Updated: Jan 9, 2022
As early stage founders transition from seed to A funding, they typically go on a hiring spree. To hit those milestones and goals, you need additional skill sets and muscle. When you hire lots of people, though, your leadership team needs to transition into being managers. You could just hire lots of talented people, set some goals and hope they hit them, but I would strongly avoid that strategy if you want to keep your employees and actually hit your OKR’s.
Why not? I thought you'd never ask.
Organizations aren’t silos of individual contributors. If you’re going to solve problems that have never been solved before you actually need to have lots of different people with different brains, experiences, and expertise collaborating in the design, delivery, and execution of your startup. Especially in biotech. You’re going to need to bring different scientific disciplines together and solve problems together in order to dream the impossible into existence.
Do you know what happens when people work with other people? It’s hard stuff. We are complex creatures, us humans. We are all imperfect works in progress. Each of us has different ways of thinking and doing and communicating and figuring out how to get stuff done. Humans don’t come with manuals. We are all motivated by different forces. And we have feelings. Oh those pesky feelings!
So this is why management matters: A company is made of people. Collaboration is how startups solve complex problems and it’s really hard to do it all - let alone well.
What you do is really important - whatever therapeutic, tool, or diagnostic you are building - but, you’ll absolutely never get there if you aren’t equally - or perhaps even more - thoughtful about how you get the work done - i.e. management.
So, what does management look like?
I think it’s easier to point out what doesn’t work first.
What doesn’t work is micromanaging. I think we all know this but it’s surprisingly hard not to fall into the trap of hovering over people when the stakes are high. Ordering people in a military-esque operation will likely not work well in an organization that - by definition - must be creative and innovative. Someone certainly isn’t going to work their hardest if they feel bad about themselves when they go to work or feel like their work isn’t valuable to the company. Someone isn’t going to crush it if they’re confused about who is doing what or what success looks like. People have lives outside of the office and you won’t get the best from them if you ignore that they have responsibilities and obligations outside of toiling endlessly for you. And you won’t get anything done if your team is full to the brim of fear and anxiety about what happens if we don’t hit the target.
So then what does work? Right?
It’s really hard sometimes to know what works when you haven’t seen successful models in action. Sadly it’s much easier to identify experiences where it’s clear something isn’t working than to tease apart why something is. We know when we are miserable at a job, but what is the secret sauce when it works?
Many emerging biotech entrepreneurs are spinning out of academia where, more often than not, the PI in their lab wasn’t necessarily the best model of leadership and management. Founders who have been in industry often have been burned from toxic environments in pharma and have scar tissue to navigate. On top of it all, startups are innately risky so there’s extra anxiety and speed tests baked into them from the start.
The good news here is that you don’t have to become the manager you had.
You can choose a different path that is human-centered and positive. You can build something better than what you experienced.
6 North Stars for New Managers
I've put together six principles, or North Stars, for you to keep in the front of your mind as you begin to take on your new role. They are simple to grasp but hard to execute - especially when sprinting towards your OKR's and deadlines. When done well, though, your startup can whiz at warp speed and pivot and whiz again. Everyone thinks it's leadership that makes the big difference. While it's true that leadership is very important, great management is how you build and sustain extraordinary teams that can dream big and execute with precision.