Growth startups often find themselves lacking senior team members as they scale. The problems that arise from this are plentiful, including things like:
- Requiring heroics to fix things
- Penalizing junior team members for failure to meet responsibilities well above their pay grade.
- Building technology that doesn’t scale
Here’s some reasons why companies get into this situation.
Reason 1: Habit
When you’re a tiny startup budgets are extremely lean and products don’t have a lot of users. In that environment companies often prioritize breadth of functionality (see what works) and getting that via several (more affordable) junior team members guided by a smaller group of senior team members.
Problems arise if that strategy exists past market fit. The add-a-junior-to-do-more strategy implodes as the team grows too large for the senior staff to manage closely and the technical challenges start to look more daunting.
Reason 2: Hubris
Sometimes people recognize the problems are getting more difficult but still don’t hire more seniors. This can often be chalked up to hubris - surely I can just direct a bunch of juniors to execute on the genius solutions I come up with for all our problems. The problem here is that you’re not a genius and even if you were that strategy doesn’t scale.
Reason 3: Fear
The flip side of hubris is fear. New senior staff can look like a threat to the power of existing senior staff. You might have to choose between doing what’s right for the company and retaining certain kinds of power. The answer there is simple - it’s better to be part of something great than the owner of something that fails.
A different play on this theme is junior teammates fearing that new senior teammates will take away some of their opportunities. It’s possible, sure. But more often the opportunities they will take over are the ones juniors would have had trouble succeeding in.
In a growing company with reasonably difficult challenges, good seniors will do more to expand the set of opportunities than shrink them. And good senior talent will help juniors via mentorship and guidance.
Reason 4: Money Issues
Money issues play out in a couple ways.
First, the cost of senior talent can subconsciously make you concerned about the remaining budget for yourself. I haven’t seen this played out directly and blatantly, but it’s another version of the fear game - assuming compensation is a zero sum game leads to weird incentives.
Second, it’s easy to think 2 juniors are better than one senior. As you read about the myth of the 10x engineer you might find yourself thinking this way. Let’s talk more about how this is a misconception in reason 5…
Reason 5: Miscalculation of Necessary Skills For Right Now
As referenced earlier, problems get much harder when you add significant growth to a platform. It’s not uncommon to underestimate the challenges at hand. In reality, even simple products at massive scale need significant senior leadership to ensure they are being built and operated effectively. Trying to replace the leadership of senior talent with a volume of junior talent is a sure-fire way to screw this up.
Reason 6: Miscalculation of Necessary Skills In the Future
To make things more difficult, you don’t just have to hire for right now, you have to hire for 2 or more years in the future. The senior talent you hire now must seed the leadership ranks you need in the future. Especially in product and engineering, you can’t just hire everyone you need when you need them. For starters, the job market would laugh at that sort of just-in-time attempt at hiring. But also, these roles require much more detailed understanding of the systems at play, so you need to have people with intimate knowledge developed in advance.
Think of it this way - look at whatever company you’re trying to be like in 5 years. Look at their team. If you don’t start hiring towards something like that team sooner rather than later you’ll never be that company.
Reason 7: Arguments About What-Seniors-Need
Another reason people hire too junior is thinking around senior talent needing explicit areas of responsibility that don’t overlap. This is the “one alpha” theory - that senior talent can’t collaborate productively and need their own pack. There might be some nuggets of truth here, but most of it is nonsense. That’s like NASA saying they couldn’t have smart people work together on getting to the moon because these great scientists need their own domains.
Ultimately you have to look at the problems you’re solving. If they are truly challenging they can support a number of seniors. If they aren’t you’ll probably have trouble hiring and retaining more than a few.
There’s a lot of reasons why you might hire too junior as your company grows. Know them and hire intentionally.