How to Be a Successful Leader at a Scale-Up

Posted on October 17, 2020

In this episode of the GrowthTLDR, we talk about what great leaders at scale-ups excel in.

We discuss the importance of both hiring and retaining talent, including tips from people who’ve built great teams.

We talk about team design and how great leaders use it as a growth lever.

And finally, we talk about forecasting and why it’s pivotal great leaders can build great plans.


In the past year, I’ve spoken to several people who’re progressing to marketing and growth leadership roles at scale-ups where they’ll be managing large groups. I’ve tried to pass on some of the things I’ve learned from my time at HubSpot.

I categorized that advice into the following areas:

1. The number one job of a leader is to hire and retain talent

As an individual contributor, much of your success is dependent on how you perform; as a marketing or growth leader, most of your success is dependent on how your team performs.

You’ll also be hiring more senior members of the team, directors, and VPs, so the risk to reward ratio gets a lot higher.  

How good of a leader you are will be determined by how strong the leaders you hire onto your team are.

As Steve Jobs said – “The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world.

Here are some tips on hiring and retaining talent:

a. Have a ‘dream’ hire list

You should always have a list of people you’d love to hire. If someone writes an article that impresses you, talks some knowledge on a podcast, blows you away with their talk at a conference, and so on, add that person to a list of people you’d love to hire one day.

b. Keep your quality bar high

If you’re in a fast-growth company, hiring quick enough is often your biggest blocker to success. It’s tempting to take more risk on people you’re not entirely convinced by to fill your bench.

It’s always a bad idea. You’ll likely always regret those hires; it’s painful for both parties, and unwinding those decisions impacts the entire team.

c. Flexible work environment

The people you want to hire aren’t always able to be based where you have an office and might enjoy having flexibility in the location they work.

A study published by Stanford University on remote work showed that “job attrition rates fell by over 50%”, and another study showed that 68% of job seekers who are millennials said the option to work remotely would significantly increase their interest in specific employers.

Providing the option to work remotely is often the best hiring and retention tool a company has.

2. Team structure will have more impact than any tactic or hack

We’ve talked a lot about team structure on the GrowthTLDR, from discussing what ‘growth’ is with Elena Verna to pods with Oji Udezue.

If a leader’s top priority is hiring and retaining talent, organizing those people into the right team structure is just as important.

It’s that structure that will significantly impact how successful those people are against the goals and metrics you prioritize.

Some tips on team structure:

a. Don’t peanut butter

Leadership is saying ‘no’ to things.

You need to make tough choices on where you’ll invest your precious time and resources. 

There will always be a finite amount of resources in every company to work on an infinite number of opportunities.

A great leader is someone willing to bet on the things that will be most impactful to the companies success instead of trying to do a little bit of everything.

b. Great teams want to be accountable

In my experience with scale-ups, it’s hard to have a clear DRI for specific metrics at a certain point. 

You need multiple people and teams to work together to move the needle on specific metrics.

As much as possible, you want to create a team structure where teams can be accountable for their goals and metrics. Teams should be able to have control over their success without being reliant on others for favors.

c. Re-org around most critical priorities

It’s clear from talking to the best leaders in marketing and growth, re-orgs are a growth lever and shouldn’t be seen as a burden to overcome.

Here is a great tweet from former guest @Lenny Rachitsky on the subject

The fluidity of your team structures should be aligned with your company size. It wouldn’t make sense for a large group to be doing a re-org every 3 to 6 months. 

But team structures shouldn’t be set in stone. They should be aligned to your most significant opportunities for growth.

The best leaders are curious about team design and continue to look for more effective ways to organize their teams across those opportunities.

3. Forecasting

Lastly, great leaders have great models for forecasting. We talked about forecasting a recent episode with Holly Chen, former head of growth marketing at Slack.

The balance for leaders to strike is how prescriptive to be with their team.

You want the team to have some autonomy to set their goals and define their playbooks. But you also need to give enough content that those plans are aligned to the mission and vision you want to set for the coming year.

On the podcast, we talked about this under the following steps:

a. Providing top-down context

Teams need some context. They need to know how they’ll impact the companies success for the coming year.

Leaders should be providing a mission, vision, overarching goal (going from point a to b, and the strategic pillars they feel are essential to get there).

b. Bottoms up proposals

Once done, teams can submit memos that include their key recommendations for each strategic pillar, their goals for that pillar, the resources they need, and any partnerships with other teams they need to establish to be successful.

c. Solving the gaps

Once done, the leader will have an overall plan submitted by their various teams. The leaders can now work with teams to identify gaps within the models, where certain team’s goals may be under what they need to achieve for the company to be successful.

At this point, the leader needs to work with those teams to figure out how they can close those gaps.

Listen to the full podcast to hear more.

On the podcast, Scott asked me a great question, how do you get better at all of the above? That’s a hard one to answer. The best way is by doing and by being fortunate enough to have worked under a great leader.