June 24, 2022

Spice up your life as a startup people manager

As a people manager you need to constantly prioritise and focus, and for the executive team at Dance that relies on asking "The Spice Girls question"

Julia Carloff-Winkelmann, chief people officer at Dance

If you’ve made it through the past two-and-a-half years as a people manager at a startup, give yourself a pat on the back. 

There’s constantly been new challenges — first, grappling with supporting teams remotely during Covid, and now managing hybrid setups as some staff return to the office. Most recently, managers are being tested by cautious investors and the possibility of a difficult fundraising environment ahead. 

So how can managers better prepare themselves and support their teams through times of change? From my experience, there are five key aspects that a people manager needs to bring to the table.


A people manager needs to understand and communicate the organisation’s vision

As a people manager it is your job to speak on behalf of the company. You need to understand and own the vision, mission and strategy. You need to see yourself as the employer, not the employee. It is crucial to stay informed and actively attend all forums relevant to your job by regularly checking all relevant communication channels, like Slack, and keeping your team informed. You can’t help your team understand key organisational decisions during times of change if you yourself aren’t on top of what’s going on. 

Delegation and enabling your team are your main job

As a people manager, you will have to deliver results through your team. Therefore, delegation and enabling your team are your main jobs. In times of change, delegation means being agile and staying even closer to your team. There will be more iterations, and more openness to feedback in both directions is necessary — from team to people manager and back.

👉 Read: How to find the right chief of staff

In order to enable, you need to support. And support is as individual as your team members are. Some of them prefer to brainstorm with you, others want to present results and get feedback. To get to that individual level of support, ask your team members the right questions: “What do you expect from me?” “How should I best approach you?” This includes managing people out when they don’t perform well.

Be fair, transparent and act fast when someone isn’t the right fit

If someone is not the right fit, you need to part ways. I personally don’t believe in performance improvement programs. In my experience you can bring performance just a little back on track but not sustainably. Instead, I recommend making fast clear cuts. If performance is low, your team member is either not in the right role or not in the right company. And that is fine. But you need to do something about it, because everyone involved in the process suffers. Be very fair, transparent and act fast.

“Find a solution” mentality

Your job as a people manager in a startup is to enjoy constant problem solving. And these days, people managers have to solve more problems than usual. If you’re agile and focused on finding solutions, challenges will seem like adventures to you and not, well, challenges.

👉 Read: Startup managers: the good, the bad and the ugly

Solving problems requires — even more importantly — to constantly prioritise and focus.  As an executive team, we get to that focus with what we call “The Spice Girls question”: Tell me what you want, what you really really want? Quarterly OKRs also give focus and transparency to goals. 

As a people manager, be human & take care of yourself

Though your team might be facing challenges, remember to take your own well-being into consideration. Be open about your personal struggles and know that it is absolutely okay to show vulnerability. You don’t need to pretend to have all the answers — quite the contrary. Lead by example and reach out to others for support. This is something I can strongly recommend in good and tough times: seek support from your peers or current or former managers. Talk to other managers in your network and find out how they are coping. 

Truly great managers possess both compassion and empathy in spades — whether they come by that naturally or develop these skills. Those capabilities are essential during difficult times like these. And despite the uncertainty, you can give employees the certainty that they can always expect transparency, support and care from you as a manager. 

Julia Carloff-Winkelmann is chief people officer at Dance.