Over the course of our six-month coaching engagement, Adrian, the head of business development at a high-growth digital media company, was promoted into a new role. As a result, he saw the scope of his job double, then triple. As he attempted to quickly hire to keep up with the business’s needs, Adrian simultaneously tried to plug the gaps in the organization. Adrian was excited about the opportunity and the trust the executive team had placed in him, but the pace of change and rapidly expanding responsibilities challenged his confidence and resilience.
Experiences like this are not uncommon when you’re motivated, talented, and working at a company that’s growing rapidly. The environment is dynamic, fast-paced, and filled with possibilities. The opportunities are tremendous, but so are the demands. Working at a high-growth company often pushes you into domains and roles beyond your existing competencies. You’re asked to do and take on more. You need to be comfortable with ambiguity, learn on the fly, and adapt quickly to change. The days are long, and maintaining a work-life balance is almost impossible.
Scaling is a challenge for companies and entails various “growing pains.” It is an equal challenge for the people who work at these kinds of companies to stretch and develop themselves as quickly as needed. Like Adrian, though, you can be successful at navigating the constant change and rapidly expanding responsibilities while working at a high-growth startup or leading the charge as an entrepreneur. Try adopting the following five strategies to overcome the challenges and grow your capabilities as quickly as your company.
Regularly clarify and align on priorities
In a fast-growing company, priorities often shift. Accordingly, it’s critical to consistently revisit your 30-60-90-day plan to make sure you’re working on the highest-leverage opportunities.
The higher you go, the more your work both depends on and affects others. Stay aligned through regular check-ins with your key stakeholders—up, down, and across—on your deliverables, what they can count on you for, and what you’re counting on them for.
This is best accomplished through writing your priorities down and sharing your written list with your stakeholders. Writing helps us clarify our thinking and allows others to truly see what you’re driving at and what it means for them.
Subtract as you add
Conversations at growth companies often center on needing more: more revenue, more headcount, more space, you get the idea. This concentration on “more” obscures an equally important consideration that you should keep front and center: What you should subtract.
Sometimes you may find some low-hanging fruit: tasks that no longer need to be done, or work that your team or the company has outgrown. Other times, you’ll need to let go of important projects that you or your team ideally would do but can’t because other tasks take precedence. This is the nature of rapidly scaling businesses. You have to be like a triage nurse who must make tough decisions about who gets treatment and who must wait, on an hourly basis.
One practical way to do this is to draw a line on your list of priorities. Below that line, list the things you will either be delaying or not doing at all. Everyone should be clear on the trade-offs being made.
In rapidly scaling organizations, people are often asked to take on responsibilities outside their areas of expertise. When taking on an ambitious new challenge, it’s essential to get on firm footing in the true state of affairs. Without this realist mindset, you run the risk of engaging in wishful thinking and being ill prepared for the road ahead. Squarely face what you are being asked to do by evaluating yourself with the following four questions:
- What are you aspiring to do?
- What do you feel most uncertain about?
- What are the biggest risks associated with the project?
- What fears do you have?
Of course the situation is uncertain and risky! But by squarely facing the reality, you can prepare and plan countermeasures. For example, what do you need to learn, and how will you learn it? If there are specific risks, what steps can you take to mitigate them? If the worst fears come true, how will you address them and recover?
Find time for personal development
There is always a lot to learn, and it’s essential to carve out time for deliberate study, practice, and reflection.
For example, if you are asked to manage a new area you have no experience in, you should allocate multiple hours per week not simply to work, but to get up to speed on the required processes, technology, and industry best practices. Meet with mentors, trusted advisers, and people close to the work to help you efficiently close your learning gap. Without this investment in coming up to speed, unforced errors are almost inevitable.
Monitor any dangers of burnout
At one soon-to-be-public company Dina worked for, her boss would spend nights sleeping on the floor of her office. She wore her commitment like a badge of honor, until the day she hit the wall. Physically exhausted and burnt out, she had to leave the company to recuperate.
Working at a high-growth company is stressful and requires high levels of performance over time. To maintain peak levels of performance, it’s essential that you manage your stress effectively with practices that sustain and replenish you.
Without a counterbalance to demands of work, burnout can set in and derail even the highest performers. Often, people don’t see the signs of burnout until it’s too late; therefore, prevention is often the best strategy.
Companies experiencing dramatic growth need people who can grow and scale along with their company. To succeed over time in this environment, it’s essential to have practices that help you keep pace with the rapid change, demands, and challenges. By consistently aligning on priorities, subtracting facing reality, and carving out time for your development and well-being, you can grow and scale as quickly as your company.
Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, an executive coaching and consulting firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dennis Adsit, PhD, is the president of Adsum Insights, an executive coaching and consulting firm based in Boulder, Colorado.