A Big Tree Has Roots That Spread: Why our best people can slow growth in small companies

We see this problem frequently with early stage sales departments in startups.

Hire one is a salesperson who works independently and gets the job done.

She’s a go-getter and joined the startup because she wanted more freedom. As the CEO, you’re thrilled because she requires little oversight and helps give product feedback when asked.  It seems like a great fit, and sometimes it can be if your goal is a sales team of five.

But if your goal is to grow in any department, past this small team number, this person can potentially hurt your growth rather than help it. (This can occur in sales, operations, engineering, editorial, etc.)

The problem is often exacerbated by a sense of seniority. These first hires have been with you for a while — they’re doing well, and they’ve likely developed close ties with other first hires at the company.

Here are two potential issues with the superstar first hires:

1. He’s resistant to leadership and those with skillsets that are different than his own, and pushes back on more hires within his department. 

2. She continues to focus on obtaining more accounts instead of working her current book of business.

This can all be avoided with a few difficult conversations early on. You must focus on setting your organization up thoughtfully from the start to avoid dealing with these issues down the line.

Here is what I suggest you do with your first to third hires in any department to short circuit this process.

1. Have a pre-hire conversation about the growth plans for the company. Make it clear that this person will be an important piece, but not the only piece of the puzzle.  They will have a boss and colleagues who will help to grow the organization.

This is a conversation you should have with team members, not only pre-hire, but frequently before and during any expansive growth phase. People need to feel comfortable with change, and opening a dialogue on future growth from the start will enable smoother transitions.

2. Focus on how you distribute accounts early on.

Many companies give their first 1-3 salespeople all of the Fortune 500, or their equivalent of the top 20% of all accounts.

Again, this doesn’t sound like a bad idea when these people are working the top opportunities for the business. However, the potential downside is two-fold as you’re attempting to grow.

First off, this set-up will motivate them to work a wide group of accounts rather than diving deeper on fewer opportunities. A salesperson with 500 accounts will likely give up easier on one than a salesperson with 200.

Additionally, when you try to scale the organization, these people will have the top opportunities in their name and they’ll likely be reluctant to give them up. This is a sneaky conflict that many companies don’t catch until it’s too late. It may seem like there are still thousands of possible prospects not being worked, enabling you to easily hire 4-6 more people, but you miss the fact that most of the prime real estate is in your first few reps’ names as they’re “still working the accounts.”

Think of a wide open field. There are only a few trees growing in this field, with plenty of space in between.  From a bird’s eye view, you see plenty of real estate left unclaimed, but below the surface it’s a different story. The trees’ roots have already spread and crowded the room to grow.  They are in everything that is fertile, leaving only less desirable land to the new hires.

Communicating your goals early on is crucial in minimizing this struggle with growth.  You need a process that encourages reps to stick with prospects and to take accounts out of their name if they are not being worked.  Setting this expectation at the offset eliminates many difficult conversations when the team is expanding down the road.

Set up this structure early on. Ensure that everyone understands the process of scaling, and feels comfortable with their role in that process. This will foster a happy, thriving team that is open to growth.

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