In the 1950s, the average age of a company on the S&P 500 index was 60. Today, that number is 20. This means that the most successful corporations are growing three times faster than they have in the past. To succeed at this rate of rapid change, employees and business leaders have had to adapt by adopting growth mindsets, learning new skills, and embracing flexibility. Where stability and long-term planning were once the mark of a sound strategy, adaptability is the new competitive advantage.
This need for adaptability is not new, though it doesn’t come easy to everyone. Over the past two decades, many large companies have failed to evolve and seen their business margins, market share, and profitability suffer — sometimes leading to devastating results.
So why are some companies able to evolve while others struggle? I argue that it comes down to who you hire. Fundamentally, leaders with a growth mindset believe intelligence and success can be learned, while those with a fixed mindset believe that these are static traits over which they have little control. In the context of a large company that is seeing increasingly volatile business results, leaders with a growth mindset are far more likely to adapt, push for change, and encourage others do the same — a skill that is needed to succeed in today’s workforce.
The good news is that your ability to adapt can be developed, and a unique pool of professionals may serve as exemplary guides to us all: successful early stage startup employees. In particular, I’ve defined a group I refer to as first hires, or people who joined a startup in its early stages, stayed with the company through a successful exit event — either an acquisition or an IPO — and meaningfully contributed to that success. Understanding the practices that have allowed first hires to succeed in the fast-paced environments that are inherent to most startups can give the rest of us insight into how to do the same in our own organizations.
Over the past year I have interviewed 25 of these first hires, researched over 50 venture capitalists, academics, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, and early stage startup employees, and reflected on my own experience as one of the first employees and now Managing Director at General Assembly. Through this research, I have assembled a set of best practices we can learn from, along with suggestions on how to apply them within the context of your own role. While these practices are largely drawn from the experiences of startup employees, elements of them also apply directly to the skills needed to succeed in a much larger organization.
1) Pitch before you apply.
When a business’s environment changes — whether from entering a new market or competition — its structure must adapt to accommodate that change. This often means that new roles must be created to carry out new functions and initiatives. But these changes don’t happen in a vacuum. People drive them. Instead of fitting into a structure as it’s laid out, first hires often anticipate the need for new positions before an organization creates them.
Many of the first hires I researched got their jobs by pitching their bosses a role that didn’t yet exist— at least not in the traditional sense. Chris Fralic, Former VP of Business Development at Half.com, got his start at the company by writing a //medium.com/@firstround/a-selfless-partner-e2c47b98b342" style="box-sizing: inherit; background: 0px 0px; color: rgb(7, 135, 177); line-height: inherit; text-decoration-line: none;">pitch deck about himself and presenting it to the founder. Tristan Walker, the first business development employee at Foursquare took a similar approach to secure his role, and later went on to be a VP. And perhaps most famously, Ryan Graves, first employee at Uber, pitched his job to the CEO via Twitter.
But this approach is not restricted to securing a first job. First hires routinely morph their roles as the business changes. Jon Ying, one of the first employees at Dropbbox, went through no fewer than eight variations of his role — from Community Manager to Creative Director to “Head of Black Ops” — as he responded to the organization’s fast-changing needs and took on more varied responsibilities. “I was given a lot of implicit trust to act in a way that benefited the company,” Ying told me. “Of course, before I did anything huge I’d always sanity check with colleagues or leadership.”
How can you apply this practice?
Write a pitch deck for yourself. More than a simple résumé, a pitch deck positions you in a particular way, and forces you to ask important questions of your career: What is your ideal role? What problem can you help an organization solve? What is the best way to represent what you’ve accomplished already? Once you’ve identified your strengths, you’ll get a greater sense of what you can offer. The next time you see an opportunity for a role that requires these skills — whether it exists within your organization or not — you may be more likely to go for it.
2) Maintain an external perspective.
In the early days of any new business, nothing is certain. The business model may bust, the customers may not come, the market may be a mirage. Competitive forces can make or break you. To be successful, your employees must retain an external perspective and constantly consider the risks, dangers, and surprises that might throw you off course.
Some of this paranoia exists as a result of what some employees call the “kill zone” surrounding startup companies, particularly in the technology space. You only have to look up the history of products like Picasa, Meerkat, and (some would say) Snapchat to see how big players can squash encroachers.
But when you’re aware of the environment around you, you’re better prepared to foresee and respond to competition. Steve Ballmer, one of Microsoft’s first hires, is famous for this. In Great by Choice, management guru Jim Collins recounts Ballmer rattling off an endless array of catastrophes that might occur at Microsoft as the company prepared for its IPO and had to disclose potential risks to investors. Finally, after pausing to digest all the possible carnage, Collins remembers one of the underwriters saying to Ballmer, “I’d hate to hear you on a bad day.” Following that initial public offering, Microsoft became one of the most successful companies in history, unseating major competitors like IBM in the personal computer revolution, and continuing to adapt into the cloud computing era of today. Their ability to predict and respond to competition no doubt played a key role.
How can you apply this practice?
Set up Google Alerts for your top five competitors. This may seem simple, but how you use the information you learn is the real practice. Maybe it will inspire new ideas, present cautionary tales, or better position you to answer questions about your competitors during meetings.
3) Don’t forget about the mission.
When a startup begins to grow in size, its employees can lose sight of the mission and purpose upon which it was founded. The routine of weekly meetings, quarterly updates, and annual reports take charge. But many first hires still remember the days spent debating the business model, introducing it time and again to new partners and hires, and sometimes even defending its reason for existing in the first place.
This context often pushes first hires to be gritty and creative. It keeps them grounded by providing them with a robust understanding of the company roadmap and infrastructure. As a result, they are able to more easily understand the purpose behind a change, adapt to it, take advantage of it, and find opportunities in unexpected places.
This habit of maintaining a sense of purpose is the most personal to me. Last year, General Assembly was acquired by the Adecco Group — a company with 30,000 employees, complex operations in 60 countries, and scrutiny from public markets. In the months after the acquisition, I expected myself to become more complacent. We had made it. The stability that comes with size could now be ours. And yet, I feel more driven than ever. Years of new ideas and business models that were never possible before suddenly seem in reach. As my role, rhythm, and ways of working change, I find myself comfortably able to adapt — an ability that took eight years of practice to master. As General Assembly morphed from startup to a large business, our company mission has served as my primary motivation. With our new owners, the opportunity to achieve that mission has grown.
All this to say, employees who are able to keep sight of your company’s mission can more easily recognize and take advantage of the opportunities change presents.
How can you apply this practice?
You probably have a corporate “mission statement” somewhere in your annual report. Revisiting this regularly could help, but a better approach is to get your hands on presentations, recordings, and writings from your company’s founding team. Take time to digest these. Then, distill your own one-line mission statement for your company. Place this somewhere you’ll see it often, and reflect on it before making any significant decisions.
4) Keep customers top of mind.
Businesses that keep their customers at the center of their strategic planning and execution will always be more resilient in the face of change. Even as their business grows, they will be able to spot issues and trends on the consumer end more accurately and respond to them earlier. But in many sectors, this remains a challenge. The average employee rarely interacts with customers — instead they see presentations, focus group reports, and aggregated opinions from those on the front lines.
The majority of first hires I spoke with remember their first customers. Many interacted with them on a personal level and learned their motivations behind buying the company’s products. These memories and insights enable them to bring the voice of the customer into key business decisions surrounding new products, features, promotional activity, and more. Organizations that prioritize client-customer relationships on a personal level — no matter what their size — may see the same benefits.
How can you apply this practice?
Find a way to get access to two customers — a happy one and an angry one. This could mean joining a sales meeting, listening in on a customer service call, or attending an annual business review. Hearing the pros and cons of your product directly from a customer will deepen your understanding of your business more than most research can.
5) Be a pilot, not a passenger.
The flatter structure and smaller team size often seen in startups allows employees to give more attention to each of their projects. If someone succeeds, they are visible. But the same is true if they fail. More acutely, the smaller the company the more responsibility is invested in each employee, and therefore a greater sense of ownership is bestowed upon them.
As most companies grow, however, roles and responsibilities become more specific. Projects that were once a company-wide effort break out into tech teams, sales teams, marketing teams, and more, until a person’s entire job may be as specific as testing email subject lines to market certain products. For some, this rapid growth may lead to a demotion and less responsibility. But for others, particularly those who take ownership over more challenging projects, it is an opportunity.
The most successful early stage employees I spoke with exhibit an intense sense of ownership over their responsibilities, and often beyond them as well. Take the case of Nikhil Khosla, who joined General Assembly as Product Manager on our fledgling new “Standards” team. The mission of this team was bold: create a set of industry-approved standards to define technology skills for the future. The resources were limited. The playbook was non-existent. Khosla had to be resourceful and inventive to succeed. He had to take on multiple roles and cross-collaborate with technology, marketing, and sales to envision and launch this new product. On a given day, Khosla could be found writing a technical roadmap, pitching with the sales team, or doing customer service calls. “Frankly, at a startup, there’s no one else to blame,” Khosla told me. “So you take ownership, especially when there’s only one or two people working on a product”.
Khosla’s experience shows how larger companies value this sense of ownership and initiative to learn. After a few years helping to build and launch General Assembly’s Standards product, Ralph Lauren recruited him as one of their youngest VPs. He is now responsible for the company’s outerwear line of business.
How can you apply this practice?
Play CEO for a day. Force yourself to consider each meeting, project, and email you interact with from your CEO’s perspective. How would he or she respond or react in the same situation? With this perspective, what might you change about your own response or reaction? CEOs often have to balance conflicting needs and roles to make a decision. This mental exercise will help you step into those shoes and provide you with a more holistic view of your work and the company, thereby increasing your sense of ownership. (If you are the CEO, try wearing a first hires’s hat for a day.)
After almost ten years spent helping some of the world’s largest and fastest growing companies build their teams’ skills for the future, I’m increasingly convinced that there are bright careers ahead for employees, managers, and leaders who think and act like first hires. Both large and small companies will invest in team members who are ready to adapt, and I believe that studying first hires illustrates a roadmap to mastering that skill.
Anand Chopra-McGowan is a First Hire and now VP, Managing Director at General Assembly, responsible for the international expansion of the company’s enterprise business, where he spends his time advising large companies on how to prepare their workforce for the future. Anand is working on a book about First Hires.