Founders Deserve a Playbook

Here in Southeast Asia, the vast majority of startup Founders are young and inexperienced, certainly compared to Silicon Valley. There aren’t many seasoned entrepreneurs to act as mentors…but that hasn’t stopped local Founders from building 40 unicorns in less than ten years! I’m impressed.

How do they do it? Simple: the execs I work with are all learning machines, hungry to figure out everything from raising capital and creating product-market fit to optimizing SEO and implementing OKRs. And figure it out they do. You know how?

Google.

Googling a topic is a great way to learn. Assuming the topic is reasonably well defined, Google will often lead you to much of what you need. If the topic lends itself to clear, step-by-step instructions (for example, raising capital or implementing OKRs), then you’ll be able to apply what you learn to your business and generate real results.

But building a high-performance organization (HPO) doesn’t follow this pattern, which makes it impossible to master just by reading stuff from the web. Even the basic definition of an HPO is unclear. For some people, “high performance” means getting shit done and nothing more. Others focus on culture, or scalability, or engagement metrics.

But even if you understand what you’re aiming for in building an HPO, there are still two big obstacles to learning how to do it.

Obstacle #1: Mismatched piece parts

Building an HPO is a multi-disciplinary challenge. So if you go to Google, you’ll find plenty of what I call ‘piece parts:’ content on specific aspects of building an HPO, such as how to bring your company values to life, how to hire great people, how to structure your meetings, or how to give constructive feedback. While these are all important components of an HPO, they’re not the actual thing itself. And the advice you get from one author may not always fit very well with the advice from another.

There’s no single source for this stuff and definitely no unifying framework that ties all the pieces together. Without a unifying framework, Founders find themselves responding ad hoc to a never-ending set of organizational and people problems. They can’t see the challenges coming around the corner or how all the seemingly distinct problems are actually interconnected, and they can’t predict what they’ll need to be addressing six months or a year down the road. They’re stuck, reactively addressing one problem at a time.

Obstacle #2: The theological divide

Actually, it’s worse than that.

Running through all the advice on startup organization and culture is an enormous theological divide. On one side of the design are those who see your organization as a complex machine — a set of teams that need to be structured to maximize their output. These folks tend to prioritize making sure that everyone knows exactly what their role is, what work they’re responsible for, how it will be evaluated or measured, and how it fits into other workstreams. This “machine” crowd tends to focus on approaches like OKRs, job descriptions, performance reviews, and rewards. They tend to focus on individual skills and as a result value ‘A Players’ and superstars.

On the other side are those who see your organization as a community — a group of people who need to be nurtured, brought together, and shaped into a cohesive group with a strong sense of shared purpose and values. This group tends to focus on approaches like coaching and feedback, training, career development, and workplace culture. And they tend to prioritize culture fit in their hiring. They tend to focus on interactions rather than individuals, so focus more on people who fit the culture and work well with others.

Almost every business guru falls squarely into one camp or the other, which means most Founders fall into the same trap. Founders who are naturally obsessed with short-term results worry that “nurturing a community” will take precious time away from getting shit done. Any activity that isn’t directly related to producing valuable outcomes seems like a waste of your very limited resources.

Founders who are more community-oriented worry that focusing too much on results will drive away people who are a great fit with the company culture but don’t always hit their targets. Maybe those targets were unrealistic — it’s hard to know, when your startup has such a short history. If you hold everyone strictly accountable for unreasonable goals, you could lose valuable long-term contributors.

It becomes a battle between two viewpoints:

I don’t care if she’s a jerk, she hit her targets”

vs.

“I don’t mind that she didn’t hit her targets, she’s not a jerk, she’s a team player.”

We need an HPO playbook

Sadly, there’s almost nothing out there that helps Founders reconcile these two views or understand why the theological divide is just plain wrong. Nor is there anything that puts all the advice into a unified framework that corresponds to the scale of your startup.

Not every startup can afford a good coach, but that shouldn’t be the reason they fail to build an HPO. That’s why I’ve taken on the challenge of codifying all the knowledge you need to build an HPO into a single, coherent approach that is easy to learn and implement. It won’t be easy, but I’m convinced it’s doable.

I’ve been wrestling with this challenge for the past ten years, as I coached startups across Southeast Asia. With each client, I’ve added a little more to the playbook that’s been growing in my head. Now, it’s time to share that playbook.

This year, I’m setting out the playbook piece by piece, testing how it resonates with my clients and with you. Later this year, I’ll pull it all together into a real book — one that any startup founder can pick up and use to build the high-performance organization they’ve been dreaming of.

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Rob is an expert guide in the world of startup leadership and high-performance organizations. A 3-time CEO, he now advises many startups including 7 unicorns.

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Rob Bier

Rob Bier

Rob is an expert guide in the world of startup leadership and high-performance organizations. A 3-time CEO, he now advises many startups including 7 unicorns.

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