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CultureIn-depth

3 strategies for effectively maintaining your startup team

5 min read

In a recent article, we covered some of the key factors you need to take into account if you want to build a winning startup team. 

These include identifying positions to be filled, interviewing and hiring the right people (and where to find them), and more.

Now we’re back with more expert advice on managing your startup team. Only this time, we’re focused on strategies for keeping your employees happy and maintaining team cohesion. As usual, we caught up with 2 field experts from Nord Security – Živilė Pilkauskienė, Lead People and Business Partner, and Lauryna Girėnienė, Head of Talent Acquisition – to get their insights.

So, time for a deep dive into 3 rock solid strategies for keeping your startup team intact and working well: 1) Focus on purpose, 2) Listen to your “stayers”, and 3) Show your real self.

Sound interesting? Then let’s go!

Strategy 1: Focus on purpose

The importance of having a clear “why” for your business has been well known for decades. Clearer focus, better talent attraction, easier retention: defining the purpose of your startup has a ton of benefits.

But to make your “why” effective, you need to do more than just have one. In fact, there are 3 important steps you need to take once you have identified what your purpose is. 

First, make it as clear as possible. Two, communicate it to your entire workforce (not just the key players). And three, turn it into your company’s organising principle, something that underlies all decision-making, all strategy, and all tactics.

In other words, purpose needs to be much more than a mission statement – it should be embodied in how your business carries out its day-to-day functions.

As Lauryna points out, the same principle applies to specific projects as well. “As we like to say, ‘Common sense is not that common’. Based on my experience, it’s really important to work on how you communicate with people,” says Lauryna. “You need to regularly ask them if they have a clear understanding of the project and goal, as well as the specific steps towards its realisation.”

2 common purpose-related mistakes startups make

So, purpose matters. But be careful to strike the right balance here, which means avoiding a couple of common mistakes.

Firstly, startups often want to make their purpose the only “why” out there (or at least, the most important one). But research by McKinsey found that employees who are given the opportunity to explore their own sense of purpose are “nearly three times more likely than others to feel their purpose is fulfilled at work”.

Lauryna suggests creating space for your team to explore what’s purposeful to them: “Common values are helpful when it comes to guiding the company to its purpose as a single unit. So we are trying to define and explain those values, and enable people to identify themselves as part of that same purpose.” 

The second mistake is failing to find the right balance between clarity of purpose and openness to change. Let’s not forget that one of the biggest advantages startups have over enterprises is their capacity for quick iterations, ad hoc adjustments, and sharp pivots. 

“To put it simply,” says Živilė, “it’s best to allow your brand to develop organically by assimilating the ideas of your partners and employees, rather than having a set-in-stone-once-and-for-all definition that must be constantly defended.”

Strategy 2: Listen to your “stayers”

Instead of focusing all your attention on those who decide your startup is not for them, listen more to those who stay. And by listening, we mean active listening. 

This means that you need to actively seek out your employees’ concerns and opinions. And be sure to “concept check” – verify what you hear with “I want to make sure I heard what you said.” Then repeat what you understood and check that it’s accurate. After all, as George Bernard Shaw famously put it: 

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

Here are 3 simple ways you can listen effectively to your loyal employees.

1. One-on-one sessions

Not everyone is comfortable with speaking in groups. So, it’s a good idea to mix group engagement with one-on-one sessions. Keep an eye on those who shrink back from speaking in groups and invite them for the occasional informal chat.

Along with informal chats, you can also structure regular catch ups with your team. In these sessions, along with addressing any specific issues, you can encourage participants to think deeply about their reasons for staying at the company.

“During the regular one-on-one sessions with management that we hold, team members get a chance to reflect on how things have been going,” explains Živilė. “This includes deep analysis of what’s working for them and what isn’t, and consideration of why they are choosing to stay at the company”.

2. Feedback surveys

Try setting up annual feedback surveys, and punctuate these with more frequent “pulse” surveys – especially during times of change or disruption. Ideally, these surveys should be up for only a limited period and contain just a few multiple choice questions to encourage people to fill them out as soon as possible.

One smart strategy to try is incorporating short surveys into your regular team meetings and get togethers. Here’s Živilė to explain how it works: “We have what we call “Team Talks.” In advance of these meetings, all the participants complete a short survey. Then during the meeting the manager goes through all the feedback and together they come up with ideas for improvements.”

3. Keeping everyone in the loop

Finally, if you want your “stayers” to really open up about what they like and dislike, you need to keep them in the loop.

According to researchers, feeling “out of the loop” will make your employees trust their colleagues and managers less, plus it harms loyalty and motivation. So, practice being transparent and keeping your team informed on how things are going.

Strategy 3: Show your real self

In a small organization, individual relationships matter – and the values and personalities of startup founders leave a strong imprint on them. 

“Authenticity is one of our team’s values and it really helps us feel appreciated at work. We encourage each other to share our feelings, struggles, and happy moments. We also have weekly meetings to discuss not just work performance, but also the way each of us is feeling,” explains Lauryna.

Creating this atmosphere starts at the top. 

According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, people’s willingness to show their real selves depends on the level of “psychological safety” the “shared belief held by members of a team” that it “is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. 

As a leader, says Edmondson, you need to foster “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up”. And you can do this by being yourself and owning your mistakes and flaws. Try openly acknowledging times when you’ve got it wrong and how you’ll do better next time.

Tying it all together

So, there we have it – 3 concrete strategies for maintaining a cohesive and well functioning startup team.

First, define your purpose clearly and embed it in your company’s day-to-day activities

Second, listen to your “stayers”. Actively

And third, set an example of authentic behaviour at work and take the lead in creating psychological safety. 

With these strategies in place, you’ll be well set to retain your best talent and get your team working together seamlessly – and that is the foundation for growth and success.