Over 50% of the top 1% of businesses get stuck at a common point on their growth path. This point of “stuckness” does not manifest as a temporary circumstance which simply corrects itself over time or with a mediocre level of effort. The consequences of many businesses’ inability to navigate themselves out of “stuckness” are dire. Avoiding getting stuck altogether, or finding an escape route if the business is already stuck requires significant effort and skill from the business leadership.
The primary challenges in leading business growth emanate from the multiple shifts that a business undergoes through its evolution. The entity itself fundamentally changes bringing with it the need for different approaches.
Core objectives in a business move from finding in the start-up, to scaling in the early scale-up and ultimately to cashing in in the late scale up, with the organisational dynamics transitioning from being and managing a family to a tribe to a village. The nature of work in a start-up is conceptual – experimenting with different concepts to get to a lean, but scalable business model with reliable operations. In a scale-up, the nature of work still includes working in the business, generating revenue and managing business operations, but also requires leadership to work on the business simultaneously – optimising the business model, building productive capacity and systemisation.
Lessons from global gurus on the science of scaling up present us with key disciplines, the rigorous application of which fundamentally enhances the odds of success. The disciplines themselves are basic, however complexity is introduced by the circumstances within which one needs to apply the disciplines. A scale-up is characterised by poverty – primarily time, resource and knowledge poverty. Leaders are very thinly spread and often work themselves into burnout. The business is cash-strapped, and there is a constant vortex of daily pressures that drag capacity away from working on the business. The disciplines of successful scale-ups aim to create a positive systemic impact – a counter vortex – which builds a sustainable foundation for the future business requirements, as opposed to simply reacting in the present.
Successful scale-up leaders are hyper-focused on their core business. A plethora of exciting opportunities can be highly seductive to the entrepreneurial spirit, but it is essential to remain disciplined about moving from experimentation to scaling the core of the business. Dilution of focus is the enemy.
Build a culture and management systems to execute. Execution becomes exponentially harder as the business headcount grows. Leaders need to shift from informal management to implementing great management systems that keep the organisation aligned, accountable and engaged.
Build an A-team
Systematically attract and retain awesome people and help them thrive. Not all critical start-up team members will succeed in senior roles in a large and growing organisation. It is important to make the tough calls and transition from a start-up leadership team to a scale-up leadership team, who are in themselves scalable. Leaders need to develop systems and a culture which attract people who deliver awesomeness.
Harness your Board
Many entrepreneurs are resistant to the idea of a Board, yet research shows that all successful scale-ups have built and maximised the use of their Board. Strong scale-up leaders know the limitations of having fewer decision makers that are deep in the detail and biased by short term pressures. The maelstrom of daily operations tends to leave management with insufficient time and attention to focus on the level of strategic and organisational leadership the business requires.
Systematise revenue growth
Businesses need to transition from the place where every sale is a project that involves the leadership team to building a high velocity sales engine that manages opportunities and converts them into sales systematically. Recognise the type of revenues desired and build channels to access that revenue through a scalable sales engine that can repeatedly generate sales within the business’s “sweet spot”.
Systematise customer delight
Scale requires shifting from operations as a series of projects, to operations as a set of systems and processes. This can kill customer delight and create a growth ceiling. The business processes need to be built around and supportive of consistently delivering awesome customer experiences.
Manage money militantly
Decisions that are not informed by accurate financial insight (not just information) are expensive. It is important to build a robust financial function that is able to generate such insight. The returns on investing into sound financial systems and resources are high.
Wealth comes through scale, and scale generally requires capital at some point. Capital comes on its own terms- learn the rules and language of investors and make the business attractive to investment.
Scaling up is a conjoint evolution of the founders, the team and the business, all at the same time and in that order. Transitioning from start-up leadership to scale-up leadership is equivalent to reinventing the self- mindset, daily activities, knowledge, skills and relationships. Achieving self-reinvention can be supported by inner disciplines of a scale-up leader:
A lack of focus results in a lack of progress in most circumstances. It is important that leaders don’t over commit themselves and to carve out time to apply sufficient focus on areas that require it.
Bring your A-game
Leadership needs to consistently perform at a high level. Leaders need to remain aware of less obvious detractors from peak performance such as insufficient rest, an unhealthy lifestyle and high stress levels. Peak performance is achieved at the point where passion, skills and energy intersect. It is important that leaders play to their strengths.
Leaders need to operate with a mindset which seeks success for the business and which makes decisions prioritising the business needs over personal wishes.