How to Think About Accepting a New Role at Your Startup: 5 Things to Consider Before Your Transition

Working at a tech startup can be exciting and unpredictable. Along with the risks we take to work in these companies, the upsides can be well worth it. One of the upsides of fast growing companies is the possibility of being promoted rapidly. I recently advised a client - let’s call her Jane - on how to evaluate a new opportunity within her company.

Jane was hired less than six months ago as a product manager. Very soon after about a month at her new job, she was asked to take on more responsibility, and have the design team report to her. While she was busy transitioning into that new role, her boss (the Chief Product Officer) asked her to take on all her management responsibility so she could focus on creating an important new product that could potentially make the startup an acquisition target.

Jane was incredibly excited at the prospect of being able to impact the business in such a meaningful way. When we spoke, we went through a framework for how to think about a transition like this. We evaluated the incredible career potential, and also talked about the risks of ascending up the ladder too quickly. After our conversation, I broke down the considerations into five distinct areas.

How much of the role is management vs. individual contributor?

In Jane’s case, the new role was almost completely management. We talked about her strengths, and whether or not she would enjoy managing a cross-functional team. So much of this work involves hiring, coaching, resource planning, etc. There is so little time to pursue one’s craft.

Jane was absolutely up to the task. A natural extravert, she loved working with others, and helping them to meet their goals. She was excited about developing her management and leadership skills even further, and individual contribution was not as important to her.

Are there clear opportunities to pick up new skills?

Within startups, any role has a larger breadth of responsibility than it might at a larger company. That’s what’s so exciting! When planning out a career, it’s important to think about where you would like to be 5 or 10 years out. Once you know that, you can work backwards and take on roles where you pick up the necessary skill set to achieve your goals.

Jane saw herself as a startup founder within the next five years. So far in her career, she had not had the opportunity to closely observe how the C Suite works, and how decisions are made. This opportunity would give her a chance to work directly with the CEO, CMO, CTO, and CFO. Her responsibilities would also include preparing the CEO for talking about the product roadmap at board meetings. This new skill set would be invaluable when she was ready to start her own company.

There are always risks in a high speed career trajectory. Jane worried that she would be inadvertently thrown into high stakes situations with little guidance or mentoring. We came up with strategies around how to mitigate that risk by carefully structuring a transition plan with her boss.

Is the scope of responsibility too broad?

Often the ambition to scale in a startup, combined with resource constraints create an environment where there are no specialists, and everyone has a broad scope of responsibilities. This is another reason to love startup life - the opportunity to impact the bottom line can be unlimited. But sometimes this broad scope is just too many diverse responsibilities for one person. For example, a highly analytical introvert might not be the right fit for a role that includes customer success. Managing outsourced teams on different continents that need feedback several times a day can cause sleep deprivation and be too physically taxing for one person.

In her new role, Jane had the opportunity to be responsible for product managers, and designers. It was the first time she had ever had non product people reporting to her, but we came up with a way for her to optimize her role as manager. She personally took on the responsibility of prioritizing her design team’s responsibilities, and made sure they had all the resources they needed to succeed. She hired an outside design leader as a mentor, and set up meetings for the designers to ask him technical design questions and receive feedback on their work. Using this two pronged approach, Jane was able to handle the broader scope of her new role.

Does the role help you reach your longer term career and life goals?

An opportunity for a promotion at work is always exciting. However, it’s also another stepping stone in your career, so it’s important to make sure that you will continue heading in the right direction if you take on the new job. Thinking about the right direction should also include your personal life. For example, if you are thinking about having a baby soon, that should play into your career decisions. One of my clients was considering a new role in NYC, but told me she declined the position because she wanted to be married in five years and NYC was a terrible town to find a partner. It’s so important to consider you career as well as your personal health and happiness while you make these important decisions.

Because Jane’s goal was to be a founder in the next five years, the decision was easy for her. If she structured this position well, it would be an important stepping stone to founding her own technology startup one day!

Are they offering the right title and compensation?

Compensation is always an important discussion, especially for women. In startups, these discussions can be particularly daunting because taking on new responsibility comes with the territory. Part of the bargain when joining a startup is that you will be a team player, and taking on exciting projects is always part of every startup job description. But sometimes you can find yourself in an entirely different job, with significantly more responsibility, with no increase in pay or title. It’s important to gauge when this is happening and address it. It’s always best for yourself and for the company for you to feel that you are being paid what you deserve.

Jane spent the better part of her free time over the next week talking to product managers who had a similar scope of responsibility to the role she was considering taking on. With data from a few different sources, she was able to negotiate an increase in salary and a title that accurately reflected her role.


Anica JohnComment