Have covered in my earlier blog post that employees and customers are the most important pillars of any company. Let’s now discuss the next critical pillar for a company and how we could use this knowledge for a successful scale-up of a company.

The Core Function

Each function in a company has its purpose and cross-functional teamwork is crucial to realize the ultimate business success. So the theory goes. In reality, each company has one or two core function(s) that does the key activities needed to accomplish the ultimate goals. Other functions are generally enabling or support in nature.

It’s imperative for a senior leader, to identify the key activities of the company and ideally take the charge of the function that is expected to do those key activities. It’s generally easy to find the core function, especially from the outside-in view of a company, here are few examples.

Must point out that the above examples are deliberately oversimplified to drive home the point. Everyone in each function feels that he is critical to the business and sometimes it’s like a chicken-and-egg problem; for instance, marketing helps to realize commercial value of innovation, and without any use of an innovation it’s a dead piece of technology anyway. Though that’s true, marketing in itself can’t create value in a tech company.

The fun of being in the driver’s seat is that important decisions are local within the function and therefore could be made fast. However, cross-function collaboration is essential for overall business agility, and such teamwork should seamlessly happen if the leader in-charge is mature.

Leadership role in the core function is much sought after, and how to get into one is a career counseling topic (outside the scope of this blog post). However, if you get in the driving seat, how to approach it – from my experience – is what we’d discuss here.

Go Deep

Genuine understanding of the core activities, and any change to those as the market, ecosystem or industry evolves, is the absolute minimum that the person behind the wheel would seek to develop. Sometimes it is hard to drop predisposition, from prior professional/personal experiences, to develop such deep understanding.

Highly effective way to develop such understanding is to genuinely listen – through focus group discussions, interviews, surveys, brainstorms, and 1-2-1s with the key customers, partners and employees. Understand technology, competition, ecosystem and market gap to truly understand proposition of your company to the employees, customers and partners.

This is also an opportunity to arrive at key benchmarks e.g., customer happiness (e.g., through NPS survey), financial metrics (e.g., revenues/margins by geo, vertical, product/category), employee satisfaction (e.g., Gallup survey), and compare to those of the industry. This objective benchmarking would help to define key initiatives that need your immediate focus and the benchmark metrics would make it easy to outline “what good look like” somewhat quantitatively.

It’s worth reiterating that doing this exercise in a most genuine possible way is important. Have seen many senior executives, even founders, swearing by almost arbitrary metrics (remember e-commerce companies’ love for GMV in 2014-16 in India?).

Define Charter

In its bootstrap stage, a start-up would have everyone doing everything. However, as it scales, it would need more structure. First step is to define charter for the organization. The charter shall articulate organization’s purpose, vision, key roles and interactions, important processes and metrics.

The roles that require close collaboration should be kept within a team/department. However, roles with limited interactions or with inherent conflict-of-interests should be kept in separate units. Like most things in management, there is no absolute right or wrong. Keeping roles together or independent have its own pros and cons – on continuum of speed/cost vs. quality, and it’s OK to do a course correction or to reorganize as business environment evolves.

This exercise would define focus areas – roles, metrics, initiatives, that the leader would get the board’s buy-in and approvals, and subsequently sponsor and drive the change.

Orchestrate Change

We’ve only touched upon top of the iceberg so far, and now coming to the hardest part of leading the Core.

Should start with filling important roles with the most competent people possible. How to build teams and grow people is already covered in more details in an earlier blog post.

As a company become larger, it would inevitably require more structure that would need to be shaped via processes. Processes have lots of connotations and have been abused to make intelligent people into a bunch of muppets. However, at scale, there is no alternative to processes. Being hopeful that things would just work is plain stupidity and have not seen it work anywhere. So, how much to tune – between flexibility and predictability of business outcomes – is the choice. In the initial phase of the scale, flexibility is more important and would go for light-touch processes.

While local context and knowledge are required to decide and prioritize what should be done and how, below broad principles in scaling a tech/business operations function would aid in structuring identified initiatives:

  • Standardise activities and artefacts so the customer experience is more consistent within the cohort (e.g., Top 10 clients).
  • Automate mundane tasks to improve customer experience and team’s morale. Automation is generally internal in nature.
  • Productize part of customer experience that could make the customer more independent (e.g., dashboards), improve interactions and/or enable the company to reach underserved prospective customers. Products are typically outward facing, to be used by consumers, customers and/or partners.
  • Manage collective organization knowledge to enable more people to grow faster as the company grows.
  • Driving such crucial change, while dealing with day-to-day aspects of running the business, would demand a hawkish approach and ton of energy from the leader. A dedicated project office, with experienced change leaders, could really make a whole lot of difference. However, most start-ups are not so resourceful. The initiatives are sometime so intertwined that the leader would anyway need to be involved to manage precarious balance.

    To avoid turning out to be a paper tiger, the leader should set-up an effective governance approach to have a complete grasp on the progress and roadblocks. Doing endless number of meeting is one way. I prefer frequent but succinct update emails and a weekly 30-minute meeting with all key people in the room. This joint meeting helps to bring everyone on the same page and enable constructive discussions. While update emails allow zoom-in or zoom-out flexibility based on the progress or lack of there of. I also like OKR (Objectives and Key Results) approach, a handy guide is available here.

    The key to success here is to remain completely faithful to key metrics and, without fudging and
    fidgeting, doing the right things for your colleagues, clients and shareholders.

    No silver bullet for the riding shotgun!

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    My other blogs are available here.

    Nilesh Gohil - BizOps

    Authored by: Nilesh Gohil | SVP & Global Head – Customer Success and Business Operations

     

    Credits:

    Created with images by Gipfelsturm69 – “climb prussik knot high mountains” • Unsplash – “compass magnetic orientation” • david.nikonvscanon – “Colour Pencils-1” • keijj44 – “football american football football team”