You’ve decided you want to scale-up. You think your business is ready for rapid, significant and sustainable growth. But where do you start? And how do you achieve your goal?
There’s no doubt in my mind – scaling up requires a sea change in management thinking and you need to be open to a totally new perspective as well as significant and lasting change. It’s all about mindset and deliberate practice. Think about the end state you want. Do you really want your company to be great? Then you need to be prepared to put in the effort and commit to sufficient deliberate practice.
From my experience scaling up two firms and coaching CEOs of other technology businesses, I’ve identified ten key areas that should be top priorities for any business scale-up. Get these areas right and they will be your launch-pad onto an unparalleled growth trajectory. Get them wrong and you’re likely to feel stuck and disillusioned.
Finding the right talent to help you grow is fundamental. Many of my clients tell me that attracting and retaining the right people is one of their biggest challenges. And yet nothing is ever done about it! It’s like driving around with a flat tyre on your car and never getting it fixed. So often I come across organisations with no real expertise in recruitment and no real idea of how to improve. And yet it underpins everything! It couldn’t be more important! If it’s so important stop, fix it and build a sustainable system to remove the fear of tackling poor performance.
This starts with having the right talent on your leadership team. B Players are not the best available talent for a given salary. Have an action plan to move the % of A Players upwards each quarter. Sometimes, you have to take tough decisions to replace B Players. Even if you’ve been working with them for ages.
Put in place a robust recruitment process and measure its effectiveness at every stage. Write decent job ads by working out what you have to offer the A Player you want to attract. Make sure that they are interviewed by other A Players. Spend some time identifying what you’re offering – the meaningful work that will motivate them and engage them. Be obsessive – in my experience, CEOs that are obsessive about recruitment are the most successful at scaling up.
Companies with a clear sense of purpose are more successful – fact. In his bestselling book, ‘Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, Dan Pink identifies the secret to high performance and satisfaction, both professionally and personally. He says it’s our need to direct our own lives, learn/create new things and do better by ourselves and our world. People want to do work with meaning.
This is often associated with younger people, the millennials, but I think it’s true of most of us, regardless of how old we are. If you tap into someone’s sense of purpose, you’ll get much more effort from them.
Start with your executive team. What is their personal purpose? What drives them? Your business should facilitate this individual purpose. My work with Cloud-IQ is a great example. As I got their leadership team to open up about their personal motivations, I unearthed a founder’s story that hadn’t been told. Previously, they’d been sat inside a big advertising business, selling software that they felt was designed to rip off their clients. They didn’t feel good about this. So eight of them left and set up a new company with a mission to democratise e-commerce. They put a metric around it – they wanted to have given $2 billion back to clients. This gave them a clear vision and an internal brand. It simplified future decision-making as, with a distinct sense of purpose, they knew instantly what was the right choice.
Be careful with these as they can be a load of bullsh*t. Too many companies write down values that are vague and meaningless.
To me, they are the definition of your company’s culture. They’re a shorthand way of capturing behaviours that you see as important in your business. Write out these behaviours and train your people in them. Be deliberate about how you want people to behave with each other and to customers and suppliers. Put things in place to measure this and teach everyone why it’s so important to company success.
Bureaucracy – how I hate that word! Get rid of stupid rules that irritate and frustrate your staff. Set up a special email address and ask them to tell you whenever they come up against something that doesn’t make sense. It amazes me how many crazy rules are written for the 2% of time that a single person transgressed once, annoying 98% of those who have never and will never do that particular thing.
Come up with a new set of principles that are linked to your values. Statements about how every person is going to behave as opposed to strict rules. For example, my three principles are 1) if in doubt, do the right thing, 2) it’s better to seek forgiveness than ask permission and 3) don’t bring me a problem without a solution (because that would be whinging). Keep it simple and make sure everyone knows and understands them.
Start to measure and understand what drives engagement in your staff. In the past, I’ve used Gallup’s Q12 to help identify the things we could do better. We actively sought criticism and got feedback. Later I increased the cadence and got feedback every week so we could make regular small, incremental improvements. The results of this were stunning and made a massive difference to productivity amongst our team.
We also made sure that there was complete clarity around what ‘good’ looked like and what outcomes we wanted every member of the team to achieve, linking this back to our purpose and values.
It’s important to build a culture with radical candour at its core. Then you and your team will find it easier to have tricky conversations in a calm, constructive way. At Rackspace, we decided that our unique difference was we wouldn’t lie to our customers. If we cocked up, we told them. You can’t build a business based on trust if you expect your staff to lie to customers.
Instead of damaging our reputation, this honesty strengthened bonds with customers. It felt better to put our hands up and admit we’d made a mistake. Our front-line team were sanctioned to give credits up to two times the monthly value of client revenue without referring back to their managers. When we reviewed these credits in our weekly ‘cut the cr*p’ meetings, we found that we were giving away less than before. Trusting the account managers had the impact of them behaving like owners.
High performing teams engage in constructive conflict, but it’s not personal. In cultures that value candour, they can give direct feedback from the perspective of caring for the individual. There’s no substitute for open, direct communication.
Now come on – be honest. Are most of the meetings in your company a waste of time? This is something you need to sort out. I challenge clients to come up with 10 ways to make meetings more productive. We devise rules around running length (25 minutes instead of 60), standing up whilst meeting, banning tech to prevent distraction, face-to-face wherever possible etc. etc. I re-visit this a week later and often they are really struggling to stick to the new rules.
Changing the nature of meetings requires you to learn new ways of doing things and also unlearn bad habits which can be hard. It takes effort and time and needs to become a deliberate practice that you have prioritised as important.
If you can fix meetings, you’ll take a massive leap forwards. Make a list of new rules and stick to them. And when you meet a client, tell them that you have a method of running a meeting and ask if you can use it. This will give loads of subliminal cues about you as an organisation. It will tell them that you’re an amazing business to have as a supplier.
Every business has its own rhythm. But this can be influenced and controlled for optimal efficiency. Like the conductor of the finest orchestra, as CEO you can listen critically, tune, adjust tempo and control dynamics to create a perfect performance.
Whether it’s regularity of communication, OKRs, KPIs, monthly meetings, daily huddles – it’s within your power to optimise the rhythm of your business. This needs careful management, sustained effort and consistent application to ensure that everyone feels the beat and stays in time. Getting this right impacts the pace of the business and creates a culture of accountability and transparency.
The way you structure your business can have a profound impact on customer experience. If you’re a smaller business, you’ll naturally be more agile. However, if you’re scaling up, how do you maintain this agility?
I have faced this challenge several times. Now I am convinced in the power of structuring as a matrix organisation, with multi-disciplinary pods/stripes focusing on specific customer cohorts. These teams had daily huddles where they discussed what was happening today or tomorrow for their customers. They were bonused on the growth of their customer base and had a real sense of purpose. It was easy for them to see how their contribution made a real difference to their customers.
In my mind, this type of structure is so much more powerful than traditional models of departmental silos. It’s easy to measure and point to examples of best practice that can be shared. It gives opportunities for individual growth and management training. And it means you can become huge but still deliver amazing customer service.
Last, but definitely not least, is your office environment. This is often overlooked but has a massive effect on staff motivation and performance. A cluttered, messy workplace tells me the team has a complete lack of pride in their work. Get the staff involved in this. Talk to them about what the whole team can do to make a difference. Think about perks you can offer to make people want to come to work.
Design your office space around what your staff need. Recognise that people are most effective when they work in 25-minute bursts with regular short breaks and give them things to do that provide a mental break. At Peer 1 we had pool tables exactly for this purpose. Design in a quiet space where people can concentrate and provide decent coffee that people want to drink!
Scaling up can be a steep learning curve. It’s going to take a shift in perspective by your entire team. It’s worth it though. Once the discretionary efforts of your employees are unlocked, efficiency and engagement go through the roof.
Written by business growth coach Dom Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here.