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Lessons Learned

How I've Learned To Keep My Team Humble During Hypergrowth

It's during your winning streaks that making a habit of gratitude counts the most. Eventually, just about every winning streak ends.

How I've Learned To Keep My Team Humble During Hypergrowth

[Photo: Masafumi Nakanishi/iStock]

When my startup began to hit big numbers, my team and I naturally got really excited. There were a lot of high-fives and it brought us closer together. I wanted my team members to celebrate and see what their efforts had accomplished, but I also had to find a way to keep our egos in check.

I knew we had hurdles ahead of us to clear in the near future. We'd come a long way quickly but still needed to pace ourselves. Balancing our collective confidence with a little humility was no easy task. Actually, I thought, maybe it wasn't even humility we needed as much as a sense of gratefulness for having reached our goals. After all, we'd worked to get to this point, and that's why we'd met the benchmarks we had.

Why Humility Mattered So Much During Hypergrowth

In my own life, I've learned how humility can create a more positive and collaborative environment. And I've come to understand how important—and how difficult—that is to do during periods of rapid success. I've seen my own ego grow with the sale of a startup for a chunk of change, only to watch that big win shrink to nothing soon afterward and eventually lose everything—partly because I'd thought I was so awesome.

Experiences like this taught me that a big piece of the problem was tunnel vision; I was so busy riding high on the win that other important issues slipped from view. I wasn't able to really look ahead with the mind-set that there's more to accomplish and more work to do, and that those efforts couldn't flag or grind to a halt—ever.

So when it came to managing my startup team during a high-growth period, avoiding that rapid deflation after a series of big wins was a top priority. I wanted them to understand that it was important to ground that positive emotion in reality and continue to look ahead at what we still faced. Here are four ways I've been able to encourage more humility and gratefulness in my business.

1. Tell Others That They're Right (When They Are)

Acknowledging that others are correct sends the message that the boss doesn’t always have to be the one who's right. It’s humbling to say you aren’t right all the time and don't have all the answers. That isn't something that diminishes employees' respect, either—it's important for leaders to walk the walk when it comes to humility.

That's especially true during times of success, but it's really a habit that's worth honing all the time. Every team needs to feel that their leaders value their opinions and count on hearing them. That empowers people and builds up their confidence, and it shows that you expect them to help one another and collaborate.

2. Let Others Pick The Rewards

By putting the reward system in your teams' hands, I've found the group dynamic undergoes a subtle shift. When I tried this, it made everyone think a little harder about what their colleagues did for the good of the group. One surprising result? A team member reminded the group that another team member had taken a big hit for the team but hadn't yet been recognized. That show of gratitude created a domino effect; suddenly everybody wanted to point out someone else on the team who'd played a big role in accomplishing our goals.

Talk about bringing a team close! It showed us all that every win we'd achieved together was a team effort, so the rewards needed to come organically from one team member to the next, not handed down from on high.

3. Scrap Individual Quota Systems For Group Performance Metrics

A little healthy competition is good in certain situations, but individual quotas for reaching certain quantitative goals can have their drawbacks. Particularly when startups gain some momentum, that approach often encourages everyone’s egos to come out. And in my experience, some egos came out swinging—leading people to claim personal credit that really didn't belong to just one person.

When I switched to a team approach to achieving specific metrics, I saw a change in attitude. My team started to understand that they had to pull together or it just wouldn’t work out so well. The competitive spirit didn't go away exactly—and during high-growth stretches, you don't necessarily want it to—but it became more lighthearted, allowing collaboration and communication to take center stage. It was an all-for-one approach that ended up pushing us to new wins and bigger celebrations, except this time they realized it took all of them to get the work done.

4. Reward Simple Courteousness

Today, while I do hand out performance rewards, I now make a bigger deal out of courteous behavior, because even though it's simple, those smaller acts are basically humility in a nutshell. This helps weave humility into our company culture in good times and bad.

If I see someone actively listening rather than checking their phone during a conversation, or if I spot somebody thanking a colleague for their help, I make a point of publicly recognizing that. I've found that's been changing the overall team attitude, reminding us all to be open-minded and respectful of others who contribute just as much—and sometimes more—than we do.

Your startup can't stay in hypergrowth forever, and the good habits you cultivate during your biggest winning streaks will come in handy more than ever once they end. Practicing gratitude and humility make us all stop and reflect on how we're behaving. It takes some work, but once that's common procedure, your whole team will start to become a little more thoughtful and more prone to celebrating collaborative wins. Now, we toast each other while staying conscious that we'll always have more to conquer together, just around the next curve in the road.

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