Up, up, up: Managing professional development at a start-up

One of the biggest differences in my transition from consulting to start-up life is how striking the lack of formal professional development is. I came from a world where every seemingly qualitative activity I did or skill I had was quickly translated into a quantitative, 1 to 5 scale assessing how adept I was (or wasn’t), a forecast of my projected trajectory, and a compensation plan tied to all of it. When I joined a startup I didn’t even have a chair – let alone a desk, any type insurance, sometime electricity, and least of all a rigorous performance evaluation process.

But start-ups – whether 1 or 100 employees – are by definition smaller and more affected by the people in its employ than larger organizations. High-performers can drive millions in revenue, low-performers can squander resources and lead to ruin. The aspects of coaching, feedback, and professional development are absolutely critical to the health of a start-up-phase organization.

One of the keys to professional development is having a key set of criteria. Now this may not be as rigid as a 1-5 rating across dozens of criteria, like I was used to, but it could and should be having a clear jobdescription that lists the key activities and deliverables of a certain function. Having something like that from the outset aligns the company’s and the employee’s expectations and gives a clear reference point for subsequent check-ins.

Another key is having clear performance metrics. When I was doing user acquisition at an iOS application startup, there were two numbers that declared my success or failure, in black and white: the number of users acquired, and how much I spent to acquire them. There are loads of other KPIs in our company that different functions were responsible for – sales, product, etc. – but those two were directly under my control and a transparent mechanism for my CEO and my investors to look to and gauge my performance.

Lastly, having regular feedback sessions is critical. Every day in the life of a startup is like a roller coaster, and app crashes or system outages or customer losses can dwarf the importance of dealing with “non-urgent” things like reviews or feedback. But whether monthly or quarterly, those feedback sessions are what ultimately shaped my experience and my performance. It made me a better employee and team member, and it increased my engagement with the company.

In short, not having a formal process does not mean having no process at all. Though anecdotal encouragement and monetary incentives, performance feedback is critical to keep a start-up team’s capabilities growing at the same breakneck pace of the company itself.


─ November 21, 2014