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BUILD 100

Don't Be Afraid of the Word 'Specialist'

When a team grows from 30 to 300, you have to turn generalists into specialists. Inc. 5000 company Dyn did just that.

Around the turn of the decade, Dyn -- a New Hampshire-based tech company that manages web traffic for massive clients including Twitter, Netflix, and Etsy -- saw the size of its team undergo cataclysmic growth.

In 2009, the Inc. 5000 company boasted 30 employees. That shot to 50 in 2010, 115 in 2011, 200 in 2012, and hit about 300 last year.

That kind of quick, sustained growth was obviously welcome. But it carried with it a big change in how employees were expected to work.

From Jacks of All Trades to Masters of One

As a team of 30, Dyn employees were expected to wear many hats as generalists who pitched in across many areas of the company. When the team grew to more than 100, employees were asked to shift their focus to just a few areas of specialty.

And when the employee count topped 200, employees were expected to narrow their focuses all the more and focus on one given area of the company's operations.

For most employees, this meant a big change in how they approached their jobs. Some of them were uncomfortable with the idea of becoming an expert in one area. Some even left the company during the growth period as a result.

Dyn COO Gray Chynoweth said senior team members knew employees would eventually have to shift from generalists to specialists. And they assumed some employees might leave as a result. Both the transition and the resultant attrition, he says, are a natural part of growth.

This transition -- from generalists to specialists to experts -- an obvious but perhaps easily overlooked element of how team dynamics change with growth. Asking for employees to serve horizontally, like patches on a blanket covering an entire organization, is a good way to run a startup.

But once your company matures and you have a team of 300 on your hands, you realize that's being done out of necessity. Mastery in every area of the organization, though? Now that's a luxury.

Chynoweth suggested a few steps for growth companies to manage the transition.

1. Forecast specialties. "It is important for any startup that has visions of growth to adopt strength-based management early on," Chynoweth said. "While employees are still generalists let them find out what they like and what they're good at. Let them experiment. So when you reach a point when you need to start specializing people will already know where to gravitate. This allows some ramp-up time (which) will ultimately be good for both the company and the employee. If you’ve never done that before it becomes a much riskier endeavor."

2. Recognize healthy attrition. When Dyn lost employees during the transition, Chynoweth said the company had to remind itself that this did not reflect poorly on the team. While its incumbent on a growth company to try and keep its culture in tact as it matures--Chynoweth stressed that this is a key to keeping a growing company oriented--the fact is that organizations with 300 people operate differently than companies with 30. Some of your key people at 30 might be much more comfortable working in that setting.

"Different people like different things," Chynoweth said. "Some want to work in a skyscraper. Some want to work in coffee shop. Sometimes a coffee shop transforms into a skyscraper and that creates change. Finding the right fit is a win for both the employee and the company." 

3. Demystify specialization. Some employees might be intimidated by hearing they're expected to narrow down their focus and be tasked with building expertise. You can quell this by explaining that a specialist in today's business environment might not mean the same thing it once did.You're not asking your employees to go get a PhD. You're asking them to build upon and develop their existing strengths.

"Don't be afraid of the word specialist," said Chynoweth. "Technology and the pace of innovation is so fast these days. You don’t need 50 years in an industry to be considered a specialist. Heck, your skill set will probably become irrelevant in five years."

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Last updated: Feb 13, 2014




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