Out today: Scaling People by Claire Hughes Johnson
The tactical guide to building a company and setting it and its people up for success
I used to think that pretty much all important knowledge was captured in some book somewhere. Over the years, I’ve come to believe this less. It’s often the case that important wisdom in some domain exists in the minds of only a small number of people. Writing a book is a lot of work, and I think it’s frequently true that no practitioner has gone to the trouble of getting it all down on paper.
I’ve worked with Claire for 9 years, a period which spans most of Stripe’s history to date. Claire has been at the center of two high-growth Silicon Valley companies (Google from 2004 to 2014; Stripe from 2014 until now), and has overseen everything from software to sales to self-driving cars. For almost a decade, I’ve tackled Stripe’s ups and downs—and there have been many of both—with Claire.
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Rapidly-growing human organizations are rare (especially once one passes Dunbar’s Number), and little in life prepares you for the experience. At the same time, the accelerating adoption curves of new technologies and the frictionless ease of internet distribution mean that more startups than ever before are facing these challenges.
What I’ve learned from Claire is that it’s possible to tackle these complexities of organizational scale well or poorly, and that success here plays a large role in determining whether a company has a shot at being a Facebook or runs aground as a Friendster. There are few people better-qualified to describe how to effectively navigate these shoals than her.
— Patrick Collison, Cofounder and CEO of Stripe.
Q&A with Claire Hughes Johnson
In this edited and condensed interview with Stripe Press commissioning editor Tamara Winter, Claire shares why she wrote Scaling People and what defines great leadership and management.
Why focus on the people and organizational elements of scaling a company?
If you're lucky enough to have built a company where you have product-market fit and you’re getting traction, you’ve been spending all this time on the product and your customers. Then all of a sudden you need to have that same focus on your organization and building your company, and it’s really hard to get that started. You have to construct the systems and frameworks to operate within *and* do the work of leadership and management. The book is about those systems, structures, and operating cadences and about what great people management looks like. Some of the systems are more broad, like founding documents, values, goals, and company planning processes. And some of them are very specific: How do you run the cadence of your week, your month, your quarter? How do you develop your team and provide valuable feedback? How do other companies do those things?
Building these structures helps you operate more effectively, especially if those structures replicate from the company level down to different organizations or divisions, down to the team level. But it’s also critical for building consistency and stability and trust, and for starting to set cultural practices. Those value systems really matter. What is often implicit needs to be made explicit: How do we want to work together? What is expected of us in this system we’re building? That will build a much stronger cultural foundation for your future scale.
What makes a great leader? Do you think leadership can be learned?
I do think leadership can be learned. Management definitely can be learned. That said, a lot of management is hard to learn because it happens behind closed doors. You’re not in someone else’s 1:1s or in their performance reviews. The book tries to demystify those hidden practices.
Leadership is a little bit different. Management is a lot about predictability and stability. Managers scope out work and systems, match people to the right work, care for and develop those about individuals, set the goals and monitor the work toward results. Leadership is about culture, setting vision, pushing ambition—and, frankly, sometimes making people uncomfortable. To be a really effective leader, you have to push people and ask them to do things they don’t think they can do. That wasn’t a natural ability of mine. I had to practice that.
What are some archetypes of great leaders you’ve known? What is it that made these people great leaders?
There’s this framework from Frances Frei, a professor at Harvard Business School, which she modeled on some ancient Roman texts. It’s this concept of high standards combined with deep devotion. If you can achieve those two things, that is the sweet spot of really effective leadership. What I’d like to believe is we can all get to the place where we have that optimal mix of high standards and deep devotion.
When I think of leaders who do that, I think of an offsite meeting in New York City with a leader at Google at the time. The team had this really productive day going over their results and their plans and their numbers, and at the end of the day, this leader said something that shocked me. He said, “Look, I’m here for all of you. If any of you are ever thinking of leaving or want some advice about taking a role somewhere else, I hope you’ll call me. I hope you know I’ll have your back, whatever you decide.”
I was shocked. But I actually think what was happening was his version of devotion—devotion to individuals and what they needed, aside from his plans and what the company needed. That’s a hard line to walk. You really do have to be on both sides of that. But it helped me see that you can be there for the individual and the institution.
Why did you write Scaling People?
Scaling People is all about its subtitle: tactics for management and company building. I wrote it in large part because John and Patrick Collison encouraged me to write it. As they were building Stripe, they felt like there just wasn’t a book about company building and management that was tactical enough and specific enough. When I joined Stripe, all three of us were talking to our customers, many of whom also happened to be high-growth tech companies and founders, and we found that they all wanted to discuss the same topics, like how do you do company planning? Hire executives? Run your leadership team meeting?. The book provides specific advice and examples in service of building a sustainable and healthy company and becoming a better manager, both of which I’ve been working on my whole life.
Read more from this interview with Claire in the Operator Collective newsletter, out today.
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