the ONLY place someone is “allowed” inject their own thinking. Rather, it is intended only to remind folks that creativity is good…and to give a nudge of encouragement in one or another particular aspect of a project.
Having introduced this tool, I feel obligated to acknowledge that any tool is only as good as a person’s ability to use it. And, while that topic is likely another blog post altogether, we have observed a few simple rules of thumb that help to successfully leverage this tool, including:
- Application matters: We all want to see our work be put to good use; and this is especially important for entry-level team members. Be sure to tell AND show them (both before and after they complete an assignment) precisely how their hard work will help other stakeholders.
- Feedback is a gift: No matter how busy you may be, remember to take the time to provide feedback (both validating and constructive criticism) on a consistent and timely basis to junior team members regarding their work, and use the template as the foundational document for that discussion — it really helps structure that conversation.
- Balance and honesty are key: It goes without saying that good managers strive to increase the complexity and excitement of the work they assign. That said, it can’t all be fun and interesting; and there will inevitably be dull, tedious tasks to be assigned. When these clunker assignments are unavoidable, don’t try to perfume the pig…just acknowledge this fact and underscore the company’s appreciation to the person tackling the work.
In closing, I need to acknowledge that there are no silver bullets to any human challenge; and this template is no panacea. Helping less experienced employees mature into seasoned professionals requires thoughtful on-boarding, purposeful training, consistent coaching, caring mentorship, and so much more. But because these initiatives often require more time and resources than are available in many small-scale businesses, we’re hopeful that this project template can offer a useful tool to help in building and growing your team.