Leadership Lessons I Learned at Fast-Growing Companies
Don’t confuse leading with being in charge
It is no secret that strong leadership is essential for any company to achieve success. But in my experience, strong leadership is so important to achieve rapid 100%+ a year growth, that most companies actually under-value its impact. High growth companies demand a certain type of leadership to achieve that growth, which I call Collective Leadership. As part of the series, 5 Reasons Your Company is Not Growing Faster, this blog will explore the type of leadership necessary to drive rapid growth, and how you can find it and develop it within your company.
I have worked in high-growth tech companies for over 25 years, and I have seen all types of leadership — from good to bad and everything in between. High growth companies present a special challenge because a lot of things need to go right for a company to grow 100%+ a year. They need Collective Leadership, which brings cross-functional teams together to rally around a collective goal.
Collective leaders make it all about the goal and the process of working collectively to achieve it. It’s not about them, or their authority, or their intelligence, or their seniority.
Collective leaders help everyone to understand their role in achieving the goal, and they get the best out of the team by making everyone feel like they have a significant part to play in this collective mission. They get functional groups to put aside their departmental or personal objectives in favor of larger more strategic group goals like a market share target, win-rate goal, or revenue goal. They build teams of sub-leaders for each critical area, and help an organization work together and excel at many levels necessary to achieve and sustain high growth. And they turn average performers into better performers as part of a cohesive team unit that works together to solve key challenges.
Collective leaders come from all levels of a company, not just the top. And they understand that the most effective type of collective leadership takes place across department lines, and up and down an organization from the Executive team to the most junior employees. Because all levels are critical to achieving rapid growth.
Don’t Confuse Collective Leadership with Being in Charge
Many people assume that being put in charge of something as its leader means everyone will do what they say now. In fact, the opposite is probably more true. The best leaders are the ones who act like they are not in charge, but are soliciting input. They hold their own opinions and seek input from everyone who has a stake in the project. They build a team of people and empower them to have meaningful contributions to progress. They praise and reward good work, and take responsibility and offer help for poor work.
Imagine two scenarios of someone just named head of Product Marketing, a critical cross-functional role in most companies. 1) They say, “Ok now that I am in charge, here is what I want to do.” Or 2) They say “I am taking input from every department and our customers on what they need from Product Marketing.” Which do you think will be more effective in rallying a team to the cause?
Collective Leaders are not Managers
High growth companies need leaders that are not averse to risk-taking and are not afraid to fail. Do not confuse high-growth leaders with “managers”. Managers are the leaders you need when you are happy with how everything is going, and want to maintain status quo. They are caretakers — someone you bring in to watch your house, or take care of it while you are away. A high-growth leader is someone you bring in when you need to design and build a house from scratch. Or tear one down and start over. Because at high growth companies, what worked last year, won’t work this year if you expect to double revenues yet again. Building that house from scratch or designing a major overhaul is a completely different skill set that requires much more vision, drive and the ability to rally people to the cause.
Also, it takes a certain kind of leader to tear down a perfectly good house and build a new one because they know it won’t meet future goals. These are the leaders that drive high-growth: take calculated risks, not afraid to fail, and always looking forward.
You can’t be a leader when everyone is running away from you.
By definition leaders are people that others follow. It’s surprising how many “leaders” seem to ignore this definition. If no one likes working with you, if people generally avoid you for whatever reason, or if people don’t respect you, then you are going to have a really hard time being an effective leader of any team. You can’t lead when you don’t have any followers. And yes you might be in charge, or assigned leadership of a project but you won’t get the best out of the team unless you can engage them in a collective approach. And you need to get the best performance out of all team members to achieve rapid growth.
Put a Paycheck Next to it
I have been in many situations where a team of executives would sit around a table and try to figure out why a critical initiative was not going as planned. For example, a new product was not taking off as planned or a new territory was not developing quickly enough. While lots of ideas and theories get discussed, it’s important to ask, “Whose job is it to make this initiative successful?” And if the answer is “no one’s” or conversely “everyone’s”, well you have found your problem.
I had a boss who would often say, “Nothing ever happens until you put a paycheck next to it.” Meaning you can talk all day about goals, strategic initiatives and what the company should be doing to achieve them, but until you assign someone whose job it is to make that initiative a success, its probably not going to happen. That seems obvious but you would be surprised how many corporate initiatives have no clear leader whose job, and only job, it is to make it a success. When you have an important task, and assign a capable leader to it and empower them with the resources and support they need, you can achieve almost anything.
Rapid Growth is a Team-Sport
Scaling a company quickly and driving a go-to-market strategy is a team-sport involving many groups and departments working together as one toward common goals. Individuals will not get very far on their own in spite of their talents or brilliance. Many leaders can lose sight of this.
Leadership is tough because the dynamics of a team are not always aligned. Each member of the team brings their own points of view, their own priorities and preferences and their own way of working. A good leader needs to get everyone on the same page and working together. I draw the analogy of a football team running a play: if everyone on the field did what they wanted to do, when and how they wanted to do it, you would have total chaos. Instead, a football play is a highly scripted sequence of events where each player knows their specific roles and objectives on the play. If they can execute those roles and achieve their objectives against an opposing team trying to prevent that execution, then they make progress down the field towards a score.
Like a quarterback, a collective leader will bring everyone together around a common goal, assign roles and responsibilities, and then help them run the play to achieve success.