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February 25, 2020

Leadership Scaling

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Fifteen years ago, if I told a client they should think about scale, there’s a 50/50 chance that they’d think I was suggesting weight loss.

Today, my clients usually bring it up at a first meeting. They’re either anticipating hypergrowth or they’re right in the middle of it.

Scaling is everywhere.

For example, take a look at the 2019 November/December issue of Harvard Business Review. The case study is “Did We Expand Too Quickly?

Or look at the book category “Business and Organizational Learning”—the top 25 books include Traction, High Output Management, The Everything Store, Rocket Fuel, Team of Teams, and Scaling Up: How A Few Companies Make It and the Rest Don’t.

In Scaling Up, Verne Harnish says it plainly: “Scaling up is every entrepreneur’s dream—and nightmare. Hypergrowth is terrifying, and it is most often success that kills great companies.”

When I talk with clients about scaling, though, there’s one facet of scaling that I always circle back to—people.

The #1 rule of scaling is: You can’t scale ahead of your people.

You can always add some more employees, right? A few W-2s here, a few 1099s there; a good booth at college job fairs, and the right screener questions on LinkedIn or Indeed. Throw in some on the job training, and you’re good to go.

Wrong. Scaling your people and the leadership layers in any company is no easy assignment. It is the holy grail, as it were. It is not just adding more people to the overhead. It is adding the right people to the right seats at the right time.

It is not being too far ahead of the growth curve or too far behind the growth curve. One hits you over head and the other hits the enthusiasm of your team (which eventually shows up in the financials).

Let me give you five basic principles of leadership scaling to get your brain going.

  1. It starts with people. You can’t (or at least don’t want to) scale your leadership with people who cut corners or produce shoddy work or make it all about themselves. Find or hire people who have the 3 C’s—character, competence, and chemistry. This is step one: start with the right people.
  • Company culture is the oxygen. Culture is key to either fueling leadership scaling or stifling it. Do you have an organizational culture that values personal development? One that values honest mistakes? One that has values in the first place? One particular cultural value key to leadership scaling is communication. If you don’t value communication and feedback, team members will burn out or fracture, and your leadership structure begins to collapse under stress. And in hypergrowth, stress is coming.
  • Framework needed. You need a framework to scale anything and leadership is no different. Your framework needs to be simple enough for people to: get it quickly, use it broadly, evaluate it easily, and share it simply. This is one reason guys like John Maxwell have been so successful. Their stuff is easily useable. The framework for leadership may well be very multi-layered behind the scenes, but it is consistent and adaptable and user-friendly.
  • It won’t go perfectly. Steve Jobs said, “Sometimes when you innovate you make mistakes. It’s best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations.” I’d substitute “always” for “sometimes” and “scale” for “innovate.” Leadership scaling will always place someone into a seat ahead of them perfecting the training. In other words, they will make mistakes, stuff will fall through the cracks, the plan will be tested, etc. It is hard to organize for control and growth at the same time in equal portions. The problem is that’s exactly what you’re trying to do at scale. So, commit to learning quickly from mistakes.

A few years back, I co-wrote a book called From Concept to Scale. The idea was helping individuals take an idea from a concept to a launch, then proving it and scaling it as a viable business or organization.

I’m not about to do a rewrite, but if I was going to, I would look at the section on “Scale” and look at it through the lens of leadership scaling.

Done right, leadership scaling produces and equips leaders when you’re not looking. The structure is that effective. Done wrong, leadership scaling can be your downfall.

You’ll have a few superstars at the top of any org chart, or a lot of production at the bottom of the org chart (which one better describes your company?) and you’re overly dependent on superstars and risking burnout.

Leadership scaling demands thinking about talent and development at every level. And constantly thinking about it.

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