Build Your Team’s Operating Model on These 4 Principles

A great operating model helps leaders turn strategy into results. Josefin Graebe (AppFolio, ex-Uber, Lime) lays out a set of principles for designing operating models based on her time as a Chief of Staff at some of the world's fastest growing companies.

 min read
June 17, 2021
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Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring On Deck alums Ming Lu and Vik Duggal. If you’re an early-stage founder, angel investor, or exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs - you’ll be in great company.

Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders.

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring Josefin Graebe. If you’re an early-stage founder, scaling founder, or senior exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs.

This article is the first in our annual series Year in Preview.  In the 4 years since we launched the On Deck Founders program, we’ve seen +1000 companies get started and raise over $2B in funding.

What is an “operating model”?

An operating model is the set of systems, structure, processes, governance, behavior, and cadence that a company runs to execute on their strategy and turn it into results. Together, they define how the organization is run.

In this article, you'll learn how to build an effective operating model for your team. More importantly, you'll learn how to keep it alive.

An operating model translates strategy into results

Josefin Graebe’s Chief of Staff journey began with German software company SAP, where she worked with the Chief Marketing Officer. She then moved on to be the Chief of Staff to the VP of Product at Uber, after which she served as the Chief of Staff to the CEO at Lime. She’s now working at Appfolio as the Director of Growth Strategy and Operations. 

Through these experiences, Josefin noticed a pattern:

“All these companies faced similar challenges. They all tried to figure out, ‘Hey, how can we translate strategy into results? How can we not just create an operating model ... but also keep it alive?’”

Below, Josefin shares the principles she’s devised for designing, implementing, and sustaining operating models, setting a company’s operating cadence, and more.

The key is not to copy other companies' operating models, but to create one that's right for your team and its stage.

Companies that have designed successful operating models share one thing in common:

They figured out how to align people, processes, and systems so that they work toward the same strategic priorities. 

Inspired by Original Image from Bain & Company

However, the hardest part of implementing an operating model isn’t designing it, but bringing it to life and keeping it alive.

That’s why the process of setting up an operating model should center around design principles —  an operating model is only useful insofar as it can be put into practice. 

4 Design Principles for Building An Operating Model

There are 4 core design principles to focus on in building an operating model: 

  1. Start with an MVP mindset
  2. Structure follows strategy
  3. Dance to your own rhythm
  4. Meetings matter

Principle #1: Start with an MVP Mindset

Don't launch your operating model to your team by presenting a highly polished deck. Start with an MVP.

As most people in tech know, an MVP (minimum viable product) is the most stripped-down version of a product that still manages to deliver on that product’s unique value proposition. For a Chief of Staff, this might be more aptly thought of as a minimum viable process.

This same mindset is key to building operating models.

“As a Chief of Staff, you are technically a product manager. Your products are processes and systems, and your audience is all of the employees.”

It's helpful to apply an MVP mindset to operating models: conduct user research. Interview teammates about what they really need. Test and iterate based on that information. 

Ask any community of product managers — building an MVP helps you test out your ideas before investing all of your resources.

Principle #2: Structure Follows Strategy

An operating model turns strategy into results.

Building an operating model starts with defining strategy. An operating model for your team, and the systems that comprise it, must serve a higher end—namely, the strategic success of the company. 

The structure of your organization and the design of the systems you implement will then follow from your strategic goals. Bridging that gap entails defining strategy, embedding strategic priorities in the org structure, and mapping talent so that you can help align high-performing talent with their areas of highest leverage.

First, Define Strategy

In my role as a Chief of Staff, it was my responsibility to facilitate the annual planning process.

Start with first principles by reflecting on and clearly defining the goals that will drive the rest of the planning process. Working together with the leadership team, you’ll think through and establish the strategic priorities for the year to come. 

Next, Embed Strategic Priorities in the Org Structure

With your strategy well-defined, your next task is to turn your attention to the org structure and examine how it might be adjusted to better serve your strategic priorities. This means organizing teams within the company so that they’re set up to successfully execute on strategy. 

Companies and their strategies grow and develop over time, and the org structure should follow. During her work at a previous company, for example, she found that their matrix structure no longer suited their strategy. In light of this, she spearheaded a company-wide shift to a functional reporting structure. 

Use "Talent Mapping" To Maximize Your Strategy's Effectiveness

This is a critical yet often overlooked step in the planning process. 

It can be extremely valuable to do talent mapping after composing your org structure. This means identifying high-impact roles within the new org structure, identifying your high-performing employees, and matching the high-performers to the high-impact roles. 

This is important because there’s no faster way to lose high potential employees than to keep them from making the impact they’re capable of. It’s important to stay actively attuned to your high-performers’ needs. 

As the Chief of Staff, you are the sounding board for the organization.”

This means listening to your employees —  and going out of your way to do so. They might not be eager to come forward with their dissatisfaction, so you need to position yourself as someone they can bring their concerns to. 

You can then funnel these concerns up to the leadership team. Even better, proactively reach out to them to make sure their needs for challenge and impact are being met. A preventative approach can go a long way in retaining top talent.  

If you have a well-developed HR team, you can partner with them in this endeavor. Together you can work to compile an organizational health deck composed of data on attrition, promotion, how quickly employees ascend the ranks of the company, where hires come from (internal vs. external), DEI, etc. 

A handful of concerns reported directly to you might be dismissed by senior leadership as anecdotes, so data can be used to build a more compelling look into the health of the organization. If the data reveal that talent is leaving and citing lack of challenge as a reason in their exit interviews, it’s time to look at the org chart and consider whether talent re-mapping might be necessary.  

In some cases, you might find a high-performer who feels unchallenged, but you don’t have a higher impact role readily available for them to fill or they’re missing a couple of the skills necessary for such a role. 

In this scenario, it’s best to talk to the employee in question, let them know their talent is recognized, and brief them on the skill gaps they need to fill over the next several months to be prepared for this next role once it opens. This can help make them feel valued, give them something to look forward to at the company, and reinvigorate their efforts toward professional growth. 

Now You're Ready to Translate Strategy into an Operating Model

The next step is to design your operating model itself. This should be done after the org structure is set and you’ve done talent mapping.

Your operating model has to serve not only your strategy, but also your people.”

Make this the last step of your annual planning process. At this point, you can now consider how your operating cadence and the broader operating model might be adjusted to best serve your strategy and your people. 

Reality won’t look as smooth as the overview provided here, though. Inevitably, nuances and complexities will arise during this process. One of the most daunting of these concerns is overcoming organizational inertia. Your operating model and cadence need buy-in from the people at your company in order to survive.

One challenge you are likely to experience is that employees will often be set in their ways and resist the changes you’re looking to implement. A few tricks for dealing with this:

  1. Get buy-in early on. This is a task where donning your product manager hat will be particularly useful. Get buy-in from your “users” early on before you’ve built anything. Interview them as a PM would in order to better understand their concerns. It’s much easier to create a solution that people love by involving them early on, rather than presenting it to them only once it’s finished and hoping that they like it. 
  2. Represent every team in the company. Not only should you talk to users early, but you should talk to members of every team. Make sure that you’re able to faithfully represent and consider the desires and concerns of each one, then build the operating cadence based on these collective insights. This will also help later on because you can demonstrate to those who are resistant that you did your best to take into account their needs and the needs of their team. 
  3. Find an executive sponsor. The support of someone such as the COO who serves in a leadership role will go a long way in helping you successfully bring your operating model to life. 

They won’t clear your path of all obstacles, but these tactics provide a strong foundation for breathing life into your operating model and driving enthusiastic adoption.

This emphasis on your company strategy and context is why there is no "best" operating model.

If you're a member of the On Deck Chief of Staff fellowship, you can watch Josefin's full session here.

Principle #3: Dance to Your Own Rhythm

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to operating models.

This idea underpins the third principle for operating model design: “dance to your own rhythm.” 

Each company is unique, and each operating model should be too. The perfect model for Apple won’t be perfect for your company. You need something uniquely suited for your organization and its strategic needs in order to make it usable. The right model in the wrong company is the wrong model. If it’s at odds with the nature of your organization it will only create friction. 

So how do you develop an operating model that fits your organization? By identifying valuable norms and systematizing them. 

In doing so, you use the implicit idiosyncrasies of your company (the norms) to inform the actual explicit systems that make up your operating model and cadence. This creates alignment between your company’s unique identity/needs and the processes by which it operates—a dance to match your rhythm. 

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that fast-growing organizations like startups are highly dynamic so your operating cadence should be too. It’s a good idea to check in every 6 to 12 months to ensure that the current operating cadence is fulfilling its purpose. 

The Meeting Matrix: Finding The Right Cadence For Your Operating Model

One way to keep your operating model on track with a dynamic, evolving company is using a “meeting matrix,” which charts recurring meetings within the company by their frequency and audience (i.e. who’s involved).

Image inspired by an image in Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni

While a meeting matrix won’t look the same at every company, Josefin finds the meeting matrix useful because 

“If you document all the meetings you have and categorize them by audience, it helps you to make sure that your operating cadence stays in sync as your company evolves, as your culture evolves, as your strategy evolves.

Just as the perfect cadence for Apple won’t be the perfect cadence for your company, the perfect cadence for your company last year likely won’t be the perfect cadence for your company today.

Operating cadence should therefore be dynamic, and having a meeting matrix for each stage in the company life cycle is one helpful tool you can use to ensure that it is.

Note that the examples below are not meant to represent best practices, but rather show what a company’s cadence might actually look like at each stage.

The Early-Stage Meeting Matrix 

This first matrix illustrates a cadence that would be appropriate for an early-stage startup of around 10 to 20 people. If you're part of On Deck First 50, this is likely the meeting frequency you'll see in your startup.

The meeting cadence in the example above is fairly light compared with what you might find at a later-stage company. There’s no dedicated meeting for middle management and people managers. 

This is fine for an early-stage company, however, because it’s easy enough at this size for the team to stay aligned. Seeing this cadence at a larger company (50+ people) would be cause for concern because more is often needed.

The Scaling Company Meeting Matrix

A company that’s in “scaling mode” — like the startups in On Deck Scale — will need a heavier meeting cadence, and its meeting matrix reflects that. 

At the scaling stage, there are 3 adjustments that you might consider making:

  1. Create meetings for leaders to sync
  2. Make sure to keep strategic vs. tactical meetings separate
  3. Make time for succession mapping and 

More on each below. 

Create meetings for leaders to sync

One meeting type that may start to make sense in the scaling stage is the monthly “Leaders Sync” meeting. Consider instituting a meeting of this nature as a company scales to give senior leaders who aren’t execs, but who are still responsible for translating strategy into results, a place to convene on a regular basis. 

Forums like this can be quite important. For example, when Josefin was at Lime, it was in a “hyper-growth” phase. This meant that new executives were getting introduced, and some people who previously reported to the CEO were now reporting to the COO instead.

This separation is inevitable as a company grows, but it can be a bit painful, especially for those who are used to having a direct line to the CEO and the information that comes with that. 

Josefin navigated this tricky situation at Lime by encouraging executives to have transparent conversations with leaders whose reporting lines had changed. It’s important in such a scenario to explain that the team had grown too large and to provide insight into why some people were going to remain a part of it while others weren’t. 

But most importantly, she offered this new monthly Leaders Sync meeting for all the non-exec senior leaders to meet with the CEO so they could discuss strategy, performance, and whatever else they might need to run their teams successfully.

Keep tactics and strategy separate

As a company scales, another concern to be mindful of is keeping tactical and strategic meetings separate from one another. Strategic meetings should focus on the long-term goals of the company and the roadmap for achieving them. Tactical meetings hone in on more concrete, short-term actions that your company can take to execute on its strategy. 

It is usually best that these two endeavors remain distinct. As described in Death by Meeting:, leaders tend to reconsider strategic decisions when faced with tactical challenges.

Consequently, mixing tactical and strategic topics together in the same discussion should be avoided. Devise your meeting matrix to enforce this, separating the two so that strategic decisions aren’t made due to tactical challenges. This manifests as a weekly LT meeting (for tactics & alignment) and a monthly strategy meeting.  

If one of these LT meetings begins to devolve into strategic considerations, you can then pull the team back on track by reminding them that their strategy meeting is coming up and they’ll be able to discuss those issues there. For particularly urgent matters, they can move that meeting forward, if need be. The strategy meeting can then be deliberately prepared to handle these concerns and whatever other strategic issues require addressing. 

Preparation would include things like getting the right people in the room, making sure you have the necessary data on hand, and documenting the meeting more thoroughly. With this system in place, they can rest assured that they’ll have a well-prepared forum in which to discuss these matters. 

Make time for talent mapping and succession planning

Most companies have a performance review system, but many neglect a regular talent mapping process. This is a mistake.

A talent mapping process should involve sitting down with the company leaders and identifying skill gaps and needs in order to construct a talent acquisition and development plan for the next 6 to 12 months. 

In doing this, it’s important to create succession plans for crucial roles within the company. Especially in environments like Silicon Valley where the turnover rate is sky-high, this process warrants more frequent conversations.

The Enterprise Meeting Matrix
“Every meeting should serve a purpose.”

This is especially true at large-scale companies where meetings can grow redundant and meeting oversaturation is a real concern. 

For example, the enterprise company meeting matrix shown above is beginning to reach oversaturation. When this happens, look for places where meetings can be combined. In this matrix, for example, maybe the monthly business review for the last month of the quarter could be rolled into the quarterly leadership offsite. 

Likewise, the coffee chats, town halls, and all hands are probably a bit redundant and could be combined in some regard. The lines between these kinds of meetings are often blurry and employees often don’t really know the differences between them. 

If you find yourself faced with such overlap, return to first principles and ask what you’re trying to solve. Then work from there to structure the meetings so they’re actually solving that problem. This might mean dedicating one type of meeting to sharing information top-down (from leadership to the rest of the company) while making another that’s driven by employees and gives them the opportunity to ask questions of executives. 

The idea is to establish clarity and focus in your cadence. Make this cadence clear not only for yourself and the LT, but for all members of the organization. 

One tactic for doing so is to make your company-wide meeting cadence accessible to the whole team. This fosters transparency and gives employees the opportunity to ask questions about these meetings.

Regardless of your company’s scale, one thing you should likely do is go on a “listening tour “prior to implementing any disruptive changes in cadence. 

This means asking people how they feel about those meetings that might be changed and, if changes definitely are going to be made, helping them to understand why. During this process you can also sit in on meetings to see which ones need to be made less frequent or killed altogether. 

Principle #4: Meetings Matter

As mentioned earlier, any system or process you build as CoS should be valuable, usable, and inclusive. Meetings are the bedrock for ensuring that your organization is inclusive. They’re the vehicle that brings everyone at your company to the table. And they really matter.

Kevin Fishner, Chief of Staff at HashiCorp, speaking on the First Round Review podcast, put it well in saying that: 

“It’s very possible that for many employees, their only face-to-face human interaction for that day is through a meeting. If that meeting is good, then their day is good. If that meeting is bad, then their day is bad.”

Therefore, it’s important to strive to structure your operating model to make the company meetings both valuable and inclusive. A few ways to ensure this:

  1. Break the meeting cycle with deliberate meeting design
  2. Optimize meeting size

Break the meeting cycle

The “meeting cycle” refers to the loop that often occurs where a topic comes up in a meeting and someone suggests, “Let’s take this offline.” When it comes up later on, someone then says, “Let’s talk about it in the meeting.” 

Original Source: @lizandmollie 

Then, when broached at the next meeting, it again gets taken offline, the cycle repeats, and the can just keeps getting kicked down the road. According to Josefin, this tends to happen for three reasons:

  1. You don’t have the right people in the room to properly address the topic. Deciding who needs to be in the room can easily become a political issue and is usually up to the Chief of Staff to solve. 
  2. It’s unclear who holds the decision-making authority on this issue.
  3. You’re missing the data you need to confidently make the decision.

Breaking the meeting cycle, then, is a matter of tackling these three issues through deliberate meeting design.  

Find the right meeting size

Setting the right sizes for various meetings is a key component of effective meeting design. Tackle this challenge using a first principles approach by constructing a table that outlines the problems and goals of each meeting. 

Seeing these problems and goals lends insight into how many people are needed for that particular meeting. For example, the purpose of an all-hands is information sharing, so there’s no real cap on the number of attendees. LT and strategy meetings, however, involve data, in-depth discussions, and decision-making. They typically shouldn’t exceed around 10 people.

For most meetings, anyone who doesn’t need to be there probably shouldn’t be there. One way to determine who does or doesn’t need to be there is to pour through documentation from previous meetings and look at:

  • Who was there?
  • What decisions were made? 
  • Who was needed to make those decisions? 

Use these past meetings to predict who will be needed in future meetings. This can be a collaborative effort with HR. There are also frameworks like Bain’s RAPID that can help you decide who should be in the room.  

To effectively gauge and set the size of a meeting, one simple method you can use as a rule of thumb is Amazon’s two pizza rule — meetings should be small enough that two pizzas can feed the whole group (you can even add a fun twist by hosting a Zoom pizza cooking party/meeting for your team). 

Downsizing meetings will inevitably lead to some team members feeling left out.

Make sure the people not in the room don’t experience this FOMO. A few tips to support those who can’t be there:

  • Share the meeting agenda with them beforehand. Give them the freedom to speak up if they feel that something on the agenda demands their presence.
  • Share the meeting notes with them afterward so they’re kept in the loop.
  • Provide a different, async forum for them to stay connected on these matters (e.g. a Slack group for the LT where you post updates from the exec team at the same time the meetings used to happen). Ask for their questions and encourage them to share their concerns.
  • Finally, frame the changes being made as an experiment. Let them know that if these changes end up being for the worse, you’re amenable to switching things back to the way they were. Offering this will provide comfort and promote buy-in for those who are hesitant. If a change really does make a positive impact, they’ll likely come around and support it after this has proven to be the case. 

This experimental approach can be applied to most of the changes you implement. They tend to be “two-way door decisions”  where you can walk back out the same way you walked in if need be, which is consistent with having an MVP mindset.

Bringing An Operating Model To Life

In sum, the key to  designing an operating model that can be brought to life, and kept alive, rests with these 4 core principles:

  1. Embrace an MVP mindset. Think like a product manager and test out the minimum viable process for any system you want to implement. You can almost always go back to the way things were if something you try doesn’t work out—use this knowledge to give yourself the freedom to experiment.
  2. Start from first principles/strategy. Use strategic priorities to help shape your org structure and talent map to make sure your high-performers are in your high-impact roles. Then develop your operating model in light of these strategic and structural considerations. 
  3. Dance to your own rhythm. No two companies are alike. Set a cadence that works for your organization and its unique qualities and needs. Your organization will also be different a year from now than it is today, and your cadence should reflect this. Check in every 6 to 12 months and evaluate whether changes need to be made. 
  4. Meetings matter. They’re the place where your operating model comes to life. Design meetings and set your cadence deliberately. Make sure each meeting serves a purpose and that participants are clear on what that purpose is. Only the people who need to be in the room should be there, but it’s your job to ward off FOMO for those who would still like to be there by keeping them up to speed.

Building your operating model with this in mind should provide a strong foundation that you can return to again and again as you continually hone your own operating models.

Josefin Graebe’s Chief of Staff journey began seven years ago when she moved from Germany to the United States to work for German software company SAP in the Bay Area. At SAP, she had her first touchpoint with the role in reporting to the Chief of Staff to the Chief Marketing Officer.

After a couple of years at SAP, she decided she wanted to move into a role at a consumer-facing company. After monitoring Uber’s job page for six months, she saw a position open up for Chief of Staff to the VP of Product and got hired for the role, where she served until being recruited by Lime to be the Chief of Staff to the CEO. She’s now working at Appfolio as the Director of Growth Strategy and Operations.

Learn more about On Deck Chief of Staff here.

Note: If you’re an experienced professional looking to gain clarity on your next move, check out Execs On Deck

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