There’s no doubt about it. Scaling-up is hard work. It requires a sea change in management thinking and a whole new set of skills. It’s as much about mindset as it is about actions and the learning curve can be pretty steep.
But there are ways to make it easier. Having scaled two UK companies from zero to £30 million in just five years, I know the tips and techniques that work. Small things that will help you implement the change you need and keep you on track. One thing’s for sure. Will-power won’t cut it. It will run out way before you get anywhere near your destination. You need to be deliberate about forming new habits and working at them consistently until they become second nature.
So, what are the things that I’ve seen work, time and time again? How do you develop good habits and make them stick?
1. Think in small steps
We all get overwhelmed by the sheer amount we have to do. The key to any change is to break it down into small, easy steps that collectively result in a shift. This is something suggested by James Clear in his book ‘Atomic Habits’ where he demonstrates how small, incremental, everyday routines compound into massive, positive change.
I always suggest clients start by making small, cultural changes within the senior leadership team. Changes of behaviour should happen here first and shouldn’t be shared with the rest of the company until they’re properly baked in. This reduces the load of expectation and is easier to achieve in the early stages when you’re forming new habits. It also allows for a few false starts. Senior leaders will be less nervous about trying new ways of working if they’re not being watched by the rest of the company. And all members of the SLT can help each other to succeed.
Nail down your behaviours towards each other. Spend time getting each of these right. One of the most important is deciding not to tolerate triangulation. Commit to having difficult conversations face-to-face. No more conversations behind people’s backs. This is how you build a high-performing team.
2. Create a regular rhythm
Successful businesses are built on rhythm. I’ve seen this so many times. Whether it’s meetings, goals, budgetary cycles or communication frequency, a regular rhythm will grease the wheels of your business and optimise your efficiency.
The first place to start is by introducing Daily Huddles or Standups. As above, I would start with the executive team first, before you roll this out to the rest of your company. Find a format that works, clear everyone’s diaries and persevere until you’re in a regular rhythm. You can’t expect the rest of the company to do this if it doesn’t work at the top. That’s a recipe for cynicism and disillusionment. Commit to making it work for a set period of time and, only when it’s gained momentum, are you ready to roll it out further. Consider stand-up huddles to keep the discussion focused.
Another regular rhythm that’s easy to introduce is weekly check-ins between managers and team members. It’s not onerous but will have a massive effect on motivation and productivity. These are the small steps that are fundamental to growth.
3. Write stuff down
I read somewhere that it takes 21 days of regular practice before a habit becomes second nature. Rubbish! More likely you’ll need six months before this happens. If habits were easy, the world wouldn’t be full of overweight, unfit people wishing they could shed a few pounds. You need to find ways to get hooked on your habit. Something that has the same effect as a FitBit on your motivation levels.
I’m a great believer in writing things down. Get a calendar and put a cross through every day where you’ve achieved a small milestone, for example, a Daily Huddle. If you were running, you’d call it your streak — a visual reminder of your progress. You’ll get a deep sense of personal satisfaction from achieving the thing you said you were going to do.
4. Make your intentions clear
Get really clear about your intentions. For example, when it comes to weekly check-ins, know why you’re introducing them. This is about employee engagement and accountability. All the research points to the massive impact on productivity and motivation. It’s part of the Gallup Q12 that if employees know what’s expected of them, they’re more likely to be engaged at work.
At all times, you want your staff to know what success looks like. It needs to be clear what game they’re playing, what rules they’re following and where the white lines are on the field. And they need the score in real-time. It’s amazing the difference this can make.
The same applies to the leadership team. Your intention is to build a cohesive team committed to honesty, transparency and zero triangulation. It reminds me of Jeff Bezos’s leadership principle, ‘Disagree and commit’. Behind closed doors, there may be constructive conflict but, once your leadership team has made a decision, they should be rock solid.
5. Link habits (to make them stick)
If there’s something you do already on a daily or weekly basis, try and tie this together with a new habit. For example, Alistair, who recently came to one of my workshops, told me he loved the idea of daily huddles. But he was worried about imposing this new routine on an already busy workforce who were out all day, every day, visiting client sites.
When he broached the idea with the team, someone spotted that they were all in their cars between 8.30 and 9 am. So that became the natural time for their virtual huddle and all their diaries were synced. He’s had some fantastic feedback from the team. The daily opportunity to iron out any stucks or problems has been hugely helpful.
6. Celebrate (often)
Celebrate small wins as often as you can. Maybe you’re getting into a rhythm of daily huddles. Decide on a target and put a cross through every consecutive day you’ve made it happen. If you’re a leadership team, it might feel a bit OTT to celebrate the fact that you’ve managed five daily huddles in a row. But, even so, you should take a moment to congratulate yourselves.
When I move clients into a 90-day rhythm, we always decide the theme for the quarter, the metric we’re going to track and our OKRs. When we hit the target, we celebrate. This stuff is important. Each time you do this, you activate the reward circuitry in the brains of your staff. Endorphins kick in. And you’re much more likely to overcome inertia in the next quarter and do it again.
7. Design your environment
You can create an environment that’s designed to support scaling up. When I start working with clients, we create strategic pictures of their core values, key process flow map, activity fit map, core customer etc. I suggest they designate an area of their office, a meeting room is perfect, and put these pictures on permanent display. A bit like Churchill’s War Rooms (a fascinating place — if you’ve never been, go!).
Then have every meeting of the executive team in this new space. The constant visual reminders of your strategy will inform all discussions, keeping everyone on the same track.
8. Start every meeting with good news
Successful companies are built on trust and encourage psychological safety for all their staff. A small step towards this is starting every meeting with a piece of good news. It’s not hard. Like all these things, you just have to shift your normal pattern to make it happen.
This builds vulnerability-based trust and is really easy to do. It costs nothing but the value it can add is huge. Recently, I spoke to Mike Paton, EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) expert and author of ‘Get a Grip — An Entrepreneurial Fable’ for my Melting Pot Podcast. He suggests that at the end of every meeting, all attendees rate it with a score of 1 to 10. This feedback is given to the person who’s running the meeting. It’s a really easy thing to do. Put it on the agenda and remember to do it every time. How else will you improve your meetings? If you want to grow, you need to be deliberate about your culture.
9. Get an accountability partner
You’re much more likely to stick at something if you do it with someone else. This reminds me of when I started weight training. A friend and I decided to do this together. I trained on a Tuesday, he trained on a Thursday. The first thing we did as we left the gym was text each other and share our results. It was competitive but supportive. Even though we weren’t directly training together, we helped each other to hit our targets.
You need to surround yourself with supporters. In the most successful executive teams I’ve worked in, I had an ‘accountability partner’ — another team member that I committed to. We agreed to come together regularly, at least once a fortnight, to go through where we were, the progress we’d made and the challenges we were having. We helped each other through cultural changes.
Similarly, I encourage clients to introduce peer coaching throughout their business. Every member of staff should have a mentor who helps them stay true to their commitments. Again, this costs nothing but can really help with productivity and growth. And people are much more likely to stick at something or commit if there’s someone keeping them to their promises.
10. Don’t do too much too soon
Your executive team probably has plenty of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and there’s no doubt that they’re very busy. So, it’s important not to try and do too much too soon. When I’m coaching a senior leadership team, I suggest that they commit to a maximum of five things every quarter. Far better to do a few things well than lots of things badly.
The OKR framework can be really useful here with public commitments to achieve a limited number of objectives over the 13 weeks. There’s no doubt that if the leadership team starts to work like this, it’s only a matter of time before the whole company adopts it.
One of the individual objectives should be around personal development. I’ve seen Executives commit to reading a number of books per quarter. Or achieving a better work/life balance. Most important is saying these things out loud, committing to them and writing them down. Peer pressure is so useful here. Along with the accountability partner I mentioned earlier.
And so what if you have a few false starts? Don’t beat yourself up. Engraining these habits can take years. When teams put their quarterly objectives together for the first time, I’m not worried if they’re poorly written or there’s little consistency of effort across the team. After the first quarter post-mortem, the team often realises that they were rubbish. They need to come to this conclusion themselves so that next time they improve. It takes time to get this right.
So — are you up for it? Put in the right amount of effort, focus and sheer determination now and there’s no doubt you can grow your business. But don’t expect it to be easy. You’ll need a deliberate approach and the ability to motivate others to follow in your footsteps. Good luck!