MBA Mondays: When Its Not Your Team

Phil Sugar left a great comment on last week's MBA Mondays about Turning Your Team:

Do not think that the reason you aren't scaling is because you need to bring in outside management. That will kill a team. 

This is the biggest worry I have because some will read this and think, I'm not growing what I need to do is turn the team, and that is just wrong.

If you aren't growing, its likely to be a product problem, a strategy problem, or a competition problem. I have rarely seen a management team problem be the reason for lack of growth. 

Company building is not this simple, but I do like to think about it terms of two stages. Getting the product right and customers/users scaling. Then scaling the company and the team. If you aren't doing the first, you mostly don't need to worry about the second. There are occasional team issues in the first stage you need to deal with but they aren't the big thing you need to focus on. The big thing you need ot to focus on is the product and its fit with the market. 

These issues can play themselves out again when the company is larger. Companies can lose their way. Or their product lineup can get stale. Or competition can enter the market and change the dynamics for users or buyers. Once again, you need to focus in on getting the product right and making sure that it is providing value to customers/users. 

In all of these situations, it is tempting to think the issue is the team and that turning the team will fix the problems. That is exactly why Phil left the comment he did. Team issues are largely scaling issues not growth issues. And it's critical to be able to recognize which is which because fixing the wrong problem can be devastating to a company.

#MBA Mondays

Comments (Archived):

  1. awaldstein

    Let me take this sideways as simplifying something as dynamic as building a company often masks the real issues.It’s almost never black or white.Replacing or changing out the team is one thing. Having different skill sets on the team is another.Good advice I think would be to get market skills into the company earlier so that it becomes part of the product and you don’t hit the wall sitting there with a product and no market, or a enthusiast market and no forward momentumI spent 10+ years being that hired gun to both under 10 people startups and public companies alike. I know the problems of being the fixer. 50% of my advisory work is to make certain that they don’t need to hire someone like I was and have it part of who they are early.

  2. Avi Deitcher

    I am going to beg to differ here, at least partially (because you know I am so shy about that… ).In every instance where I have seen issues in an org – operational efficiencies, market strategies, online uptime, professional services, software delivery, scaling – a core part of the problem *has* been the team, and the buck usually stops at the top.Doesn’t mean the CEO has to go, or the whole team, but someone executive (often several) is the source of the problem. Engineers who cannot build to scale, customer support reps who fall behind on tickets, pro svcs who overpromise and underdeliver.. these are all the responsibility of the execs who do not hire the right people, manage them the right way, give them the resources they need or offer the right incentives.Often it is simply a case of an exec learning to move to the next level (which is why I am called in, fix the core problem then help the exec who got stuck in the first place, and kudos to him/her for being willing to seek outside help), but sometimes an exec, several execs or the whole team really do need to go.I can think of one case where the entire exec team (except CEO) was swapped out in under a year, and the company did a complete 180 because of it (and would have done better had the CEO been swapped too).As an aside… incentives end up being the problem in well over half the cases.

    1. William Mougayar

      Was that in a startup? How many employees are we talking about.

      1. Avi Deitcher

        Forgive me for not giving too much detail; I don’t want the company to be identifiable. But they were well into growth, revenues in excess of $10MM.

        1. William Mougayar

          Ok. Thanks.

  3. Tom Labus

    Sometimes you have the wrong messenger out there in the beginning and need to make a sales change quickly.

    1. Avi Deitcher

      Funny, we are always so quick to change out sales staff (I cannot believe this old engineer, i.e. me, is saying it). Is it because they are so easy to measure? Then again customer support and engineering deliverables are also easy to measure. Is it because we stress so much about cash-blood of the company when sales doesn’t deliver?Customer Development might argue (@sgblank does in his book), that often lack of sales is a problem of the business model being not ready for scaling.

      1. Tom Labus

        Good point. It can be both ways though. Like Mariano being a not so hot starter but a great reliever. It’s also timing

      2. Avi Deitcher

        To be fair, though, sometimes the salesman just sucks! πŸ™‚

      3. ShanaC

        so I guess the question is how do you know when you are ready to scale?

        1. Avi Deitcher

          The short @sgblank answer is, “when you have product/market fit, and have validated your channels, revenue, resources, activities, relationships, partners, revenues and costs.” In other words, when your business model has been validated in each of its components.

    2. JimHirshfield

      I agree with Avi. Don’t blame the messenger. If your product can’t be sold through a defined process with predictable results, then it’s likely the product-market fit that’s amiss.

  4. laurie kalmanson

    Pivot time when the product or the technology isn’t quite rightHere is a locomotive concept from someone who hadn’t quite got the steam engine

    1. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

      I can see a CEO (with lever) and a COO and 4-programmers….lean startup.Edit: They forgot to have a CTO…

      1. laurie kalmanson

        ux, content strategy, marketing …

    2. Matt A. Myers

      This is awesome. Likewise, what happens when people start inventing and imagining to be using technology that doesn’t exist yet – you get science fiction.

      1. Dave W Baldwin

        Hmm. A matter if true reverse engineering yet be realistic of the 1 or 2 things you have to make happen to have it come a out. Though they may be parts to bigger product, sometimes changing them is worth more toward greater good than the so called science fiction.

      2. laurie kalmanson

        flux capacitor

        1. Matt A. Myers

          Well, yes – I think that’s likely the only invention that can never exist – however ‘warp speed’ travel should be, along with a lot of technologies that are near ready to be implemented/invented; I have an inside scoop on a few – where the theoretical physics has been worked out – just a matter of finding funds to implement and test. I hope I can say “I told ya so” within the next 5 years.

      3. Avi Deitcher

        I have often felt science fiction is nothing more or less than using technology and fantasy as a platform to imagine radical social change.

    3. ShanaC

      where did you find this? this is great

      1. laurie kalmanson

        glad u like it.…β€œThe Impulsoria was a locomotive constructed in 1850 that was powered by horses on a treadmill following a design by Clemente Masserano. The locomotive undertook trials in London in 1850 and was exhibited at The Great Exhibition in 1851.

    4. sigmaalgebra

      No, no, it was four horsepower, and it worked great until theyhad to clean it!

      1. laurie kalmanson

        costs peanuts to run. no, wait; that’s for elephants.

    5. Sean Hull

      Wow that is a great image. Reminds me of some of the startup server rooms I’ve seen.

  5. William Mougayar

    Yes, and “customers/users scaling” is also an iterative process, because the company probably won’t hit it right from the first attempts.So, assuming the product is right and the market is big and competition is not issue, sometimes the way a product is being sold, or the way it is being on-boarded might be the stumbling blocks to growth. I have seen this.

  6. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

    When in doubt ‘blame the team’ :-)….because that is the easiest to change…. you can’t change the product overnight, you cannot change the market and you can’t change the competition.

    1. PhilipSugar

      That cuts to the heart of my comment. Charlie is right there is loyalty involved, but you are correct you cannot change the market.Sometimes that market just takes longer to develop than you would like especially if you are a VC with a limited time frame to hit a home run.You also have the grass is greener problem. A person from the outside always seems to be attractive.That is not to say you tolerate poor performance. I was analyzing our turnover numbers the other day, and I realized that while we have a very high wash out rate (people leaving within the first year), once you made it over that hump nobody left. So if you looked at the average the rate seemed high but if you looked at the median it was very low. As much as I like to think I’m a good recruiter and interviewer the numbers say differently.

      1. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

        with my limited experience I can say that … turning the team around … pill mostly comes (initiated) from the investors….especially the investors who have a short term exit policy.When in trouble the team (start-up team) really works their ass-out except for very few…. when in small number most of the guys know the importance of WHAT is putting the company on track means….

  7. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

    Growth Vs Scaling u nailed it… growth till critical mass is a different issue to have and scaling after the explosion is a different issue to have.Explosive scaling may require different team … but the team which produced can scale it to critical mass. Never blame the team until there is explosive growth.

  8. pointsnfigures

    Fred is right about the earlier stages of the startup. If the product isn’t moving forward it’s probably not the team. If the startup is solving a pain point, even a poorly functioning team will get it going. It’s that point where the company needs to scale and iterate that team issues come in.

    1. William Mougayar

      I would add, it’s also possible the product is right, but the market it serves is not big enough, so you end-up spinning your wheels optimizing for a small segment, whereas you should keep pivoting to reach a bigger market, out of the prior beachhead you had.

  9. Steve Thommes

    Maybe it doesn’t come down to two camps- the he said, “design CEO leads to product/market fit” or the she said, “proven A+ team that can pivot”. Perhaps it is more like entrepreneurs have a GPS signal with 4 coordinates: product, market, team, brand. The challenge then is that their “map” early on just doesn’t have high enough resolution to find the intersection of those 4 signals. Traction occurs as the map’s resolution increases to reveal the sweet spot. In the end both camps are yin and yang, left and right of the same strategy: to increase the clarity and resolution of the vision/execution path

    1. karen_e

      Check out the 90s book The Power of Alignment. JLM once called it out. It’s built on a metaphor of flying instruments. Their four coordinates are Processes, Strategy, People, and Customers.

      1. Steve Thommes

        Love this as I don’t have the book (and I have many). What I would say to bring this from the 90s to the 2010s, and for the Internet space in particular is that Product really does need it’s own “instrument”. Why? Strategy, People, Processes are crystalized into Product which is the one thing, the eponymous face-of-the-business to Customers: users, consumers, subscribers, advertisers

      2. JLM

        .OMG, does that bring back memories. It is a bit hard to read but it is a classic.JLM.

  10. jason wright

    “team”?i prefer ‘group’, the group.

  11. Guest


  12. Nick Ambrose

    Indeed, a great comment.I’ve spent a lot of time in past roles thinking “If I was suddenly not here tomorrow, who would replace me” and really thinking hard on whether that person could really truly fill the role, or if that was just “The person who by default would do so”And if I couldn’t think of someone who could step into my role, then I made it a top priority to either coach the person on the team that I felt *could* do that, or if I didn’t feel like we had anyone, really focus on hiring that person on as a team-member and mentoring them.This was quite shocking to a lot of people who would actively “protect their turf” by making sure they were “indispensible” and “couldn’t be replaced”They would always ask me when I was out of the office on remote business or vacation if I was “going to be checking back in with the team” or how I would know things were going well.My response was always “If I didn’t think my team could handle me being away for a couple of weeks, and think that person XYZ who I hope will one day replace me would pro-actively get ahold of me if a crisis occurred, what kind of manager would I really be?”

    1. Nick Ambrose

      Having said that, we did successfully bring in two pretty major hires (one above and to the side of me, and one above) with eventual success (but not w/out breaking a *lot* of eggs)However, the failures were more than the “wins” in my opinion

    2. ShanaC

      I’ve found that the “protect their turf” happens most when the job and place is strategically and otherwise unstable – be indespible and they can’t fire you when the going finally hits them as tough

      1. Nick Ambrose

        Definitely. Ego has a large part to play in it too.

      2. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

        In GE (a decade ago) we have been taught to make ‘oneself’ redundant … then there is growth.You make yourself redundant for the job you are doing … then u will be hired in a different department on a higher role.

    3. PhilipSugar

      Totally agree. I have told people the surest way you know you going to be replaced is to try and make yourself irreplaceable. If you are the company’s top priority has to be to find a way to replace you.

  13. Guillermo Ramos

    Product and strategy are part of the team role, so if they are not able/willing to change, then you have to turn the team

  14. JLM

    .While Fred has a particular scenario in mind, I would caution that many times problems of any kind are simply that — garden variety problems.The ability to identify, solve and implement solutions to problems is a part of “normal” management and does not always require open heart surgery.Sometimes the smallest bit of brainstorming or coaching can put a problem right when it seems like a mountain at its first recognition.I literally cannot tell you the number of times I have spoken with a CEO or C level guy who was getting out the chainsaw to reshape things and I was able to talk them into a “smaller” experiment.Beware wholesale changes. The change becomes as big an issue as the original problem. One at a time can make huge differences. Make the change, let it settle in and re-evaluate.When I was in the military, I got assigned to three different units that were disasters. Had not passed their annual tests. Commanders relieved. In each instance, I changed out just a handful of people and set the tone and things changed miraculously.The first time I had no idea why. The second time I had my own suspicions. The third time I knew the outcome before I made any changes.If there were no problems to solve — there would be no justification for the company or its management.JLM.

    1. karen_e

      Spoken with the wisdom of experience, JLM. And I think Drucker would back you up.

  15. ShanaC

    PSA:A user is reporting what looks like spoofing – it isn’t, it is guest posts suddenly being attributed to you – this has already been reported to disqus, so don’t worry about it

  16. ShanaC

    In other news: what if you know based on previous job experiences that the technology is right (solving a problem) but the marketing is going to be very difficult (complicated problem that is being resolved) And while we have plans – the product strategy match is difficult – how are you all handling it?

  17. Sofia Fenichell

    I agree with this post in the sense that the first thing you need to do is identify what is the growth issue? Product, marketing or both? Good founders use data to unearth the issue and intuition and analysis to solve the problem. Sometimes the problem can be related to a broken team process. A broken team member can contribute to the problem and even display bad judgement in unearthing solutions or identifying the problem early on. But one person does not make a product or a company succeed or fail. More often than not it is product, positioning or go to market.

  18. Abdallah Al-Hakim

    While what is written in the article makes sense – it doesn’t explain to me why I have always heard and read that VCs invest in the team as well as the idea. If the team is not critical then why is it made into a big deal when it comes to raising money? Or is this unique to founder team members?

  19. kpolo

    “If you aren’t growing, its likely to be a product problem, a strategy problem, or a competition problem. I have rarely seen a management team problem be the reason for lack of growth.”Product problem => Is usually due to poor managementStrategy problem => Who comes up with the strategy? The management teamCompetition problem => The rare case where competition obliterates the grow is still a management problem for not thinking and adapting the right strategy.

  20. kenberger

    very minor suggestion: italicizing or at least *starring* the word “team” in the post’s title. Otherwise, the emphasis can be interpreted to be on the word “your”, and confuse.

  21. Jennifer Shen

    *it’sat least get the grammar of the title correct πŸ™

  22. D.Cory McDonald

    Almost always if a company isn’t growing it is the product that is the problem and not the team although in the case of say JC Penny (I know non tech company) it is the leadership and the business model said leadership has created.In my industry (energy) Chesapeake Energy it was also a leadership problem (although that is a large company), but different in that Chesapeake’s problem was the Founder/CEO using company funds for personal purchases.Too many times companies in every industry rush to fire the team or members of the team instead of looking at themselves in the mirror

  23. JimHirshfield

    There are 3 kinds of musicians: those that can count, and those that can’t. πŸ˜‰

  24. William Mougayar

    Why are you assuming loyalty was the issue?And assuming it is, usually not everybody sucks. It’s typically 1 or 2 or 3 πŸ™‚

  25. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

    There is always a 3) … please do come back after your coffee.

  26. pointsnfigures

    maybe the better word is “trust”.

  27. awaldstein

    And I must say, the entrepreneurs I”ve been talking with lately are aware of thisNot something that B schools teache but I’m blown away by any group that knows what they don’t know and looks for it.

  28. PhilipSugar

    It really is that is why when you find a good person you have to keep them.

  29. Donna Brewington White

    None. They’ll keep playing in the dark.

  30. Donna Brewington White

    Yeah, what do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?

  31. Donna Brewington White

    Good onw, Kasi. Apparently, YOU had YOUR coffee.

  32. Donna Brewington White