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With an impressive resume encompassing product experience and design, organizational design, and product management, Tatyana Mamut’s diverse experience includes managing and executing transformational projects at companies like Salesforce, IDEO and Amazon Web Services.

I was excited to talk to Tatyana about what it takes to be a leader in a fast-growing environment, a topic she knows a ‘little’ something about. In her current role as General Manager and Director at Amazon Web Services, she is focused on a still-under-wraps groundbreaking project that has grown very quickly.

To that end, she has been instrumental in scaling a new product and team. “The VP and I grew this team from two about a year ago, to now 126 people,” she explains. “So we had to build a team extremely quickly, and at the same time we were building a product, talking to initial customers, figuring out the user experience and building all the engineering framework.”

Here are her thoughts on startup leadership, organizational design, and leading in a fast-growing environment.

From Visionary Generalist to True Leader

You can’t talk about fast-growing environments without talking about startups. The environment and challenges founders face have always intrigued me. As I know all too well, in the early days, founders are very hands-on, getting involved in every aspect of the organization. Tatyana describes leaders at this stage as “visionary generalists” – a term that I love, by the way – who are driving everything forward, from product and organizational design, to hiring and finding the first customers.

In that first stage of building an organization, “the founder can pretty much manage a bunch of generalists rolling up their sleeves and making whatever they need to happen, happen together,” she says. “And that works really well to get things started.”

However, that leadership approach isn’t feasible or scalable as the company grows. When a startup reaches around 30 employees, Tatyana believes, the founder begins to be pulled in too many different directions to be truly effective in any one of them. That’s the turning point where it becomes essential for founders to prioritize their responsibilities and involvement if they want to keep moving forward.  

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It’s challenging, she explains, because most founders want to continue to roll up their sleeves and be in the trenches with product, hiring, and the day-to-day management. But that’s where founders need to break away from trying to do it all, and become the leaders their companies need them to be. “I think leaders need to start realizing what the mechanisms are to start to build executive leverage and leadership leverage, as opposed to doing everything themselves and continuing to be generalists,” she explains.

The Two Critical Leadership Qualities When Scaling a Startup

With so much founder and startup advice out there, I wanted to get Tatyana’s specific feedback on where a startup leader should focus their efforts.

Tatyana believes that as organizations find initial success and start to scale (again, that’s generally around the 30-employee mark), leaders must be laser-focused on only two responsibilities. “The first is to have a clear vision of the future and the product direction, and to tell really compelling stories about that product direction,” she says. “The second job is to create and build the culture through organizational mechanisms that are repeatable and scalable, and consistent across the organization, so they’re not constantly fighting fires.”

Storytelling is critical as an organization scales so that everyone understands future goals and their role in achieving those goals. “It’s number one because that is really the foundational piece of the leader’s job,” Tatyana explains. “There is nothing that can take the place of that storytelling from the leader in a healthy organization.”

The second piece is to really understand what kind of culture you want, Tatyana says. The “flat non-hierarchical structure” beloved by Silicon Valley isn’t scalable, making the implementation of organizational systems and standards a crucial responsibility for founders as the startup grows.

Organizational Design Around Defined Leadership Principles

One of the most intriguing parts of the conversation for me was when we began to discuss leadership principles. “It’s important for leaders to establish principles for the types of people that they’re bringing in – how do people get promoted? What kinds of behavior are people going to get rewarded for?” Tatyana says.

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Amazon has 14 defined leadership principles which shape everything from how people are interviewed, to how employees are evaluated, and the criteria upon which they’re promoted.

In Tatyana’s opinion, that directly connects to the two critical founder responsibilities we talked about above. “The CEO must develop those leadership principles, and then the stories reinforce the principles and the principles show up in systems – the hiring systems, the promotion systems and the skills of the people that are hired and promoted,” she says.

I wondered what happens when a founder espouses specific principles but they don’t permeate throughout the organization. Tatyana agrees organizational design should be a top priority for leaders. “Many organizations and founders have values or principles, but they exist on a PowerPoint slide deck rather than filtering down through the organization, people and systems,” she says.

It makes sense; as an organization grows, the founder can’t be involved in every interview, meeting or decision. So there must be a mechanism through which the founder’s values and principles are embodied throughout the company. That’s where organizational design should come into play. “Many entrepreneurs have a hard time making the jump from focusing just on designing the product, to really focusing on designing the organization,” Tatyana says. “However, organizational design is actually more important than their product design.”

Even though organizational design and culture tend to be blind spots for startup leaders, there’s mounting research that these are really critical factors in the success or failure of an organization. But by having a clear vision of the future, telling compelling stories, and understanding, communicating and building your culture the right way, there’s no reason you can’t grow and scale your company to success.​

Interested in learning more about Tatyana and her experience with startups, leadership and more? Connect with her on LinkedIn, and don’t hesitate to leave a question or comment below:

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