Businesses usually become clients in one of two stages. Either they are in startup or the very early phase of just beginning to hire employees beyond the founder or they have just experienced a jump in headcount rapidly and are experiencing some growing pains. Inevitably, the leaders of the organization tell me how unique their situation is and wonder if I might be able to help them put, what I call, people structure, in place.
When this happens, I start with the good news first. “You are not a special snowflake. Your business doubling or even tripling headcount in a few months and the proverbial stuff hitting the fan as a result, is actually happening to more companies than you can imagine right now. And it happens to new ones every single day.” It’s called growing a small business and in my almost six years as a consultant, I can tell you that the majority of small businesses who grow quickly, go through it. Things get tough for a while, turnover may spike, employees who were content before change and more questions than answer fill the already strained atmosphere. It is an environment I have walked into many times.
The process through is easy enough in theory, but much harder in application. It often requires major change and tough decisions. It often requires the founder of the business letting go in a significant way, sometimes for the first time in the business’s history.
In the majority of cases the cause of growing pains is due to lack of leadership structure. At least a leadership structure that supports the new amount of employees. People have been promoted, hired and moved around and somehow in the course of all of that, no one knows who reports to who or who is responsible for what. In the spirit of “getting things done” structure was sacrificed for efficiency. While efficiency kept up with customer demand, structure was left in it’s wake leaving an organizational chart that looks more like a winding road sign.
The founder now finds himself in survival mode. He is trying ti grow the business but keep things the way they are. Because the way they are is magic. Magic that helped him build the business and magic he is not willing to let go of. Even if it no longer works. Even if it is creating chaos. Even if it is creating an unhealthy organization that while successful now, will soon plummet. Founders still want to have their hand in everything, but they ran out of hands 40 employees ago. They want to be involved in every decision, but they have stepped outside of their area of expertise too many times to count. They know they need to let go, but it doesn’t feel right so they hold on, sometimes tightly, to as much as possible.
It is at this point that I encourage founders to get out of the business. That isn’t to say leave the company, but simply determine the area of their greatest strength, focus there and let the other leaders in place manage the day to day. It is astounding to me how many founders of extremely successful businesses say that they have no business managing people….and yet they are. It is likely that sales, business strategy, marketing or finance is the strong suit of the founder. Whatever that is, when the company starts going through growing pains, it may be time for them to focus there and let the leaders they have hired focus on the day to day.
It may sound incredible, but the reality I have watched play out more times than I can count, is that the minute the founder steps back and focuses on his strengths, some pains are immediately alleviated. There is just something about the big boss settling down that changes a tone.
After that, it is imperative that the next level of leaders determine the structure for the rest of the business. Where are the reporting lines drawn? Who reports to who and what department is responsible for what? Even if some structure was already in place, I encourage leaders to start from scratch. Take a look at all current department heads and ask if it makes sense that they continue doing what they are doing. Then that question should be asked of each employee. You are already in a bit of a painful time, if major changes are going to happen, it won’t hurt much to do it now. Better than stabilizing everyone only to shake them up again later.
Once the structure is decided upon and communicated to employees, quite possibly the most crucial part of all of this is to consistently follow it. Leaders jumping rank and communicating down the line while leaving out an important supervisor will only toss everyone back into chaos. Expectations must be set and people must be held accountable and then everyone, absolutely everyone, has to be consistent.
Once these two things have been fleshed out, this is the perfect time to establish core values and behavioral expectations if those haven’t been previously established. I’ve talked before about leadership resets and working through these growing pains are excellent times to embrace a reset.
One final thing that is important to note about growing pains. Not everyone will make it through….and that’s alright. Even if it is someone who was an integral part of getting the business to were it is, it is ok if they don’t make it through. This is almost like a fresh start. A time to regroup and make changes that are necessary. Not everyone is going to like those changes, but if they are the right thing to do, the business must forge ahead without them.
The good news is that growing pains are common and survivable. The better news is that once the business has gone through their first one, the following ones will be much easier. The bad news, as you can guess, is that the first is not the last and growing pains, as in life, will always be a part of business.
In a small business that is going through some growing pains? Join our mailing list to get survival tips delivered to your inbox.