Don’t Roll Your Sleeves Up Too Far

“I’ll Do Whatever it Takes”

I’ve never been a “not my job” kind of person, whether I was a front-line technical services professional at Oracle or a VP at a billion dollar software company like Business Objects. If the team had a job to do, and if I needed to stretch outside of my basic job description to help get the job done, I’d gladly do it. Moreover, I truly felt that I was  modeling the business culture that I wanted my team to embrace and “leading by example.” It’s only in hindsight that I’ve become aware of the pitfalls and downside of that attitude, and how it could hurt me, my team, and even the company.

I was a VP of Marketing at a startup company. It was the day before a big trade show and we were inside a large convention hall setting up our booth. I had decided to run the event with minimal staff. That meant that there was only one other person from my team there to set up the booth. Not only would it take much longer with one person, but there were some sections that were physically impossible for one person to assemble. So I did what I thought any team-player and startup person would do. I spent hours helping to screw pieces together, hang graphics, arrange collateral, test demo stations, and more.

The new VP of Sales (we’ll call him “Rich”), who had spent most of his career in very large organizations, came by during the setup because he wanted to talk to me about an important partner meeting that we were tag-teaming later that week at the show. Rich and I got our game-plan together and outlined exactly what each of us would do to impress the partner and make them excited to do business with us. As we parted after our meeting, Rich said “Well, you probably have to get back and vacuum the carpet in the booth.” I thought it was a good-natured joke about how I was really “rolling my sleeves up.” It wasn’t. In hindsight, he was clearly concerned and maybe even annoyed that hisexecutive wingman for the big partner meeting was also the guy with an allen wrench assembling the booth. In my mind, I was being a team player. In Rich’s mind, I didn’t know my role and had chosen to apply myself to low-value, manual tasks rather than strategic opportunities. He probably wondered why we hadn’t chosen an “executive” to be our marketing leader.

Consider Your “Stage” Presence

We’ve written about company stages and stage-relevant skills before. As your company grows and evolves, the way you execute your job and even the image and tone that you project must change.

Early-stage startups are often wary of “big company” executives coming in. They’re afraid that a new executive will join who’s no longer capable of doing real work, and instead just wants to build out a team, hire an admin, and set priorities and direction without helping on execution. When my startup was only 15 people in total, I often didn’t have any options when it came to handling mundane or administrative tasks here and there. To me, it didn’t matter that in my prior job at 4,000-person company, I had a global team of 35 and an admin. The work had to get done.

As we got more traction and our growth accelerated, we got into bigger deals, bigger customers, and bigger partnerships. We got on the radar of our competitors because they saw us as a potential disruptor in a very large market. The culture generally remained team-oriented, fun, and aggressive without being self-important or self-serious and I loved it. By the time the Rich came in, we were significantly larger and still scaling the business. In that world, executives didn’t set up booths.

My failure to recognize that perspective (which was also likely shared by other new-hires who came from larger companies) created unnecessary obstacles . In one sense, it’s as if some ideas or initiatives that came out of my team were viewed through one of two lenses 1) a good idea from a strategic, experienced marketing executive and industry veteran, or 2) a questionable idea from a “grunt” who puts booths together. That made me less effective, created some headaches for my team, and was a (minor, but meaningful) negative for the company.

Here are some suggestions to avoid typecasting yourself in a “small company” role as your organization grows and transitions to the next stage:

  • Recognize and embrace organizational change – Once successful, your company will grow and the personalities and attitudes will evolve. This is true for mid-sized companies growing from 1,000 employees to 5,000 as well as early stage startups growing from 10 to 100. Rather than trying to preserve the status quo in terms of culture, approach, and how you perform your job, recognize this change and push yourself to evolve ahead of the curve, not behind it.
  • Play your position –It’s an old marketing joke that you can’t market the same product simultaneously as a floor-wax and a tooth-polish. It’s true for people as well. Earlier in my career, I was a featured speaker at a breakfast seminar. One of the field marketing managers no-showed, so I volunteered to help hand out name tags. That’s when the lone marketing manager said “For this event to be a success, I need everyone here to see you as a subject matter expert when you’re on stage. If they see you first as the guy handing out name tags, they won’t be able to accept you as a thought leader when you’re up there presenting. So do me a favor and don’t help with registration.” It made perfect sense then but I should have internalized it in a big-picture way rather than as an isolated event.
  • Do what’s best for the company with a long-term view – If you’re like me, you feel snobby, self-important, and egotistical when you don’t pitch in to help. But a short-term decision to “help out” can create long-term challenges. It’s not worth creating doubt or potential instability for your team just to fix a minor emergency. Look for other ways to fill in the gaps. In my case, I easily could have spent a few hundred dollars of my budget to get a contractor to help set up the booth, or even pulled in another employee. If I had found another creative solution, it would have resulted in better outcomes not just for me but for my team and for the company.

How have you adjusted your approach as a leader in a high-growth company environment? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.


Written by

The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

Comments are closed.