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The anatomy of a high growth leader

May 27, 2014

A business requires different leadership approaches and models at the different stages of its growth, but it’s an element of growth strategy 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 to growth 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.

So there are some thoughts about the role and focus of the leader in different growth modes. Now consider the different leadership characteristics and traits, which are common – and essential – across the three stages of growth.

1. Self-Esteem Underlying everything is a high sense of one’s own self-worth. Without that, you will never undertake tough challenges. Making a start, keeping going, and never doubting yourself at any time is part of an entrepreneur’s journey of self-discovery and learning. If you begin to doubt yourself you lose the confidence to make decisions by instinct, and end up making steps into safety and not growth. Conformity is the jailer of free thinking and the enemy of growth, brought on by self-doubt.

2. Fire Inside This need has been associated with leaders who constantly seek to perform at their best, are goal oriented, seek to be unique, and strive for accomplishments based on their own efforts. As a result, they also take risks. The most important motivational factors here are internal intrinsic ones, keeping going despite the fact that staff tell them they are foolish, friends say they are wasting their time, and family tells them to get a real job. When the intrinsic drive goes away, so does any chance of success.

3. Locus of Control Successful leaders typically show a high internal locus of control. In many different studies, those with a high internal locus of control are more likely to experience success, than individuals who are high on the external locus of control. Individuals high on the internal locus of control have a different assumption about how the world works, they assume success they experience is due to their personal efforts and that they have the ability to influence events. Interestingly, internal also assume failure was also their fault.

4. Optimism Underlying successful entrepreneurial leader is a boundless font of optimism that never seems to end. When faced with a problem, they view it as a challenge. When faced with a setback, they view it as a new direction, when told no, they say ‘maybe not now, but I know you’ll change your mind later’. This characteristic contrasts sharply with the vast majority of people who maintain a more pessimistic, or realistic perspective. It’s this belief in the positive that serves as the foundation for dealing with the many set-backs one will inevitably encounter as a leader. Steve Jobs’ famous ‘reality distortion field’ attitude to pushing the impossible enabled an optimism through sheer will.

5. Unscripted Much of what comes at us from organisations is spin, propaganda, and distorted half-truths. Many of us are reluctant to believe anything – my rubbish detector has become finely calibrated.What we long for is sincerity and humility. We want leaders who speak plainly and from the heart, not those who cloak themselves in bullet points of mumbo jumbo or buzzword bingo.In order to lead, it is critical to be authentic, reject the tired clichés and say what you mean and mean what you say. Being authentic is a vital trait throughout the growth journey.

6. Transparency Leaders that are transparent in their actions are the ones that consistently come out ahead in the long run. Those who are honest can more effectively lead a team to accomplish great things.Employees, customers and shareholders know what to expect from transparent leaders. Fostering transparency takes commitment and confidence. It can be tempting to hide problems, but the transparent leader knows that the truth eventually slips out anyway, and often looks worse than it did originally. As an ancient Eastern adage says: Three things cannot be hidden forever: the sun, the moon, and the truth

7. Be a rebel Steve Jobs remained a believer in the counterculture long after the hippie days of his youth. When he returned to Apple as CEO, Jobs helped write the ‘Think Different’ adverts: ‘Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes…’ Consciously or not, he was describing himself. The last lines were self-reflecting: ‘While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do’ His ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’ quote remains resoundingly evocative.

8. Tolerance to Ambiguity A growth leader’s journey it characterised by uncertainty and ambiguity. Growth, in some curious way, depends on always being in motion, one way or the other, and as such its not where we stand but in which direction we are moving. A growth leader in any mode has to accept they are in the business of chaos, confusion and conflict. Insights and intuition provide us with hints and guesses on the growth journey, which is never linear.

Every day I deal with people who say they want to grow their business, and I know they truly mean it. Often one of the key factors that impedes their progress, however, is how they choose to allocate their time and that of the their team. When I look at how they actually spend their time, I find that they revert back to their default setting – what they know best. They fill their days working on the tasks that are before them.

Time is not something to be filled with activity for activity’s sake. Growth leaders understand the nature of time and are skilled at prioritising it to make an impact. They focus on the business of tomorrow, not the business of today. They understand that being timely does not come from longer hours, or an increasing workload, but rather it is impossible to lead a growth charge without mastering the importance of time, and to live in the tomorrow.

This applies no matter what stage of growth you find yourself in. Most leaders simply get up and do what they want to do, growth leaders get up and do what needs to be done. However, it’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse, so the characteristics and traits outlined above are vital behaviours, and don’t come scripted. There is a link between growth and specific leadership skills – market insight, strategic orientation, customer impact and influencing skills – but aligning leadership characteristics and traits with the company’s growth position is essential.

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’.

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