Design for Change
COO of MessageBird
In 2015, international tax lawyer Mayke Nagtegaal made a big career switch when she joined MessageBird. As the company’s Chief Operations Officer (COO), she’s responsible for a number of departments and teams and has helped MessageBird scale by more than 100% in just 18 months. Mayke has recently taken on another role as a new mom to Sara & Max.
You have to find the right people that can deal with a fast-changing environment.
What kind of organization structure does MessageBird have? MessageBird is a centralized company at the moment, but we’re also still pretty flat since we’re not quite that big in our number of employees (400). Everyone still reports to their functional leader, even our offices abroad. For example, we have colleagues in the APAC region and a local leader there, but the functions report to the centralized functions at the headquarters. We do this because we want to expose everyone to more senior leadership in their own expertise, and it helps us, at this stage, to make decisions fast. I can imagine that we go to a more decentralized model in the future when we grow bigger, based on geographical areas or product lines, because then a centralized structure will slow down the decision making process.
How important is organizational design during hyper-growth? I believe organizational design is super important, but what’s even more critical is your culture, the behavior within the structure, and how you cope with change. In a fast-growing company, the organization structure changes a lot, and you have to iterate every 6 to 12 months. So, you have to find the right people that can deal with a fast-changing environment. People who are too focused on their job title or remit, or want to know exactly what they’ll be doing six months from now, will struggle working here.
6 Questions about organizational design with Mayke Nagtegaal (MessageBird)
In this video Mayke Nagtegaal answers 6 questions on organizational design. She gives great insights into designing 6 - 12 months ahead, and to design for change.
What is especially challenging when your organization structure changes every six to twelve months? Growing fast means that sometimes processes or the infrastructures are not in place yet in areas of the business that are growing fast. You’re always under-resourced in certain areas, which can be tricky sometimes. From a people perspective, it can be challenging because the complexity of the company is constantly changing. We always try to find the right place for someone within the company, but not everyone can grow along with the company’s growth, and they find it hard to deal with change. However, this constant change is needed to push the company forward.
How do you, as a team, keep up with the growth of the company? We try to be as pragmatic as possible. We’re in a highly competitive market, and we’re growing fast. Some corporates need a year to change their structure; we do it in two weeks. We constantly look at the needs of the business of that moment and what experience we need for that. The experience you had on board on day one is not what you need five years later. We allow people to grow in their role, but sometimes we have to bring in new senior leaders with a different skill set to make the next step.
We try to be as pragmatic as possible.
A good match between the person, their experience, and the company phase is crucial.
How do you decide who to hire to scale your organization? Around two to three years back, we realized that the organization was not very scalable with our current team. We started to identify what the business would need in one or two years and where we wanted to grow. Based on that, we began to shape the organization six to nine months out. A more extended period makes no sense because the needs of the business will be changed by then. We also defined each individual's strengths in the leadership team and decided which hires we needed to make to be able to scale. However, it’s important to realize that hiring a super senior person will not solve everything. Hiring a ‘heavy hitter’ with 20 years of corporate experience sounds great, but it’s almost certain that he or she will not be successful at an early stage. We can’t offer them the guidance they need, and we can’t provide the kind of team they are used to leading at another company. A good match between the person, their experience, and the company phase is crucial. Building a company from 0 to 400 people is entirely different than going from 400 to 1000 people.
What are the requirements a leader needs to be successful at MessageBird? We find it essential that leaders are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and can surround themselves with talented people. We look if they can scale themselves and their team and if they can empower others and put others in the spotlight. You work here to build out the company, not to build your own empire. That’s toxic for the culture, and it won’t bring the company forward.
We look if [leaders] can scale themselves and their team and if they can empower others and put others in the spotlight. You work here to build out the company, not to build your own empire.
When you look at experience, MessageBird has 3 C-level leaders at the moment (CEO, COO, and CFO) plus an extended leadership team with other leaders representing their areas of expertise. I believe you don’t need a C-level leader to run every department. We tend to hire young and ambitious people, and we pull people with the right knowledge and experience in a room for a good decision, regardless of their job title.
How does the organizational design influence your hiring decisions? We have a very entrepreneurial way of doing this. Our hiring decisions are really based on the needs of the business at the time and the cultural fit. We have our long term strategy in mind, but the needs of the day are leading. It's not uncommon for someone to do 4 to 5 jobs simultaneously because of our fast growth, but when we see that happening, we have to act fast. As soon as we notice we reached a specific limit, we act.
What is the best advice you have for scaleup leaders regarding organizational design during fast growth? There is no perfect organizational structure for a company. It's important to realize that a company is a living and breathing thing that will change all the time, so you have to iterate along the way. It can be painful now and then, but if you want to set up your company for scale, you shouldn’t be afraid to change it and make bold decisions now and then. Avoid getting stuck in the structure of reporting lines and in fear of stepping on someone’s toes. Dare to bring up the discussions that are necessary for the company to scale fast and strong.
A company is a living and breathing thing that will change all the time.