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What to focus on when managing a growing team (Part 1)

Focus means not just saying “yes,” but saying “no” too. Say “yes” to these 3 things and “no” to these 3 things when managing a growing team.

managing a growing team

Coupling the words β€œmanaging a growing team” and β€œfocus” may seem oxymoronic to you. When your team has doubled its headcount in the past year, when your organization is changing, re-organizing, shifting, re-organizing again – how is it possible to even name only a handful of things to focus on?

Yet, you know the significance of that word: Focus.

That magic word we know is critical to execution and high performance. In order to execute well as a leader, we must focus. We must only choose the things that have the highest likelihood of impact, and forget the rest. But to what should we say “Yes”? And to what should we say “no”?

For instance: Should you look to build trust amongst your team because people don’t know each other? Should you try to create a sense of stability amidst all the org changes? Should you make sure each person is onboarded well?

Or, should you even do all of the above?

“All of the above” is not focus πŸ™‚ Though, the reality of an ever-changing, growing organizational context tempts us try to say “yes” to all of it, we must resist. We must be discerning as leaders and choose what is most pressing, if we are to be effective as a leader when managing a growing team.

In this Part 1, I outline below the most important things to lean into and focus on first when managing a growing team – and the things that you can let go by the wayside (at least in the short-term).

Remember, you have to say “yes” to some things and “no” to other things to focus. Start here.

Context-building clues

Focus on this: Context-building clues.

You’re moving fast. A million questions are getting thrown your way while managing a growing team. Your direct reports are asking you: “Who should I talk to for this?” “Do we have any history with this client?” “How urgent is this?”

So you do what many of us do: Start answering all the questions as quickly as possible. Imagine a series of baseball pitches being thrown your way, consecutively, one after the other, non-stop… and you’re trying to knock each one of these questions out of the park.

Except there’s one problem. Every time you answer a question, you get a few more follow-up questions. Then, a week later someone else asks you something similar. The balls you’re hitting aren’t just staying in the outfield – they’re somehow getting thrown back to you.

What to do? This is when context-building clues come in. Every time someone asks you a question, use it as an opportunity to build context on why you’re answering it that way.

For example:

Someone asks: “How urgent is this?”

You answer: “This is not mission critical and can be pushed to two weeks from now because…”

Or here’s another example:

Someone asks: “Who should I talk to about this?”

You answer: “I’d suggest communicating with the Customer Support and the Product teams because…”

Notice how in each answer there is context being shared, as though a clue is being dropped for that person to color and fill in the picture for themselves. The essential word here being used is “because” – it leads to context being shared every time.

Now, the next question you’re asked about urgency or stakeholders or whatever it might be, when you answer, you can answer with more context – and you might not have to ever answer that question again!

Yes, it does takes more effort to communicate context-building clues, rather than just answering the question and moving on. But when you do, you help your team both execute and learn, which is foundational to managing a growing team.

Don’t focus on this: Being an expert.

You know your stuff. That’s why you’re here. You likely were brought into this leadership role because you excelled in a functional area and are seen as an expert.

However, when managing a growing team, you being an expert doesn’t matter much anymore. It doesn’t matter if you know the answer – the team is too big and trying to tackle too much for only you to know the answer. Your team needs to know the answer too.

We must remind ourselves continually that our success as a leader is contingent on finding ways to teach our fellow team members to be more of the expert. Our team must have “the answers” as a whole, not only ourselves.

Otherwise, you become a bottleneck to a team that has too many smart, talented people to be sitting around waiting for you to be the only one with “the answer.”

This can be a rattling identity shift when you realize you no longer need to be the expert in your team anymore, and that you’re trying to help others become that expert. But it’s an important one to make when managing a growing team and want the team perform at its highest ability.

Culture creep

Focus on this: Counteract culture creep.

An interesting thing happens when a team starts to grow and change: The culture starts to change too.

We’ve all seen this before. A team that used to pride itself in being innovative slowly becomes scared to make any big changes over time. Or a team that has always excelled at telling each other the truth, over time, gets into the habit of sugar-coating things and avoiding hard conversations.

I call this “culture creep,” the inadvertent morphing of a culture into something you didn’t want.

To counteract culture creep, we must use the only tool we have available to us: Consistent action. After all, culture is the byproduct of consistent action. A culture is what it is simply the actions that comprise it are repeated over and over and over again. A team culture is innovative because team members are consistently taking innovative actions. A team culture is open and forthcoming because team members are consistently taking open and forthcoming actions.

Thus, if there’s a part of the culture you hope is preserved amidst growth – your team’s innovativeness, your team’s candor – then you must find a way to visibly reinforce that with consistent behaviors, over and over and over again.

It might mean blocking out time for your team, once a month, to regularly hold “outside-the-box” thinking sessions where nothing is off-limits and wild brainstorming is encouraged. Or it might entail personally and consistently giving honest feedback to your direct reports, and not getting defensive when feedback is being given to you.

Consistent behavior dictates the kind of culture you will have, regardless of how your team changes. When managing a growing team, consciously avoiding unwanted culture creep should absolutely be a primary area of focus for you. Ask yourself: “How am I counteracting culture creep by committing to consistent behaviors as a leader?”

Don’t focus on this: Team building events.

You’ve noticed it already: The newer and bigger the team, the more in flux the organization is, the shakier the level of trust that exists. It makes sense: If folks are new to the team and a lot has been changing, it’s hard to know if you can trust each other.

However, this trust gap won’t be remedied by holding team social mixers or happy hour game nights. True, long-lasting trust emerges when your team has the experience of working together and relying on each other. Over time, they’ll observe through consistent action that they can trust you – and each other. This is called “cognitive trust” by researchers, a powerful form of trust that is based on someone feeling they can count on you. It reveals that trust is not just getting to know each other’s hobbies or spending time with each other socially – building deep trust is about showing others around you that they can depend on you.

Consider this for yourself as a leader managing a growing team: How can you focus on enabling your team to show that they can rely on each other, so they can deepen their trust in each other? (You can read more about cognitive trust and how to truly build trust in a team in this piece, particularly in remote + hybrid teams, here.)

Wobbly

Focus on this: Wobbly is okay.

Things feel wobbly. Unstable. Whiplash. Who was here before no longer is. What was true six months ago is not true today. Your team is wondering, “Is this chaos… normal?” How do you give folks a sense of stability, and not that the ship is sinking or going around in circles?

The meaningful action to take when managing a growing team is to let your team know: Wobbly is okay. The ocean has waves. It’s normal, and it’s part of nature. This means saying explicitly to your team: “This is a period of flux…” or “Bear with me during this gray period…” or “This may feel like whiplash…”

Let it be known, not hidden. Let them know you’re aware, not oblivious. You’re sharing in this experience of flux with them. It’s rocky and uneasy for you too.

Given that the ocean has waves, it also has periods of times when the waves die down. With time, things will become calmer. Point out for your team when this will happen for your organization. You can say: “Things are in flux because…” and “Here’s what we’re doing to create more stability and consistency.”

Remember that wobbly is okay.

Don’t focus on this: Perfecting your communication.

Talk, talk, talk, write, write write. It can seem like all we do as leaders is communicate. Especially during these times of flux and high-growth when many new adjustments are needing to be communicated, it can be easy to feel like the stakes are high to communicate everything perfectly. To use language that is aligned with the company brand. To strike the right balance of both confident yet not tone deaf in your tone.

While finessing your communication as a leader is a desirable behavior, it’s also impossible to do 100% perfectly when so much is changing so quickly. Instead, cut yourself a break. Examine what is most important to communicate and focus on communicating those things with the most directness, tact, and a tone that is most appropriate. Pick the one message that matters most (i.e., “Our vision is…”) and refine how you’ll communicate the “why” behind it and how it connects what matters to your team members. Don’t worry as much about if you’re communicating the smaller changes as pristinely as you are communicating the bigger ones (i.e., “We’re changing our healthcare policy” or “We’re having Thursdays be no-meetings across the organization”).


Of course in an ideal world, you’d do it all. But that’s not what focus is.

With as much change and growth that exists in your current context, you must pick and choose in order to be effective.

Start with picking and choosing the items above – saying “yes” and “no” these behaviors.

In a future piece, I’ll share write Part 2 for next important actions to focus on as a leader managing a growing team, including how to onboard your team and setting expectations.

But those are for later. They aren’t most urgent, and pressing when managing a growing team. For now, focus on saying “yes” and “no” to the things above, first.

The wobbliness of it all will feel steadier, when you do.


πŸ’‘ Looking for more support as a leader managing a growing team, amidst flux? Check out our new Training Product launching soon + and our Tools in Know Your Team. Our One-on-Ones Tool, Heartbeat Check-in, Icebreakers, help thousands of leaders all over the world manager their growing team in a steadier, less wobbly way. Try Know Your Team for free today.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.