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  • Writer's pictureLinda Kinning

How to sort and name the many hats your team will wear when building a company: A framework for building strong, effective, startup teams


This is a framework for understanding the roles a team needs to have to be successful. This is not about job titles or even functional expertise (although that is important!) – but rather what kinds of leadership is required for a team to move effectively.

Note: Roles we won’t see named here are strategist, executor, or decision maker. That’s because everyone should be thinking strategically, executing well, and making decisions within their role. These are not centralized functions, but expectations of all roles.

Some people on your team may do multiple roles, be careful that they aren’t over worked. If no one on your team is playing one of these roles–that’s a leadership gap you need to address.

The Roles -- Overview


Strategic responsibilities

Decision making domain

The Prioritizer

Sets the product roadmap and short/medium term focus

What gets done and when 

What not to do

The Visionary

Sets the Big Picture and thinks 3-5 steps ahead 

What are we working toward? 

The Optimizer

Sets the process, tools, and ways of working together

How can we work together more efficiently?

The Operators(s) 

Manages how best to get things done in their domain 

What is possible, probable, feasible and ideal? What isn’t? 

The Prioritizer

The Prioritizer is responsible for leading the team in what to focus on right now and what not to focus on. This person has a mental map of the necessary sequence of things that need to be done and they can translate that map into a plan others can follow. The

Prioritizer knows when to be flexible and adjust and also knows what the hard deadlines are and ensures the team has what they need to meet the most crucial milestones.

The Prioritizer is likely to take on the functions of:
  • Sprint planning

  • Building and updating the product roadmap

  • Aligning the team on priorities

The Prioritizer may make decisions about:
  • Which product features to build first and why

  • Which customer segments to pursue first – and which not to

  • How to allocate a limited budget

The Visionary

The Visionary is responsible for aligning and inspiring the team on what all their hard work is in service of. The Visionary sees growth and is in charge of sharing the vision so that everyone else can do their part to make that vision a reality. This person is good at inspiring others and getting team members, customers, and investors to see why this idea is important and worth pursuing.

The Visionary is likely to take on the functions of:
  • Long term strategy

  • Growth strategy

  • Communicating the purpose, mission, vision, and goals of the company

  • Inspiring others

  • Setting stretch goals

The Visionary may make decisions about:
  • Which markets and customer segments to pursue

  • Who to consider a competitor and who to consider an analog

  • What team composition and growth should look like

  • Branding and positioning

The Optimizer

The Optimizer is responsible for looking for efficiencies and ways to work together better. The Optimizer has a POV on how best to organize work, which project management system to use and how to best share information across a team. This person looks at the company as a delicate machine and brings their own set of precision tools to make recommendations and propose experiments to build the most optimal machine possible. They are comfortable making recommendations for how team members work together, how the company functions as a whole, and how to interact with customers.

The Optimizer is likely to take on the functions of:
  • Turning data into insights

  • Process documentation

  • Team communication and functionality

The Optimizer may make decisions about:
  • Which project management system to use

  • How to maintain a knowledge base and which tools to communicate with

  • How to improve meeting efficacy and decision making

The Operator(s)

The Operators(s) are responsible for getting shit done. They are experts in their domain– that may be engineering, product, design, or R&D. Operators are leaders in crossing off to-do’s and experts in differentiating what is possible, probable, and out of scope within their domain. They are trusted advisors in what they do and are the voice of best practice in their discipline. Operators are likely to focus on one domain and early on, in a small team, are likely to overlap with other roles.

The Operator(s) are likely to take on the functions of:
  • Deep, functional expertise in their domain: engineering, product, UX/UI, business strategy (GTM, Growth), design and branding

  • Building the MVP

  • Expertise in your market, customer segment, industry, or product category

The Operator(s) may make decisions about:
  • What the tech stack should be (ENG)

  • Branding guidelines (Design)

  • User research approach and data collection guide

  • MVP specs (ENG + Product)

How to use this framework

A framework is useful only if it helps you make sense of your experience and the world. What this one lacks in snappy acronyms, I hope it makes up for in language that helps you better understand your teams strengths and weaknesses.

  • To assess your current team composition and look for gaps | Just like you can't have 3 captains of a boat or a restaurant without line cooks, an imbalanced team will adversely affect your ability to move and learn quickly

    • Are you running in conversation circles and making more wishes than plans without making decisions about what do next? -- You need more Prioritizer on your team

    • Are you still using the same sales process you used for your first 10 customers for your next 100? -- Get thee an Optimizer to assess

    • Can every member of your team tell you what they're working towards and where the company wants to be in the next year? -- More Visionary energy please

    • Are you spending more time thinking than doing? -- Call in your Operators stat

  • To understand your own preferred roles and articulate them to others | The reality is that early on, you may need to play multiple roles just to get the job done. But in thinking about what you do this framework can help you name what roles play to your strengths.

  • As a collection of necessary ingredients -- not an org chart | Startups are defined by uncertainty ("an idea in search of a business model") but you can be certain that someone will have to play all these roles to make progress. This framework can help you name and plan for it proactively.

If this framework is helpful to you, or you have builds -- I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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