USV Manager Bootcamp: A cross-company learning opportunity

At our USV Manager Bootcamp in Toronto in September, Tucows CEO Elliot Noss spoke about his management philosophy and leadership principles.

Today marks the kickoff of the 6th USV Manager Bootcamp, a cross-company training for first-time managers at USV portfolio companies. Inspired by leaders across our network and facilitated by LifeLabs Learning, each 4-course session covers the core competencies that many new managers need on the job.

This San Francisco class includes 20 individuals from 7 portfolio companies ranging in job functions from sales and operations to product, engineering, and legal. Some are brand new to managing people, others are learning how to manage remotely, and a few are just looking to supplement their existing managerial toolkits. All of them were hand-selected by leaders at their organizations.

At the kickoff, we discuss shared challenges that permeate across organizations and invite an experienced portfolio executive to share “lessons learned” from their early days of managing. Every week, participants meet for interactive workshops that include “mini missions” to practice in the days ahead. During down time between sessions, we encourage participants to connect offline and swap stories. By the end of this month-long program, we hope that participants walk away with a shared vocabulary and heightened awareness about some of the all-too-common people management conundrums that occur in startup life.

You’re probably wondering – why is a VC firm so committed to leveling up people management?


Identifying shared challenges among our portfolio

In 2016, nearly all of our portfolio companies launched a new product. Three out of four expanded internationally, and 70% raised a new round of funding. But when we surveyed employees about what they expected to spend a lot of time thinking about in 2017, the top answer was not about scaling, product launches, or fundraising. It was about people.

Two-thirds of survey respondents said that in 2017, they expected to spend a lot of time thinking about better ways to collaborate with other teams internally.

At first glance, this may seem surprising. While businesses can’t always predict market conditions, customer retention rates, or competitive pressure, they do have control over the people they hire. But as a VC firm, we recognize that companies are simply a collection of people executing a vision to build a product. Success hinges on the effectiveness of each organization and how individual skills are amplified via collaboration.

We’re learning this lesson alongside our companies every day. And at the rate our companies grow, there’s always a new challenge around the corner. In 2016, more than half of our businesses grew the headcount substantially, and one in four employees was new to their role that year. If our survey results mirror our portfolio as a whole, that would mean that, out of a 7,000-person network, nearly 3,000 employees are learning how to do their jobs for the first time.

Given all that, it’s only natural that collaboration and communication topped the collective priority list. So in 2017, we set out to find a way to tackle this challenge head-on, leveraging our portfolio network effects.


Launching a cross-company learning and development initiative

To cultivate an effective, collective network, we continually seek out opportunities for our cross-company collaboration. Since 2010, employees across every job function have stepped up to share their experiences, challenges, and approaches to solving problems with peers at different companies. Through these trusted relationships, our network members pay forward knowledge on topics ranging from mobile app launches and localization to recruitment strategies and board deck format.

Last year, we explored how we might extend this relationship to foster a collaborative culture of learning and development among our 70+ portfolio companies. To do so, we teamed up with our HR leaders to identify gaps in people management that they had observed among newly promoted managers.

Our list looked like this:

  • Giving/receiving feedback
  • Expectation setting
  • Understanding/adapting to communication
  • Balancing personal work and team management
  • Being a player-coach to colleagues
  • Identifying disengaged/unmotivated employees
  • Managing underperformers
  • Delegating and accountability
  • Managing career growth
  • Being strategic vs. tactical

Drawing from these priorities, we identified an external training provider – LifeLabs Learning – to teach some of these “squishy” people management skills to new managers. Their management curriculum breaks these tricky situations into four bucket areas: Coaching, Feedback, Prioritization / Time Management, and Effective 1-on-1s.

Our goal was simple: Collectively level up the crucial middle management function. By bringing together newly promoted, first-time managers from a handful of companies, participants could get the best of both worlds: Core management skills from outside professionals and advice from peers who are divorced from any of their inner company politics.   

And thus, USV Manager Bootcamp was born.


Promising early results

In 2017, we offered five sessions of USV Manager Bootcamp in three cities: New York, San Francisco, and Toronto. Combined, more than 100 managers from nearly 30 portfolio companies participated. This year, we’ll be offering quarterly trainings in New York and San Francisco, as well as options for remote-only participants for employees outside of our “hub cities.”

While it’s always tricky to measure the impact of learning and development initiatives, our feedback surveys three and six months after these trainings show promising results. Nearly everybody said that they continue to use the skills from these sessions day-to-day, particularly in one-on-one meetings with managers or direct reports. We also noticed measurable, self-reported improvements in two areas — communication skills and giving/receiving feedback.

But above all, we’re thrilled to hear about the intangible benefits of peer-to-peer interactions and new mentor relationships that have emerged from this programs. By teaming up with our leaders across our portfolio network to create this program together, we’ll be able to collectively help our companies build better businesses.