Startup Lesson: Defining Team Roles

In my earlier startup lesson posts, I wrote about team diversity and team chemistry. In this startup lesson, I am going to focus on another important team concept for startups – roles. Assigning roles can be uncomfortable, especially during the early stages of a startup. However, it’s important to make sure people know and understand what’s expected of them, as well as who is in charge. While it would appear this lesson applies only to startups with multiple founders, it is just as important for those with a single founder. As a lone founder, it’s absolutely critical that roles are defined as the company and team grows.

When starting a company or growing the team, everyone’s roles need to be defined up front. In addition, everyone needs to accept their role and be comfortable with the position everyone else has. If a member of the team isn’t comfortable with who the CEO is, then they shouldn’t join or be in the company. Likewise, if someone is selected to run engineering, or any other department, the rest of the team, and especially the CEO, cannot constantly second guess the decision. If there are constant questions about why a person has been selected for a specific role, then the wrong person has been chosen and must be replaced.

I’m not recommending that discussions and debates shouldn’t be had about important topics. What I’m saying is that the final decision for a course of action needs to lie with the person who has been made responsible for that role. While it is great to work towards consensus on decisions, consensus doesn’t always happen. There will be instances when the team will deadlock. When that happens, and it will, it needs to be clear to everyone on the team who is responsible to make the final decision and choose the ultimate course of action.

Defining roles and responsibilities up front also requires trust among team members, and will build it over time. If team members don’t trust each other to perform the tasks and responsibilities of their roles, then the team is destined to fail. I’m not suggesting that the team avoid discussing the direction, goals and strategy for different areas of the company, or the company as a whole. Nor am I suggesting that team members avoid seeking guidance or input from other members of the team. My advice is that once goals, directions, and tasks have been assigned to a team member, then that individual needs to be trusted to get the job done.

My initial startup lessons have focused on the team, which is not an accident. In my opinion, the founding team is the most important part of any company starting out. A company can survive a bad product idea, but it rarely, if ever, survives a poor team. A good, high performing team can identify issues with their product or service, adjust (or pivot if you like that term better), and turn it into something great. When a great idea survives a poorly formed team, it often does so while the team is being adjusted, or after is has been done.

Bottom line, the team and its ability to operate at peak performance is the most important of the startup, even more important than the idea. It requires a diversity of talents, good chemistry and clearly defined roles. In my next lesson, I’ll talk about the importance of the location of the team, and why remotely formed teams are the exception and not the rule.


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