A business requires different leadership approaches and models at the different stages of its growth, but it’s an element of growth strategy are often overlooked. However, research shows that if you don’t evolve your leadership focus, style and characteristics as you grow, it becomes one of the biggest obstacles a business encounters.
Let’s look at three stages in the growth journey - start-up to initial growth, high growth and continuous growth - and the focus of the leadership role in each, and then consider the leadership characteristics in each growth stage.
As a start-up, a founder leader is both ‘thinker and doer’ – indeed you may be the only person available to do the work, or the one person capable of doing the leaders role. Your sights are set on initial growth, launching your new product, winning initial customers and getting revenue. At this stage, you are hands-on and task-driven, managing every critical decision, calling all the shots.
Shouldering the entire burden of execution leaves precious little time for thinking, it’s fast paced and chaotic. When you attempt to do everything yourself, you risk personal overload, constantly fire-fighting and confronting a myriad of decisions. Your growth may stagnate as your time is consumed by existing customers, your daily workload is overwhelming, you can’t begin to set the scene for new development.
In this maelstrom, as a leader making the shift from start-up to initial growth, you should attempt to focus on four primary leadership goals:
- Be more proactive and less reactive
- Work on the big picture: strategy, vision and culture
- Develop the product and build a sales engine
- Focus on the customer experience
That’s all easier said than done, considering the burden of work, but the essence is to stop making all the decisions, and be a direction setter. It’s time to trust others in your organisation, give them the opportunity and hold them accountable for day-to day operations.
If you have a value proposition that has attracted customers, the step from start-up to initial growth is followed by a leap into high growth, when your focus is on building your business model. Hang on tight though, it’s a turbulent ride. During this stage, you will need a rapid expansion in hiring and a greater investment in infrastructure. You will also need to reign in some of the chaos and maverick tendencies of your initial growth. It’s now time for investment in systems and processes - riding a galloping horse is exhilarating, trying to ride a runaway horse isn’t quite as much fun.
As a leader in a high growth business, it’s about scaling your customer base, emerging as a brand and building an effective team. There are often significant pains shifting to high growth. Your ambition and enterprise will be as strong as ever, you’re enjoying the shots of adrenalin fuelled by customer success, but growth may be overwhelming you personally, making you feel behind the curve.
While you know you need to be proactive, you have no time to do so. As your headcount grows, your culture is being diluted, and your original team can’t keep up with the pace of growth. If that wasn’t enough, your financial situation is cloudy because cash flow is tight and you may feel like you are losing control. However, growth is your goal, not your enemy. You might be surprised at some of the personal shifts needed to enter the high growth stage. As founder, it’s about now that you admit you don’t have all the answers. You are focused on the future, so you should no longer attempt to solve every current problem. You should be doing less in the business day-to- day, and spending more time on managing, coaching, and securing the big picture. It’s about working ‘on’ the business, and not ‘in’ the business.
As a leader looking to enable high growth, you should attempt to focus on four primary leadership goals:
- Build a team centric culture that is collaborative, and involve your team in decision-making
- Free yourself from day-to-day operations, transfer knowledge and become ‘hands-off’
- Be a champion of effective, efficient customer processes
- Focus on your product route map and development
As an effective business is now starting to emerge, you have a larger, complex organisation. You have ambition for further scaling, and your growth plan includes new strategies – potential alliances and acquisitions.
A leader looking to sustain high growth has to focus on developing new markets, expanding the product line and brand building. As you shift to a model that enables this sustained, continuous growth, you face a batch of new challenges. Typically, you still feel you don’t have time for vital strategic tasks, and your old problem-solving methods aren’t working. Also despite your efforts of delegation and involving your team in decision-making, you worry constantly about your team’s ability to handle things without you. However, when you attempt to get involved, you face accusations of micromanaging.
A model of continuous growth requires you to go full-time on the big picture, leaving operations behind completely. You have to enlist your top team to share in the strategic leadership of the company to ensure you are poised for continued growth. Make sure your vision and values are clear to all, and redefine your culture to attract and retain the best performers.
In the continuous growth stage, you have four new roles as a leader:
- Be relentless and restless, be a change catalyst.
- Develop the brand, and be the brand advocate.
- Put strategic innovation at the core of your thinking.
- Act as the Chief Culture Officer to create an environment that reflects your values and vision.
Growth leaders are not unlike a particularly hardy crustacean. With each passage from one stage of growth to the next, they must shed their existing protective structure, become exposed, vulnerable and embryonic again, capable of stretching in ways not experienced before. These sheddings into the next stage of growth leader’s journey reflect the George Bernard Shaw quote: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man’.
What tools have you used to grow your business? Let us know in the comments below.