How Startup Managers Increased Engagement in Key Areas by 20%

How one company used strategic leadership development to grow its managers and teams

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A Case Study with Lever

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Learn how Lever's managers increased engagement on key indicators by an average of 20%, at a time when the company grew in size by 50%.

This case study, titled “Empowering the Next Generation of Team Leaders in Fast-Moving Startups,”  is featured in the upcoming book, Leadership Team Coaching in Practice: Case Studies on Developing High-Performing Teams.

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The Problem

How to Scale Our Teams?

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Lever was founded in 2012 to ‘tackle the most strategic challenge that companies face: how to recruit and grow their teams.”  At the beginning of our engagement in 2017, the company was deep in fundraising mode for its Series C round of $40 million. It was also transitioning from an 80-person company to a 155-person company.  In a startup with limited resources, it is key to direct development resources in a targeted way – but where to start?

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“When we started this work, a whole bunch of things were very different at Lever. We had not hired very many managers from the outside and we had not promoted very many people into management from the inside. We didn’t have a vision of how we wanted to scale teams and if anything, we felt quite a lot of peril that in that scaling we would lose a lot of what we had already built up.”

Sarah Nahm, Lever’s CEO, speaks about the company’s position at the beginning of the leadership development work

The Decision Point

Making a Strategic Investment in Managers

At that time, Sarah Nahm and Mike Bailen, the VP of People, made a strategic decision to focus on developing it managers.

“Because many of these leaders were stepping into management for the very first time, it was critical to establish a philosophical alignment around what the role means. We needed to give managers the tools to think of themselves as people developers, not as somebody’s boss.  And, obviously, a big part of an employee’s engagement is a result of their relationship with their manager. More than ever, employees want to gain skills, learn new things, and be developed. If they can’t find it within your organization, they're going to go somewhere else. So that’s why we started with the management layer.”

Mike Bailen, Lever's VP of People

Our Approach
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Our Approach

The Goal: Our goal in the design of the Leadership Accelerator for Lever was to empower mid-level managers to move through the journey from team manager to team coach over the course of six months, while also increasing the engagement levels of their teams.

Our Methods: To ensure the successful behavioral adoption for Lever’s leaders, we utilized the most effective training modalities for today’s workplace, including:

  • Peer group learning sessions and peer coaching
  • Personalized coaching on specific growth areas, as identified by close colleagues
  • Relevant exercises to apply to real work.

The Content: The content of the program focused on three core behavioral strategies.

  • Own your growth: This module included segments related to personal growth planning, social and emotional intelligence, productivity habits, and work–life balance.
  • Develop your people: This module included segments to coach direct reports in growth conversations and spot coaching.
  • Empower your team: This module focused on developing the capabilities of managers to take a collaborative, data-driven approach to improving key performance and engagement dimensions with their team.


The Results

+     Increased Engagement Scores

Using this approach, Lever’s managers increased engagement on key indicators by an average of 20%, as well as increased overall engagement for the company by 2%.

+     Improved Manager Effectiveness in Key Areas

92% of participants improved their goal-setting abilities
84% of participants improved their abilities to hold others accountable
92% of participants increased personal productivity
92% of participants made progress in specific growth areas
84% of participants improved their emotional awareness and self-regulation

+     Improved Cross-Functional Effectiveness

Because Lever’s managers were developed together as a cohort, the company benefited from shared learning and accountability amongst managers and improved cross- functional capabilities. Bailen remarks, “The frameworks we now have create a system that optimizes cross-functional outcomes. Teams can deploy these frameworks as they are entering into team-based work or as they are interfacing with other parts of the business and it is not foreign to anybody.”

+     Dynamic and Responsive Organization Environment

Lever’s managers and teams have created the foundation for a dynamic and responsive organizational environment. As Bailen states, “Many organizations go from point a to point b in a straight line. In contrast, we’ve set up a system where we can sense things along that path and move dynamically when we encounter different roadblocks, challenges or variables.”

+     Competitive Advantage

Simply having access to this data is not a competitive edge. Most organizations are awash in data. What gives companies like Lever an edge is that they now have the frameworks and tools to deftly use that data to identify and shift behaviours as needed – whether that is to increase performance, improve an engagement dimension or decrease turnover. These are the kinds of things that most startups simply don’t know how to target and improve in any significant or predictable way. Companies that do this well, when aided by reliable and signal-worthy data, will leapfrog ahead of their competition.