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Two Types of Team Building: Up & Down
How you grow teams is a large part of your leadership style. Here are a few options to choose from.
At the very beginning, teams start with one person. Eventually, that person gains a teammate, and then another and soon the team is really a team. How your teams grow, and how you design that growth, is one of the most important decisions you make as a leader. It sets the foundation of how your entire company will work when it is hundreds of people.
You have a lot of different options when growing your teams, but I’ll summarize them into two basic categories: Top-Down and Bottom-Up.
In Bottom-Up team building, you hire a group of individual contributors first and then hire a leader later after the team is at a reasonable size. For example, you might hire a team of account executives and later hire a sales leader when the team has 5-6 people.
In Top-Down team building, you hire the leader first and then hire the individual contributors to work for them over time. Since the leader is the first person on the team you need someone who has leadership skills and experience but is willing to do the job themselves. For example, you might hire a sales leader who has run large sales teams but is willing to go back to selling themselves at first.
Both are valid and useful approaches to team building with obvious trade offs. The most important difference in the two approaches is whether you want to grow faster right now, or grow faster in the future. It’s much easier and faster to hire individual contributors, so a Bottom-Up approach will produce much faster results. However, when you need to bring a leader in later there is a strong chance for disruption as the leader will have different ideas and the team might struggle to adapt. Someone always leaves when a new leader comes in, it’s unavoidable. As a result, you will grow slower in the future as you adjust to the new leadership and make changes among the individual contributors.
In contrast, it takes much longer to find a leader who is willing to do the job themself at the beginning. Leaders have worked hard to reach their level, and it requires a special kind of humility to go back to doing the job again. However, there are plenty of these people and once you find one it means you can grow the team quickly underneath them without the need for leadership disruption. Additionally, since they did the job themself they know exactly the kinds of people they need to hire for their team and they carry the respect of the larger team since they learned the hard lessons the hard way.
I have always used the Top-Down approach when team building, as I always want the rate of growth to be increasing over the life of my companies. However, Bottom-Up is much more common since it’s easier to learn and you can more quickly identify if something is not working. There are no right answers here, you should choose the style that you are most comfortable with.