Why Founders Should Constantly Evaluate Their Team—And Themselves

Startups, inevitably, evolve.

This is to be expected, but it means that you as the founder or CEO of your startup must be positioned to adapt and evolve, too––especially when it comes to the way you manage and organize your team.

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For example, as your company matures, initial hires may outgrow their original roles. They might end up becoming interested in new initiatives or technologies. Or you may discover that they’re better people managers than individual contributors (or vice versa). In some less-than-ideal situations, maybe you realize they need to be demoted or let go.

All these things happen. Your job is to identify when they do. That way you can adjust accordingly and keep your team moving in a positive direction. 

The way you do that, ultimately, is by conducting regular evaluations––both of your team and of yourself––and really making sure you’re paying attention to how your company and culture are evolving.

The goal is that you’re always putting yourself in a position to utilize your team as effectively as possible.

But equally important here is avoiding making critical personnel mistakes that could hamstring your company long into the future.

Here are some things to keep in mind.

1) Don’t hand out super high titles too early on––and break titles down incrementally.

It’s a popular recruiting tactic: enticing talented hires you probably can’t afford with an elevated title. “Hey,” you might say. “You’re a senior software engineer now, but how would you like to be our lead server engineer or CTO?”

Understandably, for many candidates, that offer is extremely attractive––which means it’s effective as far as recruiting tactics go. But it’s also damaging from a leadership standpoint because it limits you in the future – and it will also inevitably raise some questions/concerns among current team members. When you grow and are able to attract better talent, you’ll likely want someone else to operate as your CTO.

What I’ve sought to do instead, as both a founder of Dairy Free Games and a Head of Studio at Glu Mobile, emulates the strategy of companies like Facebook and Google, both of whom minimize the importance of hierarchy as much as possible.

Think about implementing levels

In the early years at Facebook, even engineers who joined the team with remarkable experience entered with the title “software engineer.” At Google, positions are incremented––software engineer L1; software engineer L2––to create more of a buffer between managers, team leads, and individual contributors.

I find this strategy allows you more flexibility to watch those with true leadership capacities prove themselves over time. When you grow to the size where it’s necessary to start elevating people to leadership or managerial positions, you’ll know who’ll serve best in those roles. Ultimately, this is a better way of making those kinds of decisions. Once you make someone a “lead,” or an executive, it’s hard to undo that.

Plus, talented employees who impress on paper don’t always make effective managers. Once, my co-founder, Dennis, and I brought on a designer who really wanted to be elevated to management. He was a good designer and an early hire (meaning we didn’t want to lose him). So we promoted him to Creative Director. Turns out that although he was a great individual contributor, he just didn’t have the managerial skills to make a new position work.

It always feels great to deliver good news and promote somebody. However, before you do, make sure you outline all the responsibilities of the position you are promoting them to. Also, make sure they have already shown the capacity and willingness to fulfill all of those responsibilities.

2) Performance reviews should be continuous and held throughout the year.

It may seem obvious, but if you’re going to evaluate your employees more regularly, you need to hold official performance reviews more often.

This starts with rejecting the corporate status quo of running reviews once a year.

Performance Reviews

Photo Source: Dilbert by Scott Adams

Personally, I’ve always hated the way annual reviews pan out. An entire year is simply too much time to cover completely over the course of an hour-long review. Plus, at a fast-moving startup, reviewing your organizational structure and the circumstances of each contributor once every twelve months just isn’t enough to keep up with the ever-changing environment. That’s something you need to be doing once every quarter, at least. Otherwise, you’re liable to allow employees to underperform for an entire year before making needed changes.

At Dairy Free Games, Dennis and I hired an ops/HR manager. Their primary job was to check in with other team members. They let team members know when they were doing a great job. Or they would let them know when they needed to make a change. The ops/HR manager also set up quarterly check-ins, and so on. And most importantly, he would constantly relay important findings back to us.

It allowed us a certain awareness and adeptness which is impossible to have if you only hold reviews once a year.

3) Founders need to evaluate themselves, as well, through a 360-degree review.

Of course, creating a culture of constant evaluation can have unintended effects. Team members may feel like they’re constantly being judged, which isn’t what you want.

You can combat that by submitting your founding team to the same processes and reviews. I do that at Glu by way of 360-degree reviews. In these reviews team leads, managers, and individual contributors evaluate the job I’m doing as the head of our studio both anonymously and in one-on-ones. This both equalizes the evaluation process––which legitimizes the culture you’re trying to build in the eyes of your team––and can also ensure that you, as a leader, get potentially critical feedback you need to improve in your role.

After all, that’s just as important for you as it is for growing team members.

4) Keep your eyes and ears open constantly.

Beyond holding “formal” reviews more often, it’s important for you as a founder to pay attention to the performance and “feel” of your team more generally. Gauge who seems to be taking on responsibility without being asked. Look for who is producing great work, and who seems to be slacking. This will better enable you to make promotions more confidently or know when it’s time to let somebody go.

At Glu, after learning from our mistakes, we now have a policy of only promoting people when they’ve already shown some kind of initiative on their own. We’re able to do that because we make a point of paying attention.

Especially when you’re still small, this should be relatively easy. Yet as you grow, you can do something similar to what Dennis and I’ve done in hiring someone whose primary responsibility is to be, in a sense, your eyes and ears.

How to foster a culture of growth and evaluation

But there are, of course, plenty of other ways to foster a culture of continual reflection, growth, and evaluation––not to mention a system that leaves you better prepared to operate proactively in growing and managing your company.

Here are some next steps and mindsets you can implement right away:

  • Have a clearly defined individual contributor vs. manager track. Becoming a people manager shouldn’t be the only way to move up or get more recognition at your company. Create more paths to opportunity.
  • Don’t be afraid to let people go. It’s difficult, but sometimes a person who was great at the beginning of your company’s journey turns out to be not such a great fit for where you’re heading or what you’ve since become. In these cases, it’s best to part ways amicably instead of waiting until the relationship grows toxic.
  • Be willing to move someone to a role seemingly very different than the one they were hired for. Sometimes people surprise you and prove capable in capacities you didn’t foresee. You have to be comfortable moving people around if it benefits the company. And as an added benefit, having the willingness to move people around may help you better retain your best people.

Alex Paley is a Head of Studio at Glu Mobile, where he runs a studio of about 30 people and concentrates on real-time multiplayer games. Previously, he was the co-founder of Dairy Free Games, which was acquired by Glu in August 2017, and the co-founder of TrackingSocial, a social media analytics company that he and his partner spun into art investing. He’s still involved with investing and has invested in startups that have been acquired.

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  • Originally published January 8, 2019, updated April 26, 2023