Growing from Within the Company: 5 Lessons We’ve Learned

March 23, 2016

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Chris Savage

Founder, CEO

In a rapidly growing company, sound leadership and structure are vital, but equating the traditional management trajectory with success can be crippling.

Many companies have created cultures in which becoming a manager is considered the pinnacle of accomplishment. At Wistia, by focusing on making more growth paths than just the conventional management trajectories, we have been able to help people grow in different ways. We’ve found that this approach to growth has encouraged driven, talented employees to stick around, develop their flatsides, and continue to generate value for the company.

The following are five lessons we’ve learned while carving out what it means to grow from within at Wistia.

1. Motivated individual contributors are worth reshuffling for

Ezra was one of Wistia’s earliest employees and our first official marketing hire. With his strong quantitative background and passion for data, Ezra was also Wistia’s go-to person for business intelligence, a one-man analytics department, and a self-motivated individual contributor in the truest sense.

When Wistia grew, the marketing team got bigger, and Ezra’s job changed from a mixture of marketing and analytical side projects to managing a team full time. Ezra wasn’t passionate about managing a team, and suddenly he didn’t have time for anything else.

We had no playbook on what to do. For many companies, individual contributor tracks just don’t exist at all, and it’s “up or out.” Ezra was frustrated that he wasn’t creating things himself or solving problems directly. As we talked about what to do, we realized that if he moved across the organization into an individual contributor role, we could better align the way he wanted to work with a problem that the company really needed to solve.

“For many companies, individual contributor tracks just don’t exist at all, and it’s ’up or out.’”

Ezra moved into a business intelligence role, helping everyone in the company better use data to make decisions. This left us without a leader on marketing, but with an extremely strong contributor with an enormous amount of business context in business intelligence.

The result was instantaneous. Ezra has been able to empower everyone across the organization to use data more effectively. There was no downtime and no onboarding time that we needed to account for. It was amazing to see the power of aligning intrinsic motivations with the right role.

This shift highlighted something we hadn’t realized was happening: while it sometimes felt like you needed to become a manager to grow at Wistia, in reality, alternative growth paths were resulting in impressive professional growth. In light of this realization, we began to solidify a philosophy we had already been living out: at Wistia, people can grow in salary, title, skills, and more, without becoming a manager. Individual contributors carry just as much prestige as managers.

2. Lateral moves foster fresh (but experienced) perspectives

When Alyce first started working at Wistia, we were looking for someone who could chat with customers and help them with their toughest video encoding issues. Alyce jumped right in. She was helping customers that had the most complex encoding problems you could imagine. We were only 13 people at the time, and we all wore many hats.

As we started to produce more content, Alyce offered her help with editing. As our social audiences started to grow, Alyce jumped in and helped us communicate better with customers. It seems totally natural in hindsight, but having a video encoding expert owning a lot of our communication with customers was the right move. As we produced more and more content, we realized a more permanent shift would enable her to develop professionally and grow into a new set of skills.

Jeff, our former Director of Customer Happiness, was another one of Wistia’s early hires. Jeff spent years talking with thousands of customers and understanding their needs and demands, and that’s why his transition to the Product team made perfect sense. He carried with him the outside perspectives of many customers, and had experienced first-hand the product’s growth from the early days and its effect on our users. We knew the upside of putting a diehard customer advocate on Product would be huge.

There’s always a ton of risk when you hire someone for any position. The amazing thing about internal hiring is that you already know that person is a strong cultural fit. They have context for how the business operates, and this experience increases the likelihood of mutual success.

Lateral moves bring institutional knowledge from one part of the business directly into another part. The key to making it work is finding people who are excited about the challenge of taking on something new, are open to mentorship, and are great at self-directed learning.

“Lateral moves bring institutional knowledge from one part of the business directly into another part.”

3. Co-managing is a viable option

When we found ourselves in need of a Director of Customer Happiness last year, our philosophy of growing from within suggested we should promote someone internally. At the time, there just wasn’t any one person that we felt fit the bill.

Instead, we took two members of the team — Sarah-Mei and Olivier — and we asked them to lead our customer champions while we searched for a Director of Customer Happiness. This was somewhat of a risk, as neither Sarah-Mei nor Olivier had prior management experience, but with the support of mentorship from other leaders in the company, they’ve far exceeded our expectations.

Co-managing can take a job that would be potentially lonely, challenging, and isolating, and allow two people to learn and ease into the role together. We had never done something like this before, but it worked out really well.

By extending that opportunity instead of promoting a single person or hiring an external candidate, we’ve given them the chance to gauge their options and start carving out a future at Wistia. Even if neither of them decide they ultimately want to direct a team, they’ve seen what it’s like to lead one.

4. Use measurement to combat politics

Honest measurement works against political biases that often come into play with internal hiring. Even with systems like 360 quarterly feedback, measurement is too often slanted due to relationships. Obviously, numbers are just one part of a comprehensive evaluation, but they are an objective tool worth leaning into.

Once we started setting clear, measurable goals for each team, decisions around leadership and management became inherently less relationship-driven. Everyone knows what their team has to accomplish, agendas aren’t set by people with “clout,” and results are what matters.

When we ask Jeff and the Product team to spend April, say, improving retention by 50% — the team has a clear goal against which we can measure performance. The ideas that lead to results are rewarded, regardless of who proposes them. While we value the tight-knit relationships we’ve fostered over the years, we’re excited about building out the foundations of a truly meritocratic culture.

5. Management isn’t for everyone

Management is not inevitable. It’s one track, it’s not glamorous or particularly fun for most people, and it’s very misunderstood. Being an effective manager means removing obstacles and providing support for your team.

When you open up more paths to growth within the company, something surprising happens — you find that most people don’t actually want to become managers. When it’s no longer an obligation to become a manager, your teammates can focus on achieving their professional goals instead of climbing the corporate ladder.

“When you open up more paths to growth within the company, something surprising happens — you find that most people don’t actually want to become managers.”

While there’s a lot of uncertainty involved with internal growth, there’s one thing we do know: we have a long way to go. Helping people grow from within Wistia has been a journey full of hazards and mistakes, but one that’s ultimately made our company culture stronger. As we move forward with a greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t, we’ll keep reassessing and adjusting our process and trying our best to explicitly encourage diverse growth paths.

It might sometimes slow down Wistia’s growth, and it may test our values, but it’s really important that we keep moving and improving. In the end, growth from within doesn’t just make our people happier or more likely to stick around, it strengthens our resolve to build this thing together, for each other.

March 23, 2016

Topic tags

Chris Savage

Founder, CEO

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