You may have heard the expression, companies scale but people don’t. Well, there is some truth to that saying. The reason is that to be successful at growing a company, you need to be a strategist.
Founding executives of early stage companies often start off as doers. They have a specific skill or expertise in areas such as product development, sales, technology or finance but may lack the business savvy to help scale a company.
Sometimes the sense of camaraderie amongst the original team members hinders the ability to make the difficult personnel decisions necessary to effectively and efficiently grow a company.
As an executive in a growth company, you need to keep the company as a whole in mind. For example, in addition to understanding and updating the current technology offering of a company, a company’s technology lead must be well versed in business strategy: staying current with new technologies; understanding how they apply to business strategy across geographies and sectors; determining if it can generate a competitive advantage; making complex decisions based on return on investment, and justifying major technology expenditures. They must have knowledge and experience with analytics, organizational design, and infrastructure.
The same holds true for the lead finance role in a company. As a company scales, this role becomes more than a steward of finances and manager of cost reductions. The role assumes more strategic responsibilities, looking at the business with a value creation lens. They become a partner with the CEO in finding new opportunities, working with capital markets, assessing strategic financial risks and rewards, and managing external stakeholders. They will need broader experience including operations and information technologies and be a contributor to the company’s competitive advantage.
You can’t be the same leader at scale as when your company was smaller. The skills needed at the expansion stage are quite different. As an executive team member, you should have more of a business orientation versus a functional orientation. You’re not expected to be strong and decisive, to instinctively know the right answer to every question. Your expected to have business acumen and leadership skills; to be a good communicator, collaborator, strategic thinker, multi-tasker, crisis manager, and change catalyst.
Additionally, you must hone the ability to ask good questions, listen and make connections. Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of MIT Leadership Centre and author of “Questions are the Answer” states, “When any leader is operating on the edge of uncertainty or the edge of the unknown, questions really are the answer” as questions are the precursor to creating completely new answers, new solutions.
Hal Gregerson interviewed 200 creative and successful business leaders for his book and all of the leaders were exceptional at landing on their feet and asking the questions that other people weren’t asking. He notes that “the biggest questions we ask often demand the biggest level of uncertainty, and fear, and anxiety that we can imagine.”
Peter Drucker, known as the father of management thinking, would jump-start strategic thinking by asking “What changes have recently happened that don’t fit ‘what everyone knows’?”
To succeed in growing and scaling companies, leaders must adapt their approaches, grow their skills, and elevate their role as a strategist. They need to become more of a leader than a doer.