May 7, 2021
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Your Team Should Change As You Grow

The team you have today might not always be the team that you have working at your publication. And while that might seem like a bad thing, in the long run, it’s actually the natural evolution of a business.

One of the nice things about AMO is that there are all sorts of operators subscribing. Some of them are experts, building incredibly successful businesses. Others are just getting started and are working their way through all the steps that go into building a media company.

But no matter what stage of the company you’re working on, there is one universal truth in the media business: the people matter.

Every industry is dependent on great talent. However, media is unique in that we are consistently delivering new products, day after day, which requires sufficient staff to ensure we can hit our goals. Think about it… if everyone from Google quit tomorrow, would you know? The search engine would still work and there would likely be no hiccups until the electric bill didn’t get paid and the servers were shut down.

Now think about a publisher. If everyone quit, there would be nothing. No stories written and published. There would be no video or podcasts. The events wouldn’t run. Readers would know instantly that something was wrong.

Team structure is really important when building a media company. Unfortunately, early on, there’s little thought put into that sort of stuff. You’re spending so much time making sure the editorial vision is executed correctly and ensuring there’s enough money in the bank that you don’t think about how the organization should be structured.

But there comes a point when you’ve got to look at the team and assess the situation. It’s very likely that the people who are there right now are not the same people you need for the next phase of your business.

I’ve been part of this exercise multiple times. At one company, the early team was incredibly tight-knit. We did everything together. We also did everything for the business. I had three jobs to do. I was spread so thin, it was no wonder I did anything well. But that’s what had to be done. Startup life, right?

At some point, the company reached a certain stage where the team had to change if it was going to hit its next level of goals. A slew of new hires occurred. There was a new head of content, a new head of commercial, and a new head of, well, everything.

Over the coming year, much of the early team left. Things changed. I can’t fault that change. It had to happen and it was a critical lesson in my understanding of building companies.

The people who help you start and get that early momentum are, most times, not the people who are going to help you achieve a much loftier goal. The level of expertise and management requirements are different at a small company versus a large one.

One example was the editor-in-chief at this company I referenced above. This person wasn’t overseeing all that many people when I first joined. He knew his people really well and his editing style was rooted in mostly just rewriting what anyone wrote.

But as the company grew, the demands for coverage compounded. The newsroom expanded quickly and there were suddenly multiple editors underneath him with writers underneath each of those editors. Very quickly, his personality started to change. He became much more dictatorial. He became more volatile. My suspicion is that he had a hard time grappling with not having his hand on every single piece that got published. He’d nitpick stories that got published.

Ultimately, he had to leave the organization because he was toxic. Someone new was brought in to oversee the editorial team who had much more experience. They brought in a more experienced team that had worked in larger newsrooms. They understood how to build an operation that was much more stable. They also understood how to develop reporters, make them stronger, and push the quality of the journalism.

As you can imagine, many of the early reporters that had worked for that first editor-in-chief wound up leaving either out of loyalty or because they didn’t like the new system. They suddenly had a boss that was between them and the editor-in-chief, which they may not have liked. All were perfectly valid reasons to leave.

In the short term, this was obviously very disruptive since these people had a ton of institutional knowledge. In the long run, it’ll probably help this brand achieve its goals. A more seasoned editorial staff was needed to grow the newsroom.

Why do I say all of this?

The instinct when reaching this threshold is to try and keep these people. Maybe we prematurely promote these people or offer them more money even though they might not warrant either of those based on their experience. The latter is actually less dangerous than the former. Putting someone into a position that they are fundamentally not ready for is setting them up for failure.

It’s important to ignore that instinct most of the time. There will obviously be exceptions to the rule where you’ve got someone who just grows right alongside you and the organization. But if not, you need to have the hard conversation with them and say, “you’re not ready, we’re hiring someone above you.” They may leave. That’s their choice. But it’s better for them to leave because you were honest than because they drowned trying to do a job they were not qualified for.

The interesting thing is, once you make these necessary moves, you’ll start to see significant changes to the business. Things begin to move faster. There’s something to be said about bringing in someone with more experience who has dealt with more scenarios. Rather than operating from week to week, you begin to operate quarter to quarter. Or, better yet, you can actually plan years in advance.

How do you know when the time comes to do it?

It’s never black and white, but in my opinion, the time to do this is when you want to launch a new product. The complications that arise from having multiple products with competing priorities can make management much harder. It’s not linear either. Let me try and spell it out with an example.

Let’s say that you want to build a data product to complement your reporting. It’s a great idea, your audience wants it, but the one product manager you have on staff has never done anything with data before. Neither have the engineers. You might say, “okay, I’ll hire a second product manager that has experience with data projects.”

But I would actually caution against making this your first move. As you start launching additional products, the infrastructure needs to change. The goal shouldn’t be to just hire a second product manager. Instead, if you’re looking at two products and then perhaps more in the future, it’s time to hire a head of product. This accomplishes a few things for you.

First, they’re likely more seasoned at balancing the development of concurrent projects. Second, your management of people doesn’t grow. Finally, your conversations about product change from tactical to strategic. When you were directly managing the rollout of the product, you had to get into the nitty-gritty. Now you can simply talk about vision and long-term objectives with a seasoned professional without having to worry about how it gets done. Things suddenly start to move faster because you’ve freed up your own capacity as well as got someone who is, frankly, better than you.

It’s a very cliché thing to say, but the best operators are often not the smartest people in the room. They know a little bit about a lot of things, which is enough to make decisions. As the company grows, you hire specialists to run specific departments. Now that operator is surrounded by people that are smarter.

The other way to know it’s time to change the team structure is when things start to stagnate. Are you not growing as quickly? Do sales look more like a cash register of inbounds versus more outbound work? At some point, the current people are not able to help you get to the next level. You’ve got two choices then: you have to bring someone in to manage them or build a new team. The truth is, the former can sometimes result in the latter.

Growing a team can be complicated, especially because your early people were there when things were very different. The reality is that the team will change. The best thing to do is recognize when someone can’t accomplish what you need and be clear with them why you need to put someone new in above them. They may leave. When I got layered at my former company, I stayed for a bit and learned a lot. But then I left. I had to. At some point, with the right management, I was finally ready to do the bigger work. But there was someone above me now so I had nowhere to grow.

Being comfortable with the fact that the team is going to look different as time goes on is an important realization to achieving new levels of growth. It may not always be fun, but it’s always necessary.

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