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October 26, 2021

Hypergrowth: Leading in the Fast Lane

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I once had a CEO who came to me with a problem that most people would love to have. In just fifteen months, his company went from a budget of a few million to an annual budget of over $100 million—fifteen months and about forty times the budget.

I say that most people would love that problem, and that’s true. But let’s be honest, it’s definitely a problem. My client’s stress was way up. He was being pushed out of his comfort zone of leadership and making a ton of quick decisions with less-than-perfect information. He was also losing connection with some of the people he’d worked closest with over the years. It was great, but it was hard.

If you’ve ever been in a season of hypergrowth (or if you’re in one right now), you know that feeling. Hypergrowth carries a different kind of stress, and it requires a different kind of leadership.

But it is possible. After working with a ton of clients running in the fast lane, I’ve gathered together a few insights about hypergrowth—a set of “truths” and a set of “to dos.” Call them general insights and actionable insights for living in hypergrowth.

General Insights (Truths)

  1. Health should always trump growth. As you grow, always ask the questions, “Why do I want to grow?” and “What are the costs of growth?” Growth, after all, is not the goal. As Edward Abbey, author and environmentalist, said, “Growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
  2. Rapid growth can wreak havoc on your people, culture, and cash. This insight goes to the question of the costs of growth—because there are definitely costs. Your employees, in particular, feel them, and it’s their engagement that often suffers. The costs may not pop up right away, but they will pop up in the months and years ahead, so identify them ahead of time.
  3. Hypergrowth usually comes because of the combination of strategy and luck. You can’t (and shouldn’t) take all the credit for hypergrowth, but that doesn’t mean you just stumble into it. Hypergrowth usually comes both because of chance and because of organizational readiness and market opportunity, and it takes strategy to pull those off.
  4. In hypergrowth, hierarchy is usually minimized, and culture is maximized. I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that you can’t structure for growth and control at the same time. So, if you’re in a season of hypergrowth…
  5. Hypergrowth wars against efficiency. If you place a high value on efficiency, rapid growth will be tough on you. The old adage “run fast and break things” applies here. You will break things, lose resources, and waste time in hypergrowth. That’s part of the cost.
  6. Pivoting is your best friend. We usually think of pivoting as something to pull you out of the ditch, but in high growth, it’s about avoiding the ditch altogether. When you’re going 75 mph down the interstate, you want to make a lot of small, slight changes so you don’t have to make one massive one.

Actionable Insights (To-Dos)

  1. Knowledge sharing and culture building is everyone’s job. You can’t afford isolated culture departments during hypergrowth. Create systems and spaces for knowledge-sharing between departments and reward it big time when it happens. Cultivate leaders who themselves pursue growth opportunities. You can’t afford to lose culture. Make it everyone’s job to build, protect, and advance a healthy culture.
  2. Find and nurture your high-growth levers. You have to pay a little (or a lot) more attention to the people, customers, and markets that will keep the momentum going. Don’t let it become backroom favoritism, but do structure your time and resources with those high-growth levers in order to keep things moving for everyone.
  3. Know what you are measuring. Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed.” In hypergrowth, you don’t have the bandwidth to manage everything, so you have to choose wisely what you’ll measure. Don’t measure too many things and don’t measure the wrong things. Find the right gauges to measure health and growth.
  4. Make sure people know to self-manage. As the leader, you’ll be putting a lot on people. They need to manage and communicate their own sense of balance and rhythm. Otherwise, you’ll either burn them out by never letting them take a break or burn yourself out by taking everything on yourself.
  5. Cover for each other. Build a culture of covering for each other. Mistakes and hectic weeks can actually strengthen your team. Things won’t go perfectly in hypergrowth, but imperfect moments provide an incredible opportunity for culture-building.
  6. Stay humble and smart. Hypergrowth tends to make leaders feel as if they could handle anything thrown at them—like they’re the experts in every room. You lead well through hypergrowth, though, when you use what you’ve learned in the past, but you stay a learner, not assuming you know it all.
  7. Be agile and pivot, pivot, pivot. When you get good, trusted feedback, put it into practice. What are your mechanisms for getting that feedback? Have you built a culture that allows you to pivot without getting pushback in favor of “the way we’ve always done it?”

Anne Mulcahy, a former CEO of Xerox, said, “Turnaround or growth, it’s getting your people focused on the goal that is still the job of leadership.” She’s right. Leadership is leadership. You’re still getting people focused on the goal.

In hypergrowth, the road is coming at you fast and furious. You’re like a Formula 1 driver breaking 200 mph, and everything looks like a blur. But you can’t always slow down and win. Sometimes you must keep the pedal to the metal. Take it one lap at a time by practicing the insights above. You might be surprised at how good you are at leading in hypergrowth.

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