By Les McKeown, CEO of Predictable Success
There comes a time in the growth of every business when the once-tight startup culture – that we-finish-each-other’s-sentences sense of mind-meld – begins to fragment.
Usually, this is a cause of some angst to the founder group, as they fear something vital in the organization’s DNA is being lost. Equally often, this is an understandable, but entirely misplaced fear. Not because the organization isn’t losing some of what makes it unique – it most certainly is – but because what it’s shedding is something it must in order to develop to the next level.
And, just as it would be perverse in the extreme to try to keep your antsy, gawky, ever-more-irascible teenage kids frozen in time as the adorable three- or four-year-old toddlers they once were, so it is understandable, but equally perverse, to attempt to force your growing business to ‘stay cute’.
The fact is, an unavoidable cost of growth is that your business matures; and as it does, one specific change above all else dramatically impacts its internal culture: the business begins to develop subsidiary, not-quite-independent moving parts. Rather than being just one entity – a small group of people all pulling as one in the same direction – at some point (and, depending on the business, it can happen with 50, 20, even just 10 employees), what we view as ‘the business’ becomes in essence a grouping of divisions, departments, projects, groups or teams.
Alongside this shift in the underlying structure of the business, another, associated tectonic shift occurs: increasingly, leadership evolves away from the ‘ready, fire, aim’ survivalist mindset of the startup, into a role of coordination, harmonization and Solomonic resource allocation.
But what if the former occurs, but not the latter? What if the business indeed morphs, lava-lamp-like, into an underlying conglomerate of distinct groups, characterized by function, location, or both, but the leadership role doesn’t shift accordingly? That’s when tensions and misalignment develop to the point of frustration and, ultimately, silo-ization. Trying to lead a business as if we’re all still just one big happy family, when in fact we’re now a set of (potentially) happy tribes is an exercise of living in denial, with predictable results.
The strains caused by leading a business with the wrong leadership model become particularly acute when each of the underlying sub-groups begin to mature in and of themselves. As each in turn move through stages of development different from their sibling groups, communication and customer-focused coordination in particular begin to break down. With your sales team, say in Whitewater, your marketing group in Fun, and your administration and accounting team perhaps in Treadmill, attempting to apply the same cookie-cutter cultural template to each will not only be ineffectual, it will actually cause rifts between groups, and lead to high-performer disengagement.
So, if you’re experiencing an increasing sense of leadership frustration in your growing business; if it feels like, when you put your foot on the gas pedal, the car doesn’t go forward as it should, take a look at your leadership style. Chances are that you need to evolve that tightly focused, one-for-all and all-for-one approach into something more akin to conducting an orchestra. Are you ready for that challenge?