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VOL. 131 | NO. 104 | Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Stacking Your Odds for Success


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Looking through his old toys, my son found his stacking cups and challenged me to a competition. Cup stacking is a bizarre game of skill and speed with the goal being to build pyramids out of cups as quickly as possible and then collapse them and build again.

Round after round, we stacked; and round after round, I lost.

“I’m still faster,” I declared, trying to salvage some dignity and ignoring my losing record.

“Whatever,” he replied. “Doesn’t matter if you can’t stack them right.”

Out of the mouths of … precocious, ultra-competitive children! He was right, though; and the same is true for companies looking to rapidly grow their business.

Part of the process of rapid scaling is quickly adding more cups (people, product lines, locations). But if the business cannot support the growth you’ll have to start over – requiring significant time and money in the process. For a business racing to capitalize on a market advantage, the time spent addressing foundational problems may mean the difference between catching the wave and missing it.

There are six imperatives for successful growth – six foundational actions leaders must take to prepare an organization for significant and sustainable growth:

Cast a vision. Growing organizations must define a clearly articulated vision for the future – a vision everyone in the organization can rally around to move toward.

Strengthen leadership. In smaller startups, the leadership team is often comprised of a very few employees who have accumulated various responsibilities by default and wear many hats. As the organization grows, more defined roles and more specialized skills may be necessary. It is important for this group to develop high trust, collaboration, and a culture of open dissent. Their focus should be on the success of the organization as a whole and not just on their individual function.

Raise the bar on talent. In a growth scenario, employees may be well-liked and passionate about the company, but unable to perform at the level needed as the demands of their position have evolved. Leaders must intentionally develop existing talent and hire top talent from the outside. The key to integrating lots of new talent is to focus on hiring people who fit the organization’s culture and are aligned with the strategic vision.

Formalize information flow. The larger the organization gets, the harder it is to keep people informed. In the absence of information, people may waste time, duplicate effort, make mistakes, make incorrect assumptions, waste resources, etc. And sometimes, when leaders don’t communicate with their people, they may assume they are not valued. Leaders must ensure proactive, consistent and targeted communications.

Optimize structure. Many small companies lack structure. To scale, employees must be organized for effective cooperation and communication to best accomplish the strategy. Over time, as the strategy changes, the structure should shift as needed to support the strategy.

Institutionalize culture. Institutionalizing the culture means defining what employees collectively value about how they work together. Culture can be infused throughout the entire organization through recruiting, onboarding, expectation setting for employee development, performance feedback and employee recognition.

Wherever your company is on this spectrum, ultimately, all growing companies need to have these pieces firmly in place and aligned – or your pyramid may fall as you grow and stack.

Howard Cleveland is a principal with PeopleCap Advisors.

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