Author Talks: Scale your people, not just your company

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Anna Zuefle chats with Claire Hughes Johnson, corporate officer and adviser at Stripe, about her new book, Scaling People: Tactics for Management and Company Building (Stripe Press, Spring 2023). Hughes Johnson provides a tactical guide to management and company building and outlines a human-centric approach for developing talent. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

My book happened mostly because Patrick and John Collison, the cofounders of Stripe, pushed me to do it. They built a company when they were teenagers and sold it. As they were building Stripe, they realized that there wasn’t a tactical guide to two things: company building, structures you want to put in place and consider as you start to scale, and management.

A lot of it is management basics. How do you have a difficult conversation, how do you coach someone effectively? What should performance management look like? How do you do team building at the right level for teams that are often constantly changing and in formation, which is the case in tech?

The book came about because my colleagues urged me to write it. Many of us at Stripe, particularly the founders and I, end up talking to a lot of founders and CEOs of high-growth tech companies around the world. Many of their questions are about tactics on company building and in management. It turned out that there was a demand. We hope that the book is useful for many.

I write from my experience at Stripe over eight years helping to build that company and at Google for almost 11 years before that. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert or an academically certified company builder, but I would say that I have the experience. That’s probably pretty helpful for someone who’s in the trenches, building a company right now.

Why do you discourage people from reading the book once from beginning to end?

What I love about the book is how you might consume it is similar to a textbook. The idea is to be able to go into the table of contents and not expect to read the book cover to cover. It asks you to think about what is challenging to you that you’re interested in discovering today. Is it about management, is it about initial company structures you might put in place?

I introduce a lot of very simple frameworks on how to think about your own self-awareness, work style, and habits, and how you might apply that to your team. You’ll look, find a topic, and consult that chapter or section. That’s the goal. It’s an easy guide to consult with a particular topic in mind. There are also appendixes in every chapter of templates and exercises you can fill out or try.

If you want to go cover to cover, you get a lot of insight on what it’s like to build companies or to manage people—not just leaders and managers are interested in company building. I hope it has some good content for everyone.

Why do you include exercises and templates at the end of each chapter?

The templates and examples are really about the main thrust of the book, which is to be tactical. It’s easy to describe the theories and the values of management. It’s not as easy to think, “What do I do when I have to tell someone that they’re not meeting expectations?” Of course, you want to be empathetic and supportive. You want to set expectations ahead of time; there’s all these good practices that you can write down.

But we wanted to show people exactly what it looks like. Since a lot of management happens behind closed doors, you don’t see your colleagues have those conversations when you’re trying to learn. I wanted to demystify and accelerate learning about what it might take.

I have managed hundreds of people, and I believe that I do manage in a very human-centric way. I am all about business results. Yet I think the best way to get results is to really focus on the people. That’s where the book’s title comes from, Scaling People. We always talk about scaling companies, but companies are just collections of people. If you’re not really thoughtful about them and what they need to succeed, it’s going to be hard to succeed as a company.

We always talk about scaling companies, but companies are just collections of people. If you’re not really thoughtful about them and what they need to succeed, it’s going to be hard to succeed as a company.

What distinctions do you draw between leadership and management?

The Marty Linsky quote that I really like is, “Leadership is about disappointing people at a rate they can absorb,” which sounds somewhat negative. When you think about leadership, it’s about driving people toward a vision. You don’t have all the specifics; it’s challenging. You’re setting goals that don’t always seem achievable, which can be disappointing to people.

In the process of setting that vision and of getting that followership up the mountain, you’re liable to disappoint people because you don’t have all the answers. You won’t actually make it in a straight line. Yet you are creating change. You’re creating some discomfort. You’re turning up the heat on the people around you. People want to follow great leaders, and they also want to impress them.

On the other hand, management is about taking something that’s been more defined and saying, “I’m going to identify the talent. I’m going to understand the thing we have to achieve. I’m going to apply the talent to the problem, to the objective. And I’m going to organize my way and have my team achieve that,” which is incredibly powerful.

There are some fantastic leaders who are not always great managers and vice versa. They’re quite different. I say in Scaling People that there’s a point in your career you can get to and not be as strong a manager or as strong a leader.

How can you be an explorer, not a lecturer, when giving feedback?

The demand for feedback on all sides in everything is higher than it’s ever been. That’s because the demand isn’t being met. Why have we seen all of this emphasis on feedback? People in the workplace are more likely now to request it more directly than when I started in the workplace.

Yet, it seems people are not satisfied. I have a framework in the book: be an explorer, not a lecturer. My concern for managers is that they feel like they have to have all the answers. No human has all the answers. Although there are things as a manager you should have equipped yourself with, really your role is to be a partner to the people who are working with you.

I have a framework in the book: be an explorer, not a lecturer. My concern for managers is that they feel like they have to have all the answers. No human has all the answers.

That’s true in feedback, too. You are a partner; you are not the lecturer. You are not the professor saying, “Let me explain how this thing works,” and drawing a diagram of how to do something. That’s something you might benefit from the first time you learn how to attack a math problem. But unless you’re doing very precise technical work as part of your career, you’re not going to benefit from the intangibles of how we work more effectively as humans. So be an explorer.

Explorers are curious; they’re observant. From a hypothesis-based coaching framework, as an explorer, your hypothesis may be, “I think roughly I know where I’m going. I’m trying to find an ancient pyramid.” You think it’s there, but you’re not assuming it is. You’re not assuming you know the answer about the person and what the person might have to work on.

It’s a lot more about asking questions and voicing observations, for instance, “I noticed in certain meetings when you’re asked to present, you sometimes seem nervous to me. In others, you seem really comfortable. What’s going on?”

When I say that, I’m not lecturing you on being a better presenter. I’m saying, “I’m an explorer with you. I made this observation and I want you to tell me what’s going on. I want you to figure out how to give the feedback to yourself.”

In the end, we’re our own career leaders. No one else can make your career decisions for you. As a manager, you can take on an attitude of being someone who’s of great help to that person but not the person with the answer. That way, you’re going to be much more successful in delivering feedback that substantively helps.

Why does the last chapter focus uniquely on the reader?

In the very beginning of the book, I talk about my operating principles, starting with the first one, the most important one. Build self-awareness to build mutual awareness. If you don't understand yourself—your work style preferences, your motivators, your strengths, your blind spots—you’re going to have trouble being an effective manager and a leader.

You have to really get grounded in who you are and how you work. Then you need to look to complement yourself. That’s the first part of the book. The end of the book comes back to that concept of you. The lens is much more about how you motivate yourself.

Where does your energy come from? How do you organize yourself? How do you think about your own career? As a leader or a manager, if you are not stable, doing well, and managing those things, you can fake it for a while. I have at points in my career.

Ultimately, you are the foundation. You are the stability point and the foundation for your team and for your organization. You need to look within yourself to really make sure that you feel stable and that you’re doing the right thing.

If you don't understand yourself—your work style preferences, your motivators, your strengths, your blind spots—you’re going to have trouble being an effective manager and a leader.

Those of us who have these choices in our careers are extremely lucky. But those choices may evolve over time. You need to be in touch with that for yourself if you’re going to help others. That’s how the book ends, with understanding yourself in the world in which you function and how to get the best out of yourself. Only then can you get the best out of your team.

What is your view on addressing forbidden topics?

After building self-awareness, my second-favorite operating principle is to say the thing you think you cannot say. I want to give all credit for that to the book Conscious Business by Fred Kofman. He was a professor at MIT who embarked on a coaching and consulting career journey as an internal organization-development expert. He wrote about a concept of something happening in your brain that he called the left-hand column. It’s all the things that you’re thinking while you’re interacting, but you can’t say them all out loud. Fred would say, “You have to detoxify what’s going on in your left-hand column to get the words out of your mouth, right?” There are some people you’ve probably met who maybe don’t do a good job of that. They’re overly direct.

For me, it’s a little different. It’s more about confidence and risk taking. It’s almost about trusting your instincts and your intuition and not being afraid to try to name them. Again, be careful. Don’t be overly direct or blunt and don’t be judgmental. This goes back to curiosity and asking questions. But I gave an example in the book that makes this come alive.

I was sitting in a quarterly business review with a product-and-engineering team and leaders at Stripe. In the meeting, the team that we were reviewing kept mentioning another team and project: “We have to see what they’re doing.” Then we’d go back to the review document, and we’d talk about the metrics. I stopped the meeting. I said, “Look, I feel like the thing that we’re not talking about is the most important. Is this a problem?”

That was a question, an observation. I think you’re talking about some other team. I think something’s bothering you. I can’t tell if it’s a problem or not, but let’s put it on the table. Let’s actually name this.

A lot of those things that come in through the side—or in the background—are really the thing you should be talking about. So we switched the topic. We came up with some specific next steps to take on how that team was going to bring the other team into the conversation. We were going to work out who the owner was. I left the meeting with a Stripe engineer and fellow meeting attendee who said, “That was really refreshing.” It was a big compliment.

Anybody can have this intuition. I suggest you say the thing you think you can’t say: “I feel like there’s more to the story.” That confidence, bravery, and ability to take a little bit of a risk with an observation can really open up the connection and the information. If you think about getting from B-level management to A, you have to be able to do that. I’m trying to give you an example of how.

If you think about management into leadership, management is more comfortable. Leadership is a little less comfortable. That’s a way to start bridging the two.

Watch the full interview

Author Talks

Visit Author Talks to see the full series.

Explore a career with us