By Ankit Mahadevia, CEO and Founder of Spero Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.
The opportunity for each member of a NewCo to take on multiple responsibilities selects early for people ready to help a startup get its footing. We were no exception at Spero, when we started off with a $400k seed investment a little more than 6 years ago. Funds were tight to hire a controller and we were weeks away from a go/no go data point, so I put on my green visor and volunteered (fortunately briefly!) to do the company’s accounting. Thankfully, the science advanced, we raised funds, and I was thrilled to give that responsibility up to a great team. Sometimes, though, the choice to give up a responsibility is not that easy.
On balance, it is a happy occasion as a startup scales. The higher operational complexity and additional available resource that come with it set up a key strategic choice: the often personally difficult decision to “give up legos” (credit goes to a fantastic article on the Facebook experience we circulate during key growth periods). In other words, a startup team must choose whether to give up some of their responsibilities to new, more specialized teammates as the tasks at hand multiply. “Giving up legos” does a great job of focusing on this transition from a team and culture perspective – we will examine why making this choice is so critical for the ability to scale.
The considerations for a business – when to reassort responsibilities
There are short term considerations when one chooses to reassign a function that drive when to reassign, as well as how it is communicated to the team. However, we’d make the case that if the goal is to scale for the long term, migrating responsibilities from generalists to specialists across the team is almost always the right call. This is a big ask, as talented people who are doing good work have to transition from breadth to depth, and from holding many of the cards in strategic discussions, to having to share them.
Benefits of migrating responsibility – why it’s important
The case for spreading out responsibilities maximizes the chance that your organization scales effectively.
Prioritization and execution – as companies grow, often responsibilities/ strategic areas of inquiry that were “sometimes” considerations are now “always” considerations. In our experience (and general intuition would suggest), priority functions work best if a person and team are focused on it as their top priority. For example, as tebipenem approached a registrational trial result, the “sometimes” considerations around how we deliver tebipenem to patients became an “always” consideration. We needed specialists who woke up and went to bed thinking about market access, marketing, and analytics, where before a single marketing expert gave us the direction we needed. Without that focus, things that are strategic for the business just can’t get done at the depth that’s needed – it’s not a question of talent, but of focus and the number of hours in a day.
Intellectual diversity– Independent of bandwidth, we have seen benefits when a new person takes on a key function in intellectual diversity. The new person has their own beliefs, networks (often more fit to the specialized task at hand), and are not yet shaped by existing institutional biases. Further, with the increased focus that a specialist brings, this function also gets more management airtime simply by being more on the front burner for that executive. If the function is truly of increased strategic importance, both the diversity of thought and increased visibility can be additive.
Slack capacity – the other often overlooked ingredient for successful scaling is the bandwidth to flex around emergent operational opportunities and challenges (the proverbial walking and chewing gum at the same time). A thoughtfully delegated set of responsibilities across a team means that the team has the bandwidth to run in new directions without burning itself out.
Considerations when re-assorting responsibilities to new members of a growing team
While the case for broadening who does what on a team is clear, the implementation of the strategy is nuanced. Some things to consider:
Retention / motivation – Creating narrower roles for your startup team may risk alienating key people who got you to this point. These team members may see taking on a narrower role as giving up career velocity, stature, or access and may be tempted to look for broader roles elsewhere. In today’s white hot market for biotech, this is a serious consideration as departures impact organizational effectiveness and culture especially on a small team.
Proactive, regular communication on why sharing responsibilities is important for the business and thoughtful planning to ensure roles continue to be rewarding are important ways to anticipate and manage the dynamic across the team. In many cases, roles with a narrower menu of responsibilities can be more meaty as functions scale with a company (for example, running clinical at Spero in 2016 meant managing one Phase I program; in 2021 it means over a dozen ongoing trials across stages). Further, a scaling organization inevitably has other “sometimes” functions (such as policy/advocacy) that emerge and can be added to roles (until the next scaling point). Finally, for key people, it’s important as a senior leadership team to continue to invest the same time with folks even if they have fewer legos – to set the tone that importance as a team member is uncorrelated with how many things you do for the business, and more with what you do overall and how well you do it.
Unnecessary complexity – If you reassort responsibilities too soon, you may be contributing to the siloing/complexity of the company without the corresponding return to the business. The key to avoiding this risk is being very thoughtful about what functions are truly strategic/full thickness and which are not – ultimately this is a cogent argument for when responsibilities need to migrate from generalists to specialists (but in our opinion not if they should over time). If not doing this function has limited impact on the probability of succeeding at annual or medium range goals, it’s probably not worth delegating (yet). Further, for those functions well served by a specialist, getting information sharing across functions systematized and right goes a long way at solving the risk for silos and unnecessary complexity across a larger team.
Talent mismatch – in today’s hot market for biotech, it may be that certain functions/people within a company have more horsepower than others, and this complicates the consideration of shifting an important task from a rockstar generalist to a specialist, especially if such a specialist is hard to find in this market. Again, the key is identifying which functions are truly strategic as your company scales and which are not. If a position is truly strategic, it is imperative for the scalability of an organization to find the right person for the role. The choice between it being a lower priority for a Rockstar or a higher priority for someone that’s not a fit for your team is not a choice your scaling company will want to make.
Ultimately, the challenge and nuance of giving up legos comes from a good place. People that care about the work they do, feel like owners of the business, and hold themselves to high standards for their work and career naturally will want to do as much as they can to help a business succeed. Also, leadership teams that have navigated the gauntlet from one inflection point to another may not want to tweak what has worked for them thus far in their operating model. However, by the time you realize you’re underpowered for a key function, it’s often too late. With some planning, foresight, and prioritization, there’s an opportunity to ensure that the key drivers that will get you to the next inflection point are led well for the future.
Special thanks to Spero’s Chief Legal Officer Tamara Joseph for her insights and contributions to this article