You did it!
The business is finally taking off. Your sales are up. Your headcount has swelled to meet increased demand. You’re starting to think that perhaps the sky truly is the limit.
For most, this kind of the growth is the dream. Growth is the most reliable indicator that you’re doing something right.
But high growth can go from right to wrong…and quick. In a cruel twist, growth itself can become a liability for your business if not managed well.
In our experience working with high growth companies—whether they’re going from 200 to 1000 employees, or a 4x in revenue, all within a short span—we’ve found that most of the trouble stems from a series of unchecked assumptions.
In other words, it’s easy to take for granted certain “givens” about your business that may have been true up until this point but do not hold true in the face of such rapid growth.
Leaders must be vigilant in checking their own assumptions about the very reality in which they operate. The willingness to investigate those assumptions is what transforms precarious growth into sustainablegrowth.
Here are some of the “givens” most taken for granted in high growth situations:
“Given” #1: Your Employees Share Your Ambition to Grow
Yes, your company is growing, but do your people want to grow with you? Don’t assume.
All choices involve trade-offs. You may not conceive of growth as much of a choice. “Grow or bust, that’s just what we do!” But not all of your colleagues may have seen that growth as inevitable, or even desirable. With growth comes more workload, more responsibility, more stress, more speed.
So, get in conversation with folks. Seek to understand how they view all this change and whether their personal ambition is a match for the new target being set.
For example, you may assume they see that high growth may mean more opportunity for upwards mobility; but not everyone may be looking for those kinds of opportunities. They may be perfectly content at their current level in the organization. You will need to ensure that there is a compelling case for growth that at least partially reflects what is important to those folks who will be required to perform at new levels, in new situations, or at greater speed or scope.
The bottom line is that it’s critical to have your finger on the pulse—to ensure that in this new era of growth, your folks are game for what comes next.
“Given” #2: Your Employees Feel Enrolled in a New Future
In order to achieve and/or sustain high growth, companies often undergo a substantial pivot from their current course.
For example, we worked with a rapidly expanding healthcare company that was transitioning from a focus on providing quality local care to a more large-scale national brand. That shifted focus suited a more aggressive growth strategy.
Leaders at the top of an organization—the ones who determined that new focus—found this new direction wildly compelling. But the folks on the ground had a different take altogether. The more intimate, local, family-oriented ethos of the company was what attracted them to the job in the first place. In their eyes, a more aggressive, expansive strategy felt like a departure from the heart and soul of the company.
“Given” #3: The Culture Will Simply Carry Over
It’s a mistake to assume that the culture you’ve worked to cultivate until now will remain intact through all of the growth you are experiencing.
Culture isn’t a static thing that can be simply dragged and dropped from one context to the next. Ultimately, culture is created in conversation. It’s created in the conversations in meetings, but it’s also created in the conversations after the meetings, at the water cooler, in the group WhatsApp threads, and beyond.
As a company grows, more and different conversations are being had. The culture is shifting in real-time.
And so, the first thing to take note of here is to make sure you’re keeping your finger on the pulse of where culture in your organization is headed. For example, you may have a strong culture of trust, but as new personalities and pressures are introduced, that trust may have eroded. It’s critical to be aware of these shifts, however subtle.
Additionally, do not assume that culture should be carried over into the new era of growth. There’s no “wrong” or “right” culture—there’s only culture that is or is not a match for where your company is headed. For instance, until now you may have had a culture that valued consensus-building. But in a new era of growth, consensus-building might hold you back, and you may need to cultivate a culture of initiative-taking. Again, it’s crucial to leave your assumptions at the door!
“Given” #4: The Structures Will Carry Over
This piece may seem obvious, but it’s so often overlooked: the structures you have had in place in your organization may have served you well, but likely must be altered, or even radically transformed, to accommodate the growth you’re experiencing.
When it comes to evaluating structures, the sort of analysis you need to do is truly comprehensive. Financial and accounting structures, management structures, workflow structures, the way we meet, the way we share information, the way we organize, etc…—it all needs to be considered with an eye towards what will support this current phase.
Take communication structures, for example. In moments of explosive growth, the reality on the ground is often changing at a rapid pace. To thrive in that condition, information needs to change hands quickly. The communication structures that worked until now may not be appropriate anymore. Instead of the weekly hour-long all hands meeting, you may require shorter, daily check-ins.
“Given” #5: Your Leaders are Up to the Task
This is perhaps the pitfall we see most often in our work with high growth companies.
It’s such a common story: someone positively thrived in their role before all the growth happened. But the growth did happen, and the requirements for the role changed, sometimes dramatically. A manager of 5 is now managing 25—and finding themselves pushed into roles beyond their existing competency level.
So, if you’re looking to maintain your current leadership team, it’s critical to develop a specific leadership talent growth plan so that the right people are in the right roles. And this plan needs to focus on honing the leadership skills endemic to wherever those leaders find themselves within the leadership pipeline.
Taking Off the Blinders
Some of these “givens” may not apply in your individual case. And there are undoubtedly other “givens” that I’ve not mentioned here and are currently serving as a blind spot for you. The key here is to cultivate your capacity to become aware of how you’re observing the high growth situation, and the ability to notice when you’re deferring to what you’re used to, which is often quite different from what is best.
So many leaders put the figurative blinders on. It worked until now, so it’ll work again. It got us here, so it might be the right thing to do. But organizations are complex, growth is complex, and they require constant attunement and refinement through the growth process.
If any of the pitfalls mentioned in this piece resonate with you, reach out to us so we can look at how to address them in your organization — contact us.