To say that Molly Graham has experience scaling hypergrowth companies would be an understatement. Her decade-long career spans stints at Google, Facebook, Quip and, most recently, the Chan Zuckerberg initiative.
At each of these organizations, Graham was exposed to unprecedented growth. First in Google’s comms department where she saw the team grow from 25 to 125 people in just nine months. Then at Facebook where she worked in HR on employment branding and culture and later on the mobile team. There she saw the organization grow from a few hundred to a few thousand employees while the platform itself scaled to serve 1.1 billion users. After Facebook, Graham helped grow Quip from pre-launch to a $750 million acquisition by Salesforce.com. And most recently, she served as VP Operations at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, where the organization grew from 30 to 250 employees in the span of a year.
In short, Graham has seen a few things. And now she’s focused on helping other companies scale – and scale well. But for her, success starts at the individual level. She notes that it takes a special type of person to join a hypergrowth company and stick with it through scale. But it’s well worth it. In fact, it’s the best kind of career opportunity you could have.
The Best Kind of Opportunity
“Provided you’re good at your job, you get these opportunities to do things that nobody should reasonably give you the opportunity to do,” says Graham. “I had it over and over again at Facebook, just because I was useful in whatever I was doing, and then somebody would say “Hey, do you want to come do this other thing?”
And for Graham the answer to that question should always be ‘Yes’.
She recognizes how hypergrowth played a role in her own career trajectory. “Going from HR to mobile is not a normal career path,” says Graham of her time at Facebook.
And she’s had this same experience many times over.
“The thing to be conscious of if you’re thinking about joining a scaling company is that it’s really hard. It’s really emotional, and it’s very intense, and it’s very much having to figure out a lot for yourself.”
And that’s true no matter how senior you are.
Of course, the more times you’ve been through a hypergrowth company, the easier it gets, but Graham warns it’s always a challenge. “Everything’s happening quite quickly, and you have to grow with the company. So you have to have a growth mindset, and you frequently have to be pretty independent. There isn’t a huge amount of time to develop people and teach them things. You have to be a self-learner and a self-motivator.”
And it’s not just challenging to be an individual contributor at a hypergrowth company. Graham warns that managing people is its own unique challenge.
“If you’ve managed in a big company, you know how to divide your time and you know how to manage managers of managers and things like that. The thing that makes hypergrowth companies unique is change. Depending on how fast you’re growing, it could look like a very different company every three months, every six months, every year. And that’s not something that a lot of people have experience with.”
Graham says that to be a successful people manager at a hypergrowth company, you have to be able to both manage your own emotions, and also help your team through the emotions of working day in day out at a rapidly changing organization.
“Help your direct reports predict the ways they’re going to feel when things change or as they grow, and anticipate that and move through it.”
Setting clear expectations is also extremely valuable. Which might sound obvious, but can be challenging when things move so quickly. You need to get really good at clearly communicating what you want from your team when you know what you need may change in a few days or weeks.
“There’s a lot you can’t control as a manger inside a scaling company. You need to be clear about those things,” says Graham.
But for what you can control, make expectations for given projects and team members as clear as possible. “You can tell your team, ‘Look, we have a lot to do this year. I need all of you to step up, and I’m going to tell you what I need, and you get to come to me when you need help. I can’t spend a lot of time with you directing everything you do, holding your hand through stuff, but I will be here if you need me.’”
And lastly, Graham advises people managers to get very good at communicating. “One of the hardest things about managing in scaling companies is that so much of the team is new all the time. If you’re growing 100% a year, half the team is new.”
For Graham, this means that continually updating the team on the background of a certain task or project is key. “You’ll know you’re doing a good job when you start sounding like a broken record. But if people understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, they’re just that much more motivated to get it done.”
Managing Your Energy
But it’s not just setting expectations or communicating clearly – part of what makes working at a hypergrowth company challenging and managing teams at one of these companies harder still is the breakneck pace.
“Everyone has a lot of trouble with pace and high growth because there’s the expectation that it will end. You think if you can just do this or get through this period, the next month or year will be easier.”
But working long-term at a hypergrowth company is like running a marathon followed by an Iron Man followed by another marathon, half marathon and long swim.
Sounds fun, right?!
It definitely can be, but for Graham, it’s all about anticipation.
“You have to anticipate that it’s not going to slow down. So the real trick is how you manage your energy through that. If you work as if every day is the most important day and you have to max out that day, you will burn out in two years.”
Graham notes this happened to her at Facebook where she maxed out in three years.
“I burned myself out. And at some point during that experience, actually, my manager, who was a wonderful guy, said ‘You’re operating as if, when we get to this launch, it’s the end.’ Instead, he said, ‘It’s the beginning.’”
And that was an important lesson for Graham.
Her manager went on to say, “Your energy needs to acknowledge that, and you need to find a way to get some back so that you can actually make it past this launch.”
That was a really important lesson. After all, there are only so many hours in a day.
“It’s about choices. I always say you can hire more people, you can always add more people to a team, you can always be busy. So the question is what you do with the time and how you prioritize so that you are actually making choices about what you spend time on, about the people you hire, and what’s most important to the company. Because at the end of the day, you can absolutely come to one of these companies and just do it for a year or two, but the fun actually happens when you get to go along for a longer part of the ride and get to see what gets built.”
Hiring for Hypergrowth
So if you are building your team, how do you hire effectively?
Graham acknowledges that hiring is really complicated, no matter what type of company or what stage of growth you’re hiring for.
“At the end of the day, anyone who tells you they’re really good at hiring generally has maybe a 75% average. But it’s hard to do it really well, particularly when you’re hiring quickly. And so first of all, be realistic. Second of all, you need to get comfortable with the fact that you will need to fire some people.”
Graham is an especially big believer in the concept of repellent job descriptions. What does she mean? Well, a repellent job description sets very clear expectations throughout the hiring process of what it’s really like to work at a hypergrowth company.
“It’s okay to say ‘Hey, this place is very emotionally intense,’ and there’s a general sort of sustained intensity that people have to be ready for. And similarly, that it’s a sink-or-swim environment.”
And it’s okay to be honest – it saves time and heartache on both sides.
Repellent job descriptions are effective because they encourage people to self-select out. This narrows your talent pool to those who think they’re suited to working at a hypergrowth company – and that’s half the battle.
About a quarter of the time, a hire just isn’t going to work out. And that can be for myriad reasons, but the trick is to be consistent with how you part ways with departing employees and how you communicate to those who remain that staff turnover is normal and expected.
“When the first set of people leave from a scaling company, it feels like the world is ending,” says Graham. “But as a manager, you have to let your people know it’s totally fine. People are going to leave for lots of different reasons, including other opportunities and it’s important to support them.”
But sometimes it’s just not a fit. So what do you do then? First and foremost, respect the departing employee’s privacy and again, communicate to your team that turnover is normal. You might have to reassure team members who are just out of college or who haven’t gone through a hypergrowth company.
But it’s all part of the process of working at a hypergrowth company.