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March 8, 2016

9 Tips for Leaders in a Growing Business

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Sometimes growth can take your breath away—like it does for these new parents: 

I remember a few years ago helping a company that was growing from single digit millions in revenue to triple digit millions in revenue in a short 24-month period. This breathtaking growth left the leaders feeling pressure and scrambling to respond well. This hyper-growth phase is often called the “pull” season rather than the “push” season.

If we exclude start-ups and companies in need of reinventing themselves, there are really only two main types of companies out there—healthy mature companies and high-growth companies. Mature companies are stable, efficient, and generally have some measure of predictable growth.  

But then there are companies or organizations that are in high or fast growth mode. I can’t tell you the standard growth rate percentage because there are so many variables from industry to industry. But one thing is very clear—these companies  are riding a big wave of growth and momentum.

I am not inferring that this company is more valuable or impactful than a mature stable organization or company. I am just making the case that a high-growth company requires a few things different from its leadership.

  1. When forced to choose, pick health over growth. The environmentalist Edward Abbey said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” How healthy is your organization? Like a machine running at full throttle, the tiniest frayed wire can cause an explosion. Where are you sticking on band-aids? In the area of cash flow? HR? Market analysis? Ethics?  Take the time to remove the band-aid and focus on health. The taller the building, the stronger the foundation must be.
  2. Remember that rapid growth can wreak havoc.  Oftentimes, it is the growth itself that is causing the poor health. Rapid growth puts pressure on the joints of your business. Your employees are struggling to keep up. Your culture begins to get watered down. Your cash is being consumed like pizza at a 14-year-old boy’s birthday party. Chaos and mayhem are common elements that appear during fast growth.
  3. Minimize hierarchy. Maximize culture.  Your culture can be one of your greatest assets during high growth. The “dot-com-ers” have been using this tool for years. Since culture is at risk during high growth, you’ve got to figure out ways to let it seep into every corner of the company. To do that, there can’t be an “us and them” mentality. It’s what Google is known for—a creative culture that extends across a flat organization.
  4. Stay humble and smart. Sam Walton was famous for his humility and camaraderie with employees. His 1992 Los Angeles Times obituary told a typical story of one night when he couldn’t sleep, so he hopped in his pick-up, grabbed some donuts, and went to a distribution center. Talking and eating with the dockworkers, he learned that they needed more shower stalls. Walton took care of it. Through acts like these, he established a culture that valued and rewarded knowledge sharing. Even in hyper-growth, Walton learned from people because he didn’t think himself bigger than them.  
  5. Aim for agility over efficiency.  High growth wars against efficiency because efficiency is a by-product of control, and control is the one thing you don’t have. It’s like Steve Martin, with no efficiency in this high-growth family. In a high-growth company, you’re moving too fast to not “waste” resources.  The solution? Worry less about efficiency and more about pivoting. In other words, run fast and break things. Just remember where the broken glass is and move around it.
  6. Know what you’re measuring.  Someone once said, “Speed is only useful if you’re running in the right direction.” Measuring the right things tells you if you just took a wrong exit and need to hop back on the interstate before you end up at the wrong destination. Your revenue may be growing but what about your ROI? Your profits may be growing but what about your customer base?
  7. It’s up to you to manage you and keep life in balance.  A few years ago, I released a short book called Managing Me because I’ve found again and again that high-performance leaders often ignore the gauges in their own life to keep them airborne. High growth will tempt you to ignore those gauges. Never forget it is up to you to manage you. You can’t outsource or delegate it. You don’t get to successful in order to stop managing yourself. And there will never be easy time to do it.
  8. Make sure everyone is in the people-development business.  Keeping up with talent is usually an Achilles’ heel of high growth. Don’t depend on HR to keep people motivated and engaged. This 2014 Inc. article points out that employee engagement cannot be a one-size fits all approach. Every level of the company has to be thinking about engaging its people. I love the Google approach to this.
  9. Cover for each other. High growth will inevitably mean more work and will likely leave team members with plates that are too full. Expect to jump in and help each other on projects. Employees will be more engaged as they see that they’re part of a team. No one wants to be just another cog in the wheel. 

And here’s one final tip: enjoy your growth. It may be hard to imagine, but don’t get so overwhelmed that you don’t pause and enjoy it. You’ll look back on this season with more than a bit of nostalgia and “Wow.” Be the skier going down the black slope who might crash, but who’s also thinking, “This is crazy fun!”

As Andy Rooney said, “Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs when you’re climbing it.”

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