The role of the core in making an organization great and how we do right by them
By Ankit Mahadevia, CEO of Spero Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
Small organizations are amazing for the impact they can have relative to their size.
While it’s true that the quality of the Board and C-suite separate good organizations from great ones (see my previous post here), it is equally important to focus on the core – the talented, hardworking, dedicated leaders of key functions (for example Head of Manufacturing, or Head of Marketing), as they make or break how a company delivers and whether its culture is great or just good enough. These core team members aren’t defined by title, so much as whether they are leading key functions for the company, leading or influencing others, and doing so under the guidance of senior leaders in the company.
Why does building a great core matter so much to an organization?
- Transform strategy into reality – while the Board and C-suite set vision, present the vision externally, and make commitments to stakeholders, whether a company can meet these objectives depends greatly on core employees with functional expertise to deliver in collaboration with each other. Further, core team members often see opportunities and challenges before anyone else; their ability to understand them, communicate them, and pivot drives an organization’s resilience.
- The cultural heart of the organization – core employees are uniquely positioned to impact culture since they often have direct reports and report to senior leaders on the team. Therefore, core employees create culture in multiple directions through their interactions, can be extremely effective ambassadors for the company as they interact with external collaborators and prospective employees.
- Key to scaling – a C-team only has so much capacity. The more entrepreneurial, strategic, and resilient a company’s core, the more likely that a company can take on new strategic initiatives and rise to the increasing level of complexity that a growing organization demands. We note that as a company scales, C-team’s typically don’t and can’t scale proportionately – the core is key in driving a smooth expansion.
Core employees have arguably the most difficult jobs in a growing company. They are counted on to deliver ambitious goals with (often) limited resources and (sometimes) less real time access to information. Great core team members are masters of their specific domain, have the emotional intelligence to navigate organizational currents and interpret them for their colleagues, and the strategic sense to bring what they’re seeing to shape a company’s plans. They make their managers, their subordinates, and by extension the entire organization look good.
How to build the right core of rising leaders?
Given their crucial importance, what has worked for us in building a fantastic core? More basic levers like fair pay, competitive benefits, and appropriate titles are a given; build a strong core of contributors requires a far deeper view into a company’s core operational philosophy.
- Hiring great senior leaders as a first step –– great core team members gravitate to great leaders that inspire them, empower them, and give them to latitude to own decisions, grow, and do their jobs. In this environment, great core team members have many choices; they will not stay long if their managers aren’t up to the task.
- Place them in “the room where it happens” when possible– core team members are with you because they believe in the mission and want to have an impact. They are closest to the data required for decisions – involving them real time yields better decisions. For example, at Spero, we delegate decisions wherever possible to program teams led by the core. When the investment size or strategic impact require senior level input, many within the core are part of a Strategic Leadership Team that has the responsibility to make a recommendation and be in the room to decide on operational priorities. Other members of our Core form a “Culture Club” where they can offer input and make decisions on People and Culture matters – such as instituting specific no meeting days and committing to unlimited paid time off.
- A systematic commitment to growth – core team members are often at a stage of their career where they aspire to more senior roles. Saying the words is not enough – a systematic investment in development is part of the learning environment that a core team needs. Better leadership among core employees is good for all team members, for the culture, and for a company’s overall ability to grow in the future.
- Optimize communication and decision making: Core team members are canaries in the coalmine when decision making processes aren’t optimal. As the core both has to interpret direction from the Board, the external world, senior management, and information from their reports to execute, the whiplash they can feel is dizzying when directives are conflicting or unclear. At Spero, when we are looking for feedback on how our executive team and company can run better, we listen very intently to our core team.
Our entire leadership team at Spero is tremendously grateful for the efforts of our core; they have enabled us to grow, deliver, and build an award winning culture as we navigate through a pandemic. We strive every day to do right by them as we work together to deliver on our mission.
My thanks to Spero’s own core team, including Nayiri Baljian, Troy Lister, and Melissa Stundick for comments and ideas on this article