What we’ve learned about building a team

This post was written for our strategic partner, Nominet Trust. You can see the original post on their blog here, published on 4 November 2013. 

When Apps for Good launched in 2010, we had fewer than 50 students in two centres and a team of five.  For the 2013/14 academic year, we have 20,000 students and a team of 15. That is a 40,000% increase in our student numbers in three years. We are not just growing – we’re in hypergrowth.

There is much that has been written about companies and hypergrowth, but most of this focuses on managing its effects on the external activities of the organisation (sales, products, strategic direction for R&D), with little on handling it internally and even less on its impact on third sector organisations. In this we are fortunate to have a trustee who had led a company through a period of intense hypergrowth. He has offered invaluable insight and pointed us to some important case studies and research in this area. We have then set about taking what we learned and adjusting it to fit our third sector context.

When you are a small charity experiencing hypergrowth, balancing the budget is particularly challenging, but this is the wrong time to cut corners on growing your team. Our most valuable overall learning was to prioritise finding and nurturing talent and to take the time to assess the structural and cultural changes to our organisation. For myself and Apps for Good CEO Iris Lapinski, this meant stepping back from both the day-to-day demands of our jobs and our focus on the bottom line to make recruitment and supporting our team a core strategic objective.

We’ve learned a great deal in the last three years, some by getting it right, but often more so by getting it wrong.  While we still have further to go, I think we are getting closer to understanding what recruitment and supporting our team should look like in our organisation.

Here are the key lessons we’ve learned about building our team as we have scaled Apps for Good in the last three years:

1. As you grow, you need increasingly specialised skill sets and the capacity to learn at speed.

When we first started out, we were a tiny team and hired people who were passionate about our cause and grew them into the job. Often, team members had to handle diverse tasks that cut across traditional job titles. Once we reached hypergrowth, roles became more specialised and the rate of our growth was outpacing our ability to support our less-specialised team members. It is important to recognise that and be transparent with your team during this time.  People and organisations can outgrow each other and when that occurs it is important to act quickly. This may seem harsh and was difficult for us personally, but it is crucial both for the individual team member and the organisation as a whole.

2. But don’t let skills and abilities eclipse values and culture. There has to be a balance.

Realising the challenges we faced in rapidly up-skilling team members, we made the mistake of hiring individuals solely on the basis of greater experience or more specialised skill sets.  We didn’t take the time to probe whether they would fit both in terms of values and ways of working, assuming they would adjust to this over time or we could grow this in them. We quickly saw that adapting to culture was an even greater challenge than learning new skills, and just like the skills gap, the culture gap began to affect our organisation. We realised we have to balance the two carefully.  For a growing organisation you need to hire ambitiously in terms of talent but only if the person shares values and culture from the start. Now, we shortlist candidates on the basis of skills and experience and hire for cultural fit.

3. Time spent in recruiting the right person is time well spent.

This sounds obvious, but it is not just about the time devoted to interviewing candidates. The recruitment process should involve understanding what your culture is and how to use the interview process to determine if the candidate is the right cultural fit. Our approach involved trial and error, evaluating what questions we wished we’d asked our less successful appointments, and assessing what we know about the motivations and aspirations of our most successful staff.  From there we have evolved a bank of questions that we use in every interview and have identified the range of answers we are looking for.

We did the same in terms of skills and experience. Rather than solely relying on the claims of CVs, as part of the interview process we ask each candidate to complete a task related to the job role they are applying for. This demonstrates not just what candidates can do, but how they work under pressure – a recurrent condition in any fast growing organisation.

We now involve more of our team in the interview process. This helps remove the risk of bias and assess how the potential candidate might fit into the wider organisation. It is also a good opportunity to give team members an active role both in our culture and in developing other staff.

4. When in hypergrowth, it is important to invest in talent – and not just in the talent you need today, but the talent for tomorrow.

We quickly learned the importance of not only investing in roles such as fundraising, business development and communications, but also in “back office” functions, such as finance and administration. This paid valuable dividends because they provide the increasingly specialised backbone that is crucial as you scale, such as supporting more complex financial and legal procedures.

The Apps For Good Team
The exhausted but happy Apps for Good team after a long day and night hosting the Apps for Good Awards 2013

5. Once you have the right people, don’t underestimate the importance of continuously cultivating the right culture.

Culture cannot just be top down in an organisation. We regularly provide an opportunity for staff to discuss the organisation’s aims and values, as well as why they joined the organisation and why they stay. This is more than paying lip service. This is crucial for us to understand what the staff’s views and organisational culture truly are rather than just what we would like them to be.

But you can’t just talk about it. We aim to reinforce the values of our organisation – humility, authenticity, independence, openness and drive for progress – across everything we do. That means being open with the team about our mistakes and consulting across the organisation on many strategic and operations decisions. We share Board presentations and encourage all team members to attend Board meetings. As a team, we are taking the Apps for Good course, so that everyone, whatever their role within the organisation, has an in-depth understanding of what we are about and can relate to our students, teachers and Experts.

6. While budgets are small and time is short, growing and nurturing talent is even more crucial. Think creatively about staff development and training and draw on big corporate practices that make sense for you.

We want Apps for Good to be a career-defining organisation – an important stepping stone for staff in their overall aspirations. This begins from staff induction. We take the take the time to understand and then regularly review each team member’s developmental needs and their career aspirations, and look for ways that we can support this. This helps ensure we keep our staff’s growth at the heart of what we do.

As a charity, we can’t afford the expensive training courses that many businesses offer. So we look for other, more creative means to offer staff development and training. Sometimes this is as simple as finding opportunities internally, such as having team members share their knowledge and skills with each other over lunch time sessions.

It is also important to realise the value your partners and supporters can offer to staff development. Our partners, such as Nominet Trust, offer high quality training and networking opportunities, and we encourage our employees to attend these and then share key learnings with the rest of the team. We are fortunate to have a network of some incredibly talented and successful individuals and we link our staff with them for on-going mentoring. Having access to this calibre of support is something few staff could hope for in larger organisations with much bigger budgets.

Even without big corporate budgets, we try to take on some corporate practices that make sense for us. For example, every new employee takes the Belbin Team Roles, which assesses their preferred ways to interact and behave in a group. It’s simple to apply and analyse and suits us because we want to encourage effective collaboration and teamwork.

7. Stay lean and agile.

Finally, hypergrowth means staffing structures and approaches must remain lean and agile, responsive to the rapid changes the organisation is undergoing. While we have relied on a skeleton team in the past, some growth does need to happen, but we have done this by identifying the areas that support our strategic objectives. For example, having experienced difficulties in building a platform, as CEO Iris Lapinski has written about in a Nominet Trust blog post, we realised that investment in an in-house product development team would maximise our responsiveness to our internal needs and those of our communities of teachers, Experts and partners.

We also recognise that staff roles can change rapidly in order to respond to business needs. We hold quarterly reviews rather than annual ones to ensure we acknowledge these changes. The reviews are not just about assessing whether team members have met their objectives. We also focus on what has been effective and what hasn’t and how the objectives and role are evolving over the year. We look to maintain the balance between the individual’s needs and the organisation’s objectives.

These lessons have been hard-won, through trial and error, but we are beginning to see the benefits from our time and effort. We have started this new academic year stronger than ever before, not just because we have more schools or students, but with the strongest, most talented and most unified team since our formation. Our hypergrowth is not over nor is our learning, but by putting the development of talent at the heart of our work at Apps for Good, we feel well placed to face the next set of challenges.

Debbie Forster, UK Managing Director, Apps for Good