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Nov 13, 2018

3 Priorities of High Growth Leaders

The things you should be focusing on when your startup or company is seeing unprecedented growth.

All companies are looking for growth. That said, a company experiencing steep growth can feel chaotic and volatile. One startup I work with began the year with 200 employees and currently has more than 1,000. The employees feel enormously stretched by all the new people, the increasing demands and the constant change.

It’s not just startups. The largest division of a major public technology firm I work with changed the way it sold and its product mix last year. It had been used to growing 8 percent or so per year; last year that division had a 27 percent uptick in revenue. That’s steep for a massive company.

Leaders who find themselves in a high growth environment need to orient themselves to take advantage of the gifts and minimize the downsides of high growth. Specifically, high growth leaders need to build their agility. They need to focus on growing the right talent. And they need to be purposeful in communicating.

Agility

High growth leaders need to be able to move at the speed of their business. The only way to do this is to build your agility skills. We often think of speed when we think of agility, and speed is certainly part of the equation. Agility, however, is not only about speed. It’s about reading the situation, learning quickly and adjusting.

 Agility is not about being an impulsive decision-maker—“ready, fire, aim” is rarely a good model for sound decisions. But an agile leader does scan the business landscape to see what changes and disruptions are likely on the horizon. She assesses the situation as it is (not as it was last quarter) and engages her team to look at scenarios from different angles.

In a dynamic environment we can’t know all the consequences. So when making decisions an agile leader has a bias for action and often guides her team to think about experiments and pilots rather than large scale direction changes.

To improve your agility, get in the habit of scanning your business environment proactively, internally and externally, looking for changes. And get in the habit of thinking, What is the lightest or easiest way to test this idea?

In the example of the startup that had grown so quickly, the CEO realized that he was in the habit of requiring an extensively thought out business case for each new market the team wanted to address. That had seemed like a good idea when the company was small. Now it was slowing everything down. The CEO had been the final decision-maker, and the volume just got to be too high for him to handle—he was way behind. And as we discussed the past few scenarios, he saw that it wasn’t clear that all that data gathering was even very helpful because things changed so fast. He wondered how many opportunities they had missed because the business case hadn’t been attractive enough.

In light of this, the CEO decided to set up a framework for experiments, a small group of ultimate decision-makers from various teams that didn’t include him and a quarterly meeting to check in on the process and the results. That’s it. After that many more projects got launched, they were able to test their assumptions and it was much clearer which projects were winners and losers.

Talent

A company can only grow as fast as the skill level of the people inside of it. As you scan your environment, and as you disseminate decision-making authority, you will notice that there are some leaders and employees who naturally stretch as their roles grow and change and some who don’t. High growth environments require leaders to be obsessed with finding the right people and putting them in the right roles.

Create a system to develop and to hire people that will work within your environment. It should be lightweight but also deliberate. Some tools to try are:

  • Expect all managers to set up specific blocks of time—15 minutes to two hours—every week to coach and develop their employees.
  • Expect all employees to have a development plan.
  • Ask managers to regularly canvass their teams when a special project comes along to see who might be ready for a stretch.
  • When hiring, incorporate specific questions that will help the interviewers assess “high growth mindset.” These might include asking about examples of times that the person had to stretch and how she handled that or times when he had to make a decision in a time of ambiguity.
  • Incorporate questions that assess candidates’ interest in learning and growing.

If you haven’t done a detailed assessment of your talent, now is the time. Make sure you have a blend of leadership, domain and decision-making skills so that you as the leader can feel comfortable pushing down decisions to the people around you.

Communication

Exponential business growth means exponential change, and that requires intense, focused communication. When new information comes to light or specific decisions get made, you don’t have the luxury of delay. And yet, ironically, in high-growth companies, because things are happening so fast, communication often gets worse because of the frenetic pace. Add to that the many channels to communicate: text, email, Slack, meetings, phone calls, and it’s easy for key messages to get missed.

When people don’t know what’s going on, they waste their time and that of others, and spend time wondering what they should do next. Poor and inconsistent communication is a growth killer.

That’s why you need systems. Here are three systems you should think about coordinating.

  • Daily Standup: Every small team can benefit from a daily standup: a 15-minute meeting in which the team coordinates its work, communicates about issues and decides when and how to follow up. This enables people to solve problems on the fly and ensures that tactical problems don’t linger.
  • Regular All-Hands: This is where the leader gathers everyone together and communicates what’s going on. At startups, all-hands tend to be every week and contain the entire company. At large companies, they may be division-wide or even department-wide and may happen once per month. Either way, the leader communicating to the whole team at the same time is a very powerful way to ensure consistent communication and reinforce key messages.
  • Daily Blog: I once worked with the president of a division of a large tech firm. Her division had a major opportunity they were trying to deliver on. The pace was frantic, and people were stretched. She committed to her team to write a daily blog about what was on her mind, wins and challenges and other updates. This was a terrific tool to maintain morale, showcase progress and update everybody.

If you are leading a high growth situation, you need to focus on the key attributes of success: agility, talent and communication.

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